Recent declarations of victory over the Islamic State by U.S. President Donald Trump, coupled with the loss of nearly all territory controlled by the Islamic State, signaled to many that the end had arrived for the richest and deadliest terrorist groups in living memory.
The Islamic State, for many non-expert observers, seemingly came out of nowhere when it declared an Islamic Caliphate and took over regions of Iraq and Syria equaling the size of Britain, like reported by thestrategybridge.org.
Seemingly, the group was defeated after the Anbar Awakening and second Gulf War, but the organization waited patiently in the shadows for the right opportunity to strike back and regain relevance. During the interlude following the second Gulf War and the establishment of the caliphate, the group did what it has always done well—survive. Remnants of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, the forerunner of the Islamic State, organized, strategically planned, and created structures that would allow the group to take advantage of the power vacuum that arrived with the Syrian Revolution.
The Islamic State depended heavily upon former Baathist officials from the Saddam Hussein era such as Haji Bakr. Individuals such as these knew the importance of intelligence, military tactics, and one very important pathway to organizational success—logistics. The group prioritized logistics by creating the Immigration and Logistics Committee (ILC). The Committee is responsible for moving people, weapons, and finances inside and outside of territory controlled by the Islamic State through hidden supply chains. Both the United States and the United Nations have released reports warning that despite the loss of territory and damage to the bureaucratic structures, “The general security, finance, and immigration and logistics ‘bureaus’ remain intact.”
Recent attacks in Syria and Iraq show the Islamic State is not defeated. The Institute for the Study of War recently explained that IS is attempting to reestablish itself in Iraq and is poised to take advantage of linked networks for future attacks against the Government of Iraq. Additionally, countries have different perspectives on best practices for returning captured Islamic State fighters. The international community also continues to prepare for clandestine returning foreign fighter cells to carry out attacks similar to those carried out in the 2015 Paris Attacks, 2016 Brussel bombings, and most recently the Sri Lankan Easter attacks. The lack of international cohesion in dealing with these challenges presents IS ample opportunity to regenerate and reorganize.
The Isalmic State, like al-Qa’ida before it, has a reputation for carving out operational space in unstable regions. Recent calls for attacks in Yemen and Libya by Islamic State spokesperson Abu Hassan al Muhajir underscore the exploitation of vulnerable regions. Al Muhajir states, “O solders [sic] of the Khilafah in Iraq, Sham, Khurasan, Yemen, East Asia, West Africa, Libya, Sinai, Somali, and everywhere, prepare for the war and be diligent about it, grasp the opportunity, move the brigades, and make prolong the battle. Your enemy would not stand that.” Shortly after the statement, Islamic State fighters increased their violent attacks in Iraq, Syria, and other places.
According to the official magazine of the Islamic State, Al-Nabaa, within four days of al-Muhajir’s statement, ninety-two Islamic State attacks resulted in 360 killed from different provinces, mainly in Iraq and the Levant. The Immigration and Logistics Committee provides the organizational structure to implement al-Muhajir’s vision and is likely the organization elliptically referenced as a provider of provisions in al-Baghdadi’s video. The Committee serves as the sinew allowing the Islamic State to benefit from U.S. and coalition retrograde in Iraq and Syria, Libyan instability, and the deployment of foreign fighters.
THE IMMIGRATION AND LOGISTICS COMMITTEE (ILC)
The Immigration and Logistics Committee has two main roles: to receive and host immigrants traveling to territory controlled by the Islamic State and to supply the logistical needs of other departments. This logistics element of Islamic State strategy is codified in Abu Bakr Naji’s “The Management of Savagery.” Naji emphasizes the importance of logistics, noting that “regions of chaos and savagery will advance to the stage of the administration of savagery, while the remaining regions and states of the Islamic world will continue on two flanks—the flank of logistical support for regions of savagery controlled by us and the flank of the ‘power of vexation and exhaustion’ (directed against) the regimes, until victory comes to it from outside, by the permission of God. (By logistical support, I mean money, a place for transferring of people [i.e. a safehouse], sheltering of components, the media, etc.).” The similarities, as discussed below, between the directives of the manual and the tangible actions of the Immigration and Logistics Committee cannot be overstated.
Saudi Arabian Tirad Mohammad al-Jarba, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Shimali, was the shadowy leader of the Immigration and Logistics Committee since at least 2005. Ten years later the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned al-Shimali for his role as the “border and logistics official” responsible for facilitating travel from Turkey and Syria for IS fighters from Australia, Europe, and the Middle East. Treasury also explained that he was responsible for processing new Islamic State fighters in Azaz, Syria.
Even though al-Shimali was already designated as a global terrorist by Treasury in September 2015, his suspected role in the November 2015 Paris attacks led to a more urgent search attempt with a $5 million reward for justice offer. In announcing this reward, the U.S. Department of State explained that al-Shimali and the Immigration and Logistics Committee were responsible for moving people, money, and supplies intro Syria and Iraq from Europe, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. The Rewards for Justice announcement also noted that under al-Shimali’s stewardship the Immigration and Logistics Committee facilitated the movement of 25,000 foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria from over one-hundred countries.
In 2017, Russia claimed al-Shimali was killed in an airstrike in Deir Az Zor, Syria, along with forty other Islamic State militants. Despite al-Shimali’s possible death, the Immigration and Logistics Committee persists. According to a U.S. government press release, two Committee members were targeted in a coalition airstrike but other members have likely taken their places.
The depth of scholarly work and reporting surrounding the Islamic State’s movement of people, finances, and equipment is deep. Yet there is a dearth of deep research on the Immigration and Logistics Committee. Part of this may stem from the various naming conventions used. The UN refers to the Islamic State’s logistics organization as the “Immigration and Logistics Coordination Offices,” while Treasury refers to al-Shimali as the “senior Syria-Turkey border and logistics official.” Despite the differences in nomenclature, the available information through Islamic State propaganda, primary source documents, media reports, and supporter accounts provide important glimpses into the Committee’s internal workings.
The Immigration and Logistics Committee under al-Shimali’s leadership focused on the movement of prospective fighters from Australia, Europe, and the Middle East to parts of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State made an effort to disguise the movement as Hijrah and create a narrative for travelers that could be traced to the Prophet Mohammad’s own migration from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE to escape persecution. The jihadi highway is a well-known corridor on the porous border between Syria and Turkey through which an estimated twenty-five to forty percent of Islamic State total foreign fighters passed. Of the nineteen known crossings, the majority (around 2,930) passed through three Syrian points at Tal Abyad, Jarablus, or Azaz. An analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy stated, “The corridor is crucial to [the Islamic State’s] survival. It’s the main conduit of what was once a large smuggling area for [the Islamic State] to get fighters in and out, weapons in, funding in, oil and antiquities out. If [the Islamic State] loses that corridor it will basically be stifled.” An English language source document entitled “Hijrah to the Islamic State” provides detailed information to supporters on how to travel to the caliphate.
Sources also indicate that al-Shimali reportedly processed foreign recruits into Syria via Gaziantep, Turkey before returning them to Europe for terrorist actions such as the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. Al-Shimali likely helped six of the Paris attackers travel to Syria for training before returning to Paris to carry out the attacks.
Abu Hajar, the most senior Islamic State leader interviewed and head of finance in Iraq, released details regarding imposing taxes on Iraqi sectors to support Islamic State activities. Oil was a major revenue stream, estimated in 2014 as bringing in $1 million a day. The Immigration and Logistics Committee, namely al-Shimali, was responsible for organizing and distributing funds as it related to logistical operations.
Moving money for logistical purposes took many forms and included providing money for fake passports, safehouses, smugglers, travel of foreign fighters via planes and other means of travel. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) reported that an individual designated as Person M was responsible for recruitment and facilitation of foreign fighters moving into territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria. Islamic State leadership provided finances for Person M to support and finance these activities. This included renting a hotel room that served as a logistics hub near the Turkish-Syrian border to temporarily host the incoming fighters. Person M reportedly processed over two-hundred recruits in that logistics hub and helped them cross into Syria. The report does not specifically link Person M to the Immigration and Logistics Committee, but it is likely these activities are a function of a Committee branch.
The Immigration and Logistics Committee is responsible for getting equipment, including weapons, to the right people in order to orchestrate operations. Many of the weapons used by the Islamic State were already in the territories they seized. Amnesty International UK indicates many of these weapons from over twenty-five countries were stockpiled in Iraq: “The huge scope reflects decades of irresponsible arms transfers to Iraq, coupled with the failure to install oversight mechanism during the US-led occupation after 2003.” Weapons used in the Islamic State stockpile include assault rifles such as the Russian AK series and the U.S. M-16 in addition to guided anti-tank missiles. When the Islamic State ran out of weapons, they were able to make their own because all the supplies they needed were in the territories they took over. The Immigration and Logistics Committee most likely played a large role in acquisition and distribution of weapons across Iraq and Syria as well as weapons used in attacks outside of the self-proclaimed caliphate, perhaps even in Sri Lanka based on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s recent April video.
Understanding the mechanics of the Islamic State’s logistical operations is vital if the international community is to withstand its attempts to regroup and establish a stronghold in areas teetering on the brink of regional instability. Recent attacks in Iraq are reminders of the Islamic State’s potency as the group uses its tunnel systems to carry out attacks on Iraqi forces.
Continued attacks on security forces and regional instability could allow space for the Islamic State to exploit structural state deficiencies, resulting in not only chaos and death but also providing the group the platform it needs to reclaim worldwide relevancy. Slowly, the Islamic State is rebuilding its brand by shifting resources and foreign fighting manpower to new regions ripe for exploitation. This dispersal may hinder the group’s short-term efforts, but in the mid to long term it may also provide the organization the roots it needs to redefine itself as an exemplar for aspiring terrorist groups.
Countering the logistical activities sponsored by the Immigration and Logistics Committee will be critical in limiting the Islamic State’s ability to regroup or otherwise exploit areas of fragility, such as Libya. Despite territorial losses, the Islamic State’s organizational structure that facilitated the group’s expansion and key operations remains intact, namely the Immigration and Logistics Committee. More Sri Lanka-like attacks will occur unless strategists focus efforts on degrading the Committee’s ability to use hidden supply chain networks that allow for the movement of finance, arms, and operatives. Until that happens, the Islamic State will remain a persistent geo-strategic threat.