The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is no longer the deadliest terrorist group in the world. In 2018, ISIL was responsible for 1,328 deaths — a 69 per cent drop from the previous year and an 85 per cent drop from its peak in 2016.
Emerging in 2014, ISIL was formed when Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic Caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, following significant territorial gains in northern Iraq. Since then, ISIL has been responsible for 27,947 terrorist deaths. Of these, 80 per cent were in Iraq and 17 per cent in Syria.
The 2019 Global Terrorism Index finds the regional and global spread of ISIL attacks is declining. In 2018, ISIL was only active in five countries, compared to fifteen countries in 2016. By the beginning of 2018, ISIL had lost approximately 95 per cent of its territory, including the strategic city of Mosul. In Mosul, ISIL-perpetrated attacks decreased by 95 per cent over the prior year, with just 12 recorded attacks in 2018.
ISIL’s defeat in Iraq and Syria has left governments worldwide grappling with radicalised nationals who left their countries to join the group. Thousands of foreign fighters are currently detained in a war zone by Syrian Democratic Forces, with most governments unwilling to repatriate them. Of the 41,490 total recorded foreign fighters, only 18 per cent have returned to their countries of origin.
But is it too soon to predict ISIL’s decline? Despite the fall in deaths in 2018, the number of ISIL affiliates outside of Iraq and Syria continue to rise, as does the number of non-affiliate groups that have pledged allegiance to the group. The group’s influence has infiltrated South Asia and Pakistan via the Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State, and into North and Western Africa via the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara — respectively the third and ninth deadliest terrorist groups in 2018.
In the Philippines, ISIL has a strong presence both on its own and through its affiliates, with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group all pledging allegiance to ISIL since 2014. ISIL was the third deadliest group in the Philippines, causing 18 deaths from three attacks in 2018, and claimed responsibility for the only suicide bombing of 2018. This was the first recorded suicide bombing by ISIL in the Philippines, highlighting the spread of ISIL’s tactics in the region.
While their influence is waning, ISIL remains operational in rural areas in the Levant, conducting kidnappings, assassinations and attacks on utilities in the Anbar and Nineveh provinces.
The Taliban overtook ISIL as the world’s deadliest terrorist group in 2018, due to a rise in terrorist activity in Afghanistan and the winding down of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Deaths attributed to the Taliban rose by just under 71 per cent, to 6,103. The group is also responsible for the deadliest terrorist attack in 2018 that left 466 people dead after assailants armed with mortars, explosives and firearms attacked the city of Ghazni in Afghanistan.
The total number of terrorist attacks by the Taliban increased by 39 per cent in 2018, rising to 972. Attacks also became more deadly in 2018, with an average of 6.3 deaths per attack, compared to 5.1 in 2017.
In a bid to strengthen its position in future peace negotiations, the Taliban have embarked on a deadly campaign to seize more territory in 2018.
In 2018, the Taliban sought territorial expansion through armed sieges of strategic cities, which have provided a territorial and logistical hub to coordinate and wage deadly attacks.
Compared to 2017, the Taliban has expanded beyond their traditional battlefield in Afghanistan’s southern region and now operate across provinces in the north, east and west.
It is estimated that approximately half the population of Afghanistan, or 15 million people, reside in areas that are either controlled by the Taliban, or where the Taliban are active and regularly conduct attacks.