On April 8, Islamic State started what it called “the Campaign of Vengeance for the blessed al-Sham Province,” claiming attacks by its affiliates around the world under this banner.
‘Vengeance for Sham’ appears to be a mix of a coordinated campaign alongside opportunistic branding of attacks that would have been carried out anyway in an attempt to restate the group’s capabilities following the fall of its self-declared caliphate.
ISIS has made no announcements about the campaign outside of claiming attacks in its name, but the name ‘Vengeance for Sham’ suggests it was started with the intention of carrying out retribution attacks for the loss of territory in Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces announced the total defeat of ISIS’s territorial caliphate on March 23, following the capture of Baghuz in eastern Syria from ISIS.
ISIS issued the first statements claiming attacks carried out as part of the new campaign on April 9. However, several of those statements related to attacks carried out the previous day. Two longer statements also specifically stated that the campaign began on April 8. Attacks continue to be claimed as part of the campaign, and there is no indication of how long the it will continue.
While branded as ‘Vengeance for Sham,’ the campaign has global dimensions, with attacks in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Niger, Nigeria, Libya, and Russia claimed as part of it.
Between April 8 and 10, 14 statements were issued for attacks in Iraq, and 10 in Syria. ISIS also issued statements for attacks under the banner of this campaign in most of its ‘external’ Wilayah (provinces) – three in both West Africa and Sinai (Egypt), two each in Somalia, Khorasan (Afghanistan), and Libya, and one by Wilayat Caucasus.
Yemen and East Asia are the only active ISIS Wilayah which have not had claimed attacks attributed to the campaign, although there have not been any claims for these provinces since the campaign began.
So far, all attacks claimed through statements on ISIS’s official Nashir channel have been asserted to be part of the campaign, but none of the standard short statements made via the Amaq propaganda agency have mentioned ‘Vengeance for Sham’, although two long Amaq reports detailing more significant attacks did mention it.
Amaq is an ostensibly independent news agency but in reality it is run by ISIS directly.
The campaign has also been picked up by unofficial pro-ISIS media outlets run by supporters and not directed by ISIS central. They do not issue claims but instead boost propaganda made by official ISIS outlets and produce supplementary content.
Attacks in Syria
By April 10, 10 statements on Syria had been issued, including one long Amaq statement duplicating a Nashir claim. The statements covered multiple attacks in Deir Ezzor, Hasakah, and Raqqa provinces carried out between April 8 and 10. All took place in areas controlled by the SDF.
In addition to the typical bombings and assassinations in Deir Ezzor province, ISIS carried out several more complex attacks.
In Raqqa, a car bomb attack was claimed and video of it was released by Amaq. ISIS also claimed the bombing of a Coalition and SDF convoy in Hasakah, although that attack appears to have been a failure.
Hasakah, and Raqqa to a lesser extent, see attacks less frequently than Deir Ezzor.
There was a marked increase in statements for Syria issued by ISIS on April 9 – more statements were issued that day for activities in SDF-controlled northeastern Syria than on any other day so far this year.
Along with the increased number of attacks, the more complex nature of the attacks and the targeting of areas ISIS strikes less often suggests that this may have been a coordinated campaign coinciding with the start of the campaign.
While a coordinated campaign could be a possibility for Syria, it seems less likely in other ISIS Wilayah. There does not appear, at least initially, to be a significant increase in the number of attacks claimed, and the majority of recent attacks are neither outside the affiliates’ typical operational areas, nor are they more sophisticated than normal.
There are a couple of exceptions.
Intelligence analyst Oded Berkowitz said that there has been a slight increase in attacks claimed by Islamic State Sinai province but that is “not necessarily out of the ordinary.”
However, a suicide bombing on April and a complex ambush on the same day – two types of attacks that recently have occurred infrequently in Sinai – were claimed as part of the campaign. Together these “may be indicative of a greater effort to highlight the ‘Vengeance for Sham’ campaign,” Berkowitz said.
In Libya, ISIS claimed an attack on Fuqaha in the country’s central district of Jufrah. According to the statement, ISIS attacked the town, burned buildings, and took one person hostage.
This is the first attack ISIS has claimed in Libya since December. However, the recent fighting in Tripoli may have been a significant factor, with the self-styled Libyan National Army’s attention focused there.
Several attacks were carried out by Islamic State West Africa provincein Niger and Nigeria as part of the campaign. Most of these were typical ISWAP attacks, but a rare inghimasi (suicide commando) attack on a Niger gendarmerie post in Diffa was also claimed. Inghimasi attacks are less frequently carried out by ISWAP, though it has claimed several suicide car bomb (SVBIED) attacks recently.
The most unusual attack claimed as part of ‘Vengeance for Sham’ was a bombing in Kolomna, south of Moscow, that ISIS said was carried out by a ‘security detachment’ from its Caucasus province.
There is little information on the April 8 bombing, but only one person was injured according to reports and the explosion has been blamed on a gas leak. Kolomna is more than 1,000 km away from the Caucasus and no evidence has been provided to support the ISIS claim.
This claim echoes another made in January in ISIS’s weekly Al-Naba magazine for a far more deadly blast in the Russian city of Magnitogorsk that was also reported as a gas explosion. Without further evidence, there is currently nothing to substantiate the claim.
It is likely those Wilayah that have not yet participated in the campaign – East Asia and Yemen – will also do so. The inclusion of multiple Wilayah, as well as less active ones like Libya and Caucasus, may well have been another attempt to emphasize ISIS’s global credentials, something the group has attempted to do recently with claims from Tunisia and the Sahel.
‘Vengeance for Sham’ appears to be a mix of a coordinated operations in limited areas along with the classification of typical attacks that would have occurred anyway under this banner.
In Syria there is evidence of a coordinated campaign and it is possible some attacks in ‘external’ Wilayah like Sinai may have been carried out as part of the campaign.
However, most of the attacks claimed globally as part of ‘Vengeance for Sham’ would have been claimed anyway, while in Russia, it is entirely possible ISIS opportunistically claimed an attack that never occurred to try and bolster the international credentials of the campaign and themselves.
With the fall of their territorial caliphate, ‘Vengeance for Sham’ seems like an attempt by ISIS to show off what remains of its capabilities, emphasize its international credentials, and demonstrate that it can still retaliate.