ISIS 2.0: The Jihad is Coming Home
The Gore Beginings
The Islamic State (IS, ISIS, formerly ISIL) or Daesh, as they call them in the local dialect, undoubtedly emerged as one of the most barbaric and evocative phenomena in the recent years. They've left some truly graphic and chilling impressions on our minds, that perhaps may take the longest of time to fade away. These terrorist entities emerged out of nowhere in war-torn Iraq back in 2004 and literally swept everything in their way, gaining control of swathes of land in Iraq and expanding their caliphate (Islamic state) into neighboring Syria. Instigating numerous deadly terrorist attacks across the globe, within a short span of time made them biggest security threat, even surpassing the likes of Al Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram etc.
They unleashed savagery by enslaving people and then executing their captives by slitting throat or by drowning, burning alive, mass shooting and other grotesque methods. Turning female captives into sex slaves and committing atrocities and genocide on the local Yazidis and Shia population, and others they considered devil worshippers and infidels in their occupied territories. They inflicted fear and spread a reign of terror, second to none.The MSM coverage, coupled with their own social media outreach and propaganda, made them a known entity in no time and brought allegiance from different radical Islamic factions from around the globe with the sole aim of spreading the 'Jihadi Salafi' ideology of Sunni Islam and establishing an Islamic Caliphate (A state under the leadership of an Islamic steward with the title of caliph, who is considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet and a leader of the entire Muslim community).
Fall of Islamic State in Syria
The Russian entry into the war in 2015 as a Syrian ally against ISIS forces was a game changer. Soon the ISIS caliphate was crumbling. Continuous bombardment with ground and air assault by the Russian backed Syrian troops as well as the US-led coalition broke their back and shattered the ISIS command. After Mosul (Iraqi Stronghold of ISIS), Allepo and finally the fall of Raqqa, in October 2017, post four months long assault, IS caliphate in the region has almost been taken over. Though the war cannot be declared over yet even with diminishing pockets of IS controlled region. More importantly, affiliate groups and other extremist entities or local militia are still at large, that might revolt any day or even strengthen the ISIS ranks. Besides, the death, devastation and a doubtful future that remainder of the populace in this area have been gifted with as a result of this bloody crusade against terrorism, might also have some future consequences. Russia too has now recalled its troops and how that will impact the war, remains to be seen. In addition to this, there are also differing opinions and enough arguments about the western backing of the ISIS, including the finances and reinforcements. So how that eventually plays out is hard to predict as off now but to some extent, would depend on the geopolitics of region.
Jihadists are Returning Home
As more and more IS territories are regained by the Syrian and US-led coalition forces, the jihadi men, women and children that joined the IS ranks as fighters from around the globe are now gradually retreating. Most likely they are homebound and there are plenty of them. Fall of IS administrative centers or the defacto capitals such as Mosul (Iraq) in July 2017 and Raqqa (Syria) in October 2017, has helped to reveal the identities of many foreign fighters via the explicit records kept by IS. Such explicit records, raises enough eyebrows, for sure.
While IS had it's glory days, it's recruitment drives stretched to far off lands. It was not just the Muslim population from the third world that was targeted but perhaps anyone who could be deceived and brainwashed or simply willingly subscribed to the radical ideology. Even field agents were deployed for effectiveness. Conversion to Islam too was pitted as another bogey to attract deluded minds. Social media and various internet sites ran extensive campaigns collecting funds as well recruiting jihadis or jihadists world over especially in European countries. And these recruits were not exclusively Muslim immigrants but also native Christians and others.
Another area where IS outsmarted or rather overdid the competition was the active deployment of both women and children and using them to wage jihad besides slave trade and sex trade. The foundational document of Al Khansaa (the female enforcement unit of IS) clearly underlines that under certain circumstances of need and endorsement, women may perform jihad. But that may be just for the records, in reality, the IS was involved in things much worst, including training boys as young as five as well as teenagers and the female lot. A lot of these kids and women folk were the abducted or captured lot from occupied territories in Iraq and Syria, especially from the Yazidi population. In addition, there had also been an active participation of both women and children from European, Australian, Middle East and East Asian countries too. Jihadi Junior, for instance, was a five old-year-old British kid, that even featured in IS propaganda videos including an execution video of three British spies.
The Soufan Center (TSC), a US-based think-tank had been tracking the whereabouts of these foreign fighters through information from government and other sources. It published it's research papers on 'the flow of fighters' back in July 2014, December 2015 and latest one in October 2017. Some of the numbers are reflected in the graph below. Other key observations include:
- As many as 40,000 foreign fighters from around 110 countries have joined the IS ranks both before and after the declaration of caliphate in July 2014
- Russia tops the contributor list with 3417 fighters out of which about 400 have made it back
- Among the African nations, Tunisia stands tall with 800 returnees
- Across the European Union, 1,200 foreign fighters have returned out of 5,000 who flocked to war zones in the Middle East. The United Kingdom has the highest total in Europe with 425 individuals returning home while Germany and France have 300 and 271 respectively.
At least a total of 5,600 citizens or residents from 33 countries have returned home.
* Numbers are not up to date, actual numbers may vary.
According to Ciwan Xhalil, a Syrian Kurdish intelligence officer who collaborates with western intelligence agencies over foreign ISIS fighters, most British ISIS fighters had fled Syria and gone to Turkey, at least close to 300 may still be there planning to cross over. “The exodus began after Mosul (in Iraq) fell and continued after [ISIS] lost Raqqa. We have lots of French in our jails and scores of other nationals but we think most of the British have escaped,” he said.
Meanwhile, Turkey continues to remain a safe passageway for volunteers or jihadists to move across the southern border into and out of Syria’s northern regions. European countries have previously accused the Turkish Government of not doing enough to prevent militants/fighters traveling into Syria. Turkey though had denied the charge and even worked towards strengthening security along its borders with Syria. Nonetheless, the porous borders pose a tremendous challenge. Previously, as of mid-June 2017, Turkey had recorded the names of at least 53,781 individuals from 146 countries whose state of residence feared they might attempt to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. Several of the recruits have also been intercepted by the Turkish border security forces and deported back.
Threat Posed by the Returning Fighters/Jihadists
The biggest problem that the security agencies around the world now face is accessing the threat probability of these returnees. Although, various western security agencies, believe that the influx of returnees or the foreign fighters is much slower than expected. But the question is not the influx but rather the intent. Many of them are already war-hardened and have served the IS ranks, making them well versed with brutal jihadist methods and know-how. If we look back at those incoming numbers, what's also evident is many of these fighters made it back much earlier than collapse of IS command in Iraq. That raises one pertinent question, where they sent back to create sleeper-cells or strenghten the IS network or where they simply deserters? Again there are conflicting views here both among the intellectuals, think tanks as well as the government and security agencies on whether or not there is really an immediate threat. But then it this boondoggling with what's immediate and what's not, which often has led security agencies to undermine threats. That is precisely where, concepts like 'lone wolf attacks' and 'known wolf attacks' had their origin. The world got acquainted to plenty of them in the recent years. No doubt there's a lot on the plate of the agencies too but then, we can't ignore the obvious, unless there's something more than meets the eye.
All or most of these foreign fighters quite similar to other loyal IS fighters have pledged their allegiance to the caliph, who then happened to be Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi. Even if we undermine the threat posed by them, there's no guarantee that tomorrow they might not rejoin the ranks if they are called upon to prove their allegiance to the Islamic Caliphate. What if a new caliph instructs them to wage jihad on their soil? These fighters now already have high approval ratings, respect and even a greater obedience among the radical jihadi factions especially the radical Wahhabi sect or other extremists forces, making it easier for them to forge new alliances. The history of various terrorist groups have been quite revelaing on the fact that loyalists of parent organistation or those influenced often come up with several smaller outfits or splinter groups, who later merge into the parent organisation. Terrorist outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan have long followed this methodology.
Apart from these war-hardened returnees, there's yet another lot that may pose a challenge for the security agencies and that includes those individuals who were either prevented from joining the caliphate by the authorities in their own country or those that were deported back from Turkey on suspicion or prior knowledge. Looking at the data put forth by Soufan Center, there is a considerable number. Brainwashed, clueless and somewhat frustrated too, they are ideal candidates to cause disruption or maybe be more. In fact, there are past precedents. The most talked about being the IS poster boy, Mohammed Emwazi, better known as the IS executioner Jihadi John. He was reported to have been previously deported from Tanzania on suspicion that he was headed to join Al Shabaab in Somalia and later he ended up joining the IS ranks and put his rage on display in those gore execution footages of the IS captives. Now it's worth mentioning that a group of Al Shabaab members led by Somali with British nationality declared allegiance to IS in October 2015, while the Al Shabaab outfit itself is an Al Qaeda affiliate.
A former IS militant Saddam al-Hamadi, 26, who was arrested by Turkish security forces last year, had warned that extremists planned to use the chaos of the fall of Raqqa to travel to Europe and launch terrorist attacks there. In the last few years, the number of terrorist attacks in Europe have climbed up. Since 2015, Europe has seen as many forty terrorist attacks. Britain suffered five extremist attacks in 2017, four of them claimed by ISIS. While IS itself has instigated hundreds of terrorist attacks worldwide claiming several lives. The third world suffering the brunt of it, as more take up arms or get inspired to wage jihad.
The Fix - Is there one really?
Public reaction towards domestic acts of terrorism compared to those occurring internationally is often more critical and perhaps rightly so. Especially when it happens in far-off lands, it simply gets brushed aside. Human psyche works that way, it is more about own people and own space and that's about it. It starts right there.
Should these radicals be confined or should they be rehabilitated and reintegrated? These are perhaps the two most important questions that must be doing rounds in the highest echelons of the political circles. Considering past precedents and a more violent and resentful behaviour in the offering, incarceration could be a safe bet. But then again, that's presumption and easier said than done. As far as reintegration goes, it's simply suicidal. One there a cost and then there's staunch criticism and backlash due to such favourable treatment for someone already labeled as a terrorist. More importantly, it will serve as an arsenal for the far-right groups. Above all this, there is the paranoia, among the general public which logically speaking is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to their actions and should be dealt with in the most appropriate manner. Government's not doing much also given ample space to theories like jihadist having penetrated the system or them being on the same side.
There is another grave challenge for the security appratus vis a vis the women and children. Hard to say, how much or to what extent these women and kids have been damaged both mentally and physically, even though the obvious being true. Gradually as more and more make it back including those that had proactively joined the caliphate, there would be increasing concerns as to what they are capable of doing, provided the right circumstances. And even the thought of who or what these kids will grow up to be?
Then amidst all this, we have our political class to screw things up for the worst with all their political correctness and appeasement tactics. It's a no-brainer that there would soon be plenty of supporting voices around the globe. The left specifically would be quite open to the idea of embracing these jihadists with open hands and assimilate them into the society. In some of the Islamic nations, they would most likely be embraced and may even be felicitated in some. At the same time some will also see them as deserters or those that abandoned the jihad.
End of the day, no matter what there can be no justification for their actions. Leaving the country to join a death cult of radicals. That in fact is no naivety, on any scale. Being an apologist for them would also imply giving them a leeway. A greater distrust and perhaps might also serve as an inspiration to others to tow similar lines and commit heinous crimes with impunity. It's certainly in public interest to prosecute all those who went to link up with ISIS or any other terrorist entity or have done so in the past. The pertinent question though is, should we be concerned? With increasing distrust in the political class and the government agencies, the increasing radicalization, rising intolerance, Islamophobia and all the political opportunism, things are going to get really complicated sooner or later. There is no reverse button to be pushed. We can only make efforts to create a more secure future for ourselves and our coming generations.
BEYOND THE CALIPHATE:Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees - The Soufan Centre (TSC) October 2017
© 2018 Ashutosh Joshi