Smoke billows over Raqqa

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Pushed out of their de facto capital of Raqqa after three brutal years, IS fighters have misplaced a lot of the territory they as soon as held. How actual is the hazard they’ll now journey to different nations to hold out assaults, asks Dr Lorenzo Vidino.

Because the self-declared Islamic State steadily crumbles in Iraq and Syria, safety officers all through the world are asking themselves an important query: what is going to occur to its fighters?

Roughly 30,000 foreign fighters joined IS and there’s concern that these battle-hardened people will return dwelling, or transfer elsewhere, finishing up terrorist assaults to avenge the demise of the “caliphate”.

Whereas troublesome to forecast, the altering fortunes of IS will undoubtedly have main implications for international safety.

Over the border

There are indications, together with an assessment by US counter-terrorism officials, that some international fighters will keep in Syria and Iraq.

The top of the UK safety service MI5 stated this week that fewer than anticipated of the 800 Britons who joined IS had returned recently and that no less than 130 had been killed.

These international fighters who do stay are more likely to proceed with IS because the group morphs into what it was in its early days, some 10 years in the past: a deadly rebel pressure utilizing techniques starting from terrorist assaults to guerrilla warfare.

Overseas fighters have been over-represented amongst militants making final, determined stands within the battles of Mosul and Raqqa.

And plenty of of them are actually being tried in Iraqi courts, creating authorized and ethical dilemmas for a lot of of their nations of origin, as some may face the death penalty.

Nevertheless, many different fighters have been leaving the “caliphate”, largely via the 822km (510 mile) lengthy border between Turkey and Syria.

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Whereas Turkish authorities have been patrolling with considerably extra zeal than previously, mountainous terrain and the presence of refined smuggling networks imply the border is sort of permeable.

IS has a long-established help community all through Turkey, which is taking part in a key function in extracting international fighters from Syria.

Given the scores of assaults which have bloodied the nation during the last three years, Turkish authorities are understandably involved about this inflow.

Neighbouring nations, comparable to Jordan and Lebanon, have related fears.

From battlefield to battlefield

The potential finish locations for international fighters leaving Syria and Iraq are plentiful.

There’s proof that some have joined the official wilayat, or “provinces”, IS has established in Yemen, the Sinai Peninsula, the North Caucasus and East Asia.

The group additionally has a powerful presence in Libya, the place the US means that it might now have up to 6,500 fighters, and several other hundred in Afghanistan, the place the US reported killing at least 94 fighters in an assault on underground tunnels.

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Marawi within the Philippines has been partly held by fighters linked to IS since Could

There are additionally anecdotal indications of militants travelling to conflicts in faraway locations such because the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and the Philippines.

The arrival of international fighters to those areas may strengthen the capabilities of native jihadist teams and alter the course of typically devastating conflicts.

Weak nations

Many different international fighters are selecting to return to their nations of origin.

Whereas some returnees could not have interaction in militant actions, others are establishing clandestine networks looking for to hold out assaults and, in accordance with native circumstances, destabilise the nation’s political state of affairs.

North African nations are notably susceptible to the chance – nowhere extra so than Tunisia, as about 6,000 of its citizens left to hitch IS – the very best per capita charge on the earth.

Arab Gulf nations can also undergo from this kind of blowback.

Russia, the Caucasus, and quite a lot of Central Asian nations are additionally areas of concern, having seen massive numbers be part of IS – a lot of whom went on to play a outstanding function on the battlefield.

The risk to Europe

European authorities think about the return of among the estimated 6,000 European foreign fighters a serious safety concern.

To this point, fewer than one in 5 people concerned in assaults on the West because the “caliphate” was declared in 2014 had expertise as international fighters, in accordance with analysis by the Italian Institute for Worldwide Political Research (ISPI) and the George Washington College’s Program on Extremism.

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The Paris assaults have been carried out partially by former international fighters

However this would possibly change because the variety of returnees – now estimated at roughly 1,000 – will increase.

Many could present no signal of wishing to interact in additional violent actions, however there’s a legitimate concern that some could make use of their fight expertise.

It’s believable that they might use their community of contacts and “superstar standing” amongst unaffiliated jihad lovers to plan terrorist assaults.

The territorial losses suffered by IS usually are not more likely to have an effect on the operational capability of those largely impartial militants.

A authorized return

Whereas important issues nonetheless exist, European authorities have improved intelligence sharing to higher detect returning fighters.

And because of improved co-operation with Turkey, many militants have been arrested earlier than they get any additional.

A number of do handle to achieve Europe illegally, or by posing as refugees – as among the November 2015 Paris attackers did.

However most international fighters will come to Europe legally, typically utilizing their real European passports.

If detecting them is an issue, understanding what to do with them is equally fraught.

Arresting them stands out as the apparent reply, however the actuality is considerably extra sophisticated.

The UK House Workplace, for instance, disclosed final yr that of the 400 British international fighters who had returned from Syria and Iraq, only 54 were convicted.

Related dynamics may be noticed all through the continent.

What’s stopping authorities from arresting, prosecuting and convicting returning international fighters?

It’s largely a authorized matter, with lawmakers struggling to maintain up with a continuously shifting risk setting.

Whereas legislations range from nation to nation, they share some frequent issues.

In some nations, becoming a member of a terrorist organisation or preventing in a international battle weren’t legal offences on the time when most people travelled to Syria.

A number of nations have since launched new legal guidelines which, nevertheless, can’t be utilized retrospectively.

Even in nations the place such actions have lengthy constituted legal offences, authorities battle to collect the proof wanted to construct a powerful legal case.

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Figuring out that any individual joined IS or dedicated atrocities in Syria from an intelligence perspective is one factor.

With the ability to show that past an inexpensive doubt in a courtroom of regulation is one other.

Much more sophisticated is the problem of kids both born or raised within the “caliphate” by their international fighter dad and mom.

Whereas most usually are not punishable below the regulation, they deserve consideration due to the trauma they’ve suffered and, in some instances, as a result of they current extreme indicators of radicalism regardless of their younger age.

The result’s that authorities are overwhelmed, having to observe a whole lot of battle-hardened fighters, on high of the burgeoning variety of home-grown IS sympathisers, in an try to find out which pose a direct safety risk.

As an alternative, authorities all through Europe have more and more invested in programmes looking for to deradicalise returning international fighters.

Whereas it is likely to be untimely to definitively assess them, there are indications that some, just like the one established within the Danish metropolis of Aarhus – offering rehabilitation and inclusion in society, are efficient.

Others, just like the French plan to arrange 12 deradicalisation centres, have been shelved.

Seeking to the longer term

The lack of a lot of its territory is a serious blow to ISIS.

But the group and its adherents are already surfacing in varied elements of the world and are doubtless to take action with much more frequency and vehemence within the close to future.

IS will develop into a extra decentralised, amorphous organisation working in a extra uneven trend, but it surely is not going to disappear.

Furthermore, the IS model and the emotional enchantment of its “caliphate” are unlikely to fade any time quickly.

And, regardless of important challenges, the organisation’s remarkably robust digital presence, the so-called “digital caliphate”, will survive in some type, probably rekindling the dedication of sympathisers worldwide and prompting some to hold out terrorist assaults in its identify.

The autumn of the “caliphate” closes a chapter, however a brand new one is about to be opened.


About this piece

This evaluation piece was commissioned by the BBC from an professional working for an outdoor organisation.

Dr Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University and of the Program on Radicalisation and Worldwide Terrorism on the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) in Milan.


Edited by Duncan Walker