Where Will ISIS Fighters Go If the Caliphate Fails?

The decline of ISIS seems to be hastening, according to analysts, who say it's only a matter of time before ISIS is defeated, either militarily or though a negotiated settlement.

Where will their potentially thousands of fighters, referred to as transnational terrorists, who avoid capture and death, go next? Amarnath Amarasingam and Colin P. Clark take a stab a the question in the Atlantic, and say the fighters have a few options. Here are their conclusions:

ISIS fighters are unquestionably capable: Dug in to their positions, they have skillfully used tunnels and subterranean networks to move men and materials, and have perfected the production and deployment of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices to keep their adversaries at bay.


The most hard-core fighters, those closest to ISIS leader al Baghdadi are apt to join clandestine groups in Syria and Iraq, such as Fateh al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham where they will rest, recuperate re-arm and try again, most likely in ungoverned areas of Iraq and Syria. Some may join al Qaida, but that could take time, as the rift between them is very deep. They are likely to seek out ungoverned areas still beyond the writ of either Syrian or Iraqi government forces and their allies.

A second group will be the "free agents" aka mercenaries who cannot return to their home countries:

A second group of fighters are those potential “free agents” or mercenaries who are prevented from returning to their home countries. They can be expected to form a cohort of stateless jihadists who will travel abroad in search of the the next jihadi theater—Yemen, Libya, West Africa, or Afghanistan—to protect, sustain, and expand the boundaries of the so-called caliphate. These are the militant progeny of the original mujahideen, or transnational jihadists that once filled the ranks of al-Qaeda and fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and in Chechnya and the Balkans. ISIS affiliates and local Sunni jihadists in these places would likely welcome an influx of battle-hardened comrades.

Behind door number three will be the third group referred to as "the returnees". They will cause counter-terrorism experts the most concern:

These fighters may attempt to return to their countries of origin, like Tunisia or Saudi Arabia, or go further afield to Europe, Asia, or North America. States with more robust national defense structures—well-trained border police, world-class intelligence services—stand a better chance of blunting their impact. But all Western security services are not created equal: Some will inevitably have a tougher time containing this threat than others.....

There is likely to be two types of returnees: the first may disillusioned and not a physical threat:

But upon returning to the West, they could be used to mentor other radicalized youth. These fighters may require psychological care, not prison time.

The second type, the "Operational Returnees" is the one to be concerned about. They may have left ISIS for any number of reasons, from homesickness to family matters that needed attention, to burnout. But while they disengaged, they did not become disillusioned.

Just as militants are motivated to join the fight for a variety of reasons, they may leave it behind for any number of reasons: an impending marriage, battle fatigue, or because they miss their families. They are, however, still committed to jihadism. As one returnee recently said, “I left ISIS, but if another fight happened somewhere else, I would probably go.” This individual grew disillusioned with ISIS as an organization, but not with jihad as a whole.

As to why the operational returnees are the biggest threat: They are the ones most likely to"

....attempt to resuscitate dormant networks, recruit new members, or conduct lone-wolf style attacks. They will be well-positioned to attempt attacks under the command and control of what remains of ISIS in the Middle East. They are the most deadly.

As examples of the operational returnees, the authors write:

The November 2015 Paris attacks, conducted by foreign fighters who trained in Syria and were dispatched to France, are perhaps the clearest instance of this. Operational returnees are an even bigger concern if, in fact, hundreds of operatives have already been deployed to Europe, with hundreds more hiding out on Europe’s doorstep in Turkey.

The authors conclude with some suggestions for handling each type, and point out the danger to Europe in particular:

While the EU is distracted with the fallout from Brexit and Russian meddling in national elections, militant jihadists will be streaming back into Europe, some of them determined to strike. And while transnational terrorists will undoubtedly flock to Libya and Yemen, the real challenge will be preventing further attacks around the globe, including in major European cities.

(About the article's authors: Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Center for Counter Terrorism. Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a fellow at the George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Also see Amarasingam's article last week in Politico, What ISIS Fighters Think of Trump.)

There are statistics on European-born jihadists.
According to CAT's latest figures (Center for the Analysis of Terrorism in France):

  • About 2,300 French nationals or residents are involved in Syrian-Iraqi jihadist networks (including 689 in Syria or Iraq).
  • 1,302 individuals have pending legal proceedings in France.
  • Almost 7,200 EU nationals or residents, about 70% of which are French, British and German nationals or residents, are involved in jihadi networks, including almost 5,800 departures and more than 1,500 returnees in the EU.

For Belgian statistics, Pieter Van Ostaeyen and Guy Van Vlierden have been keeping close tabs for years. Here's their latest count, ("From Plotting Early in 2011 to the Paris and Brussels Attacks") published by the European Foundation for Democracy and the Counter-Extremism Project.

As for all those reports of captured ISIS fighters now revealing a litany of horrible acts they participated in, Researcher Aymenn J Al-Tamimi‏
("for the Nth time"):

...there's nothing authentic about media access to suspected IS prisoners in systems where abuses [are]endemic

My interpretation: The bottom line of all this is that the increased military involvement of the U.S. may defeat ISIS as it is presently structured, but it won't end the terror threat, especially when after ISIS fails, its fighters will be dispersed far and wide across the globe. Instead of being a Middle East problem, we will have succeeded in making it our problem. Shorter version: When winning is a failure.

Update: I just read Professor Philip Seib (USC's Annenberg School) new article, "The ISIS Delusion, The Al Qaeda Reality" in Huffington Post:

While ISIS fights and dies, Al Qaeda builds. If it establishes the foothold it seeks, Al Qaeda will soon turn to again planning attacks across the globe. ... Trump seems to think that eradicating ISIS will mean eradicating terrorism. He is wrong dangerously wrong.

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  • Display: Sort:
    It isn't us who is defeating ISIS Jeralyn (none / 0) (#1)
    by Militarytracy on Wed Mar 08, 2017 at 11:59:08 PM EST
    It's Russia. And Trump is PO'd because the end is in sight and predicted but "the win" won't go down as ours. He sees low hanging fruit.

    Generals at TRADOC recently were attempting to rewrite existing Army doctrine in such a manner that regular boots on the ground to anyplace longer than 90 days can't occur without a brand spanking new AUMF. Would it hold up to a Trump administration challenge? I don't know. What I do know, all reports of this going down at a TRADOC conference have been scrubbed from the internet. Does Trump know Army Generals have attempted to create doctrine roadblocks to the endless AUMF? Probably not, they seem to know so little...period. McMasters was part of that AUMF move too. And he's reversed some Flynnage at the NSC.

    We always thought Mattis would be sort of a bad ass standing up to Trump in all the legal ways that he can. I never pictured McMasters also being there, but I think he is.

    We (none / 0) (#2)
    by FlJoe on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 06:03:51 AM EST
    are sending in the Marines, probably so tRump can claim that he and  defeated ISIS.
    A few hundred marines with heavy artillery have been deployed to Syria in preparation for the fight to oust Islamic State from its self-declared headquarters of Raqqa, a senior US official said on Wednesday.

    Make no mistake, Marines with arty are not an advisory or training force, the reporting seems to indicate they are there to directly take part in the assault on Raqqa.  

    It just seems to be gratuitous to me, by all accounts ISIS is circling the drain and our direct combat role will not change the outcome, only hasten it.


    We are capped at only being able (none / 0) (#3)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 09:05:05 AM EST
    To have 500 troops at any one time in Syria period, unless Congress wants to declare something. There are legal roadblocks as to who and how many. We aren't going into Raqqa without extremely heavy intelligence in play, that doesn't leave much room for fighting boots. Russia bombs whover is sending out $hit without a care to collateral damage. They haven't needed an ISIS plan. ISIS stirs some crap, they kill those fighters and anyone in the general vicinity. I suppose this no need for strategy is what Trump admires. Putin gets to just go out there and kill everything and he gets to win. That is in his mind the US not fighting to win, we are a bunch of losers.

    I don't know why we are even touching Raqqa. Trying to protect civilians so it isn't Allepo 2? So we put 200 Marines in there and dare Russia to accidentally make them collateral damage by just bombing everything and everyone?

    Maybe we are trying to protect the troops we are allied with. But they are anti-Assad. Russia can and will probably bomb them to oblivion too.
    Dangerous position to be in for 200 Americans. 200 Americans vs 4,000 ISIS fighters in a place where we hold no position and Russia is going to bomb the Phuck out of it? Stuff just not adding up.


    Yes there is a cap (none / 0) (#4)
    by FlJoe on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 09:38:47 AM EST
     but from the report
    The deployment is temporary but is a sign Donald Trump's White House is leaning toward giving the Pentagon greater flexibility in making routine combat decisions in the fight against Isis.
    Under the existing limits put in place by the Obama administration, the military can have up to 503 US forces in Syria. But temporary personnel do not count against the cap.
    I suppose it all depends on the meaning of temporary.

    Like you I am quite concerned how this will play out, while ISIS is the target it appears like we want to actively support the "friendly" anti-government forces in taking Raqqa, it's hard to see the Russian backed Assad forces letting that happen.


    Who knows what temporary personnel (none / 0) (#6)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 02:17:33 PM EST
    Could mean in the Trump White House. To my knowledge the Pentagon is NOT itching for anything in Syria though. Trump is alone here, Flynn is gone, McMasters must deal with Bannon I suppose. That should be short work.

    The only thing I know that gets some Pentagon leadership bent and twisted is Iran. And Iran is assisting in this. Are they endangering 200 Marine lives to this degree attempting to have a game piece on this board? Can't say they think sanely about Iran. The very word causes gasps and tremors.


    The more I'm reading (none / 0) (#8)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 05:46:42 PM EST
    I think we are sending forces in hoping to prevent a second Aleppo. Gutsy move

    It's Russia and its ally, Syria (none / 0) (#5)
    by Mr Natural on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 09:41:48 AM EST
    American foreign policy outbutchered Assad, in terms of the resulting deaths of Syrians, at the rate of ten or twenty to one.

    All Hail the Great and Powerful Oz.  


    Once we destabilized Iraq (none / 0) (#7)
    by Militarytracy on Thu Mar 09, 2017 at 02:20:52 PM EST
    And damn near destroyed our own military readiness in Iraq....Afghanistan positions were about to be overrun, can't say there was any other course.

    Apparently you can break it and then not own it. Powell was wrong...Again