Where are the ISIS fighters?
About 40,000 people from around the world came to Syria and Iraq a few years ago with guns in their hands to support the making of a self-proclaimed caliphate. Nowadays the fate of most of them is unknown.
ISIS has lost most of the areas it previously controlled. It was about 3% of Syria’s territory. The fighters were pushed to the desert in the eastern part of the country. However, they still have some influence, stronger than their actual geographical position. According to the inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor province, there are still many cells of fighters who are waiting for orders in cities and villages. The same situation is in Raqqa, which was captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in mid-October 2017.
ISIS fighters’ guerrilla warfare makes them difficult to overcome. What is more, the Jihadists got the chance to catch their breath. The Syrian regime focused on conducting an offensive against Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (associated with al-Qaeda) and other militant groups in Idlib. ISIS benefits from this situation and still occupies a small territory in this region. In turn, the Kurds from SDF focused most of their forces on defending Afrin, which was attacked by Turkey on 20 January. In addition, there are clashes between the SDF and the regime in eastern Syria.
Finally, ISIS leader Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi remains on the loose.
The Iraqi war is not over yet
On February 7, the Iraqi security services and the Shia militias, Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Forces), in cooperation with Kurdish units, conducted a military operation near the town of Tuz Khurmatu. They were supposed to eliminate ISIS threat by destroying about 30 of militants’ positions. The American Air Force supported the coalition against ISIS. In recent months, Tuz Khurmatu and nearby villages in northern Iraq have been under mortar fire several times. For the last time, the firing took place on January 8, when five mortar shells hit the city. At least two groups of fighters operate in this area.
The first one is the Kurds’ Liberation Army. Its fighters did not accept the loss of disputed territories after the referendum on independence carried out by the Iraqi Kurdistan authorities on 25 September 2017. The Liberation Army, therefore, decided to fight against the Iraqi forces.
The second group is called the “White Flags”. They have an image of a lion on their banners. They are probably related to ISIS and the aforementioned military operation was aimed at them.
Not only the region near Tuz Khurmatu is dangerous. Disturbing information is also coming from the Mosul area. The Jihadist cells are still operating there, and the security services regularly carry out operations against them.
According to the estimates of the international coalition in Iraq, less than a thousand jihadists, who managed to escape from Mosul and around, are still active in combat.
Not every jihadist can blend in or find a safe house. Many of them decided to escape from Syria with the help of smugglers. According to an investigation conducted by the BuzzFeed journalists, Turkish border guards caught on average a thousand people a month trying to cross the border illegally in 2017. Some of them, but not a lot, had ISIS connections. Jihadists travelled along with smugglers who were able to avoid the checkpoints and cross the border efficiently. Most of them were to remain in Turkey and wait for orders. Others try to get to Europe using the refugee route or move to other countries.
How can they reach the border? According to the portal “National”, they go through the territories of the SDF, the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups. The routes are complicated there, and smugglers’ networks are extensive, which makes the escape easier. Prices range from two to tens of thousands of dollars per person and depend on the fighter’s origin and his position in the organization.
Dispersed all over the world
At the beginning of February, the information was confirmed that the last “Beatles” were caught – a group of four British jihadists who were responsible for tortures and executions. According to the American authorities, there were at least 27 of them. Their leader was Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi. He was widely known for murdering hostages. He was killed during the air raids in 2015. Aine Davis serves a seven-year prison sentence in Turkey for membership in a terrorist group. In mid-January, the SDF stopped other two “Beatles” during the fighting in eastern Syria – Alexander Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh.
We still do not know how many foreign ISIS fighters were killed during the fights. We do not know where those are, who managed to stay alive. Intelligence data are incomplete.
About 40,000 people from around the world came to Syria and Iraq a few years ago with guns in their hands to support the making of a self-proclaimed caliphate. As established by the AFP agency, 1700 recruits came from France, of which 400 to 450 were killed, 250 returned to the country, and about 500 – according to data from the beginning of December – were still fighting. So, in other words, they simply disappeared. Probably they joined the fights in other flash points, headed to the base camps, or they are still hiding and waiting for orders. They can lurk around in the Philippines, in Egypt, in Afghanistan or in the Balkans.
ISIS fighters have lost their influence in Syria, but they are still active on different continents. On November 24, they attacked a Sufi mosque in Bir al-Abed in Egypt and killed 305 people. This is the most tragic terrorist attack in the history of modern Egypt. The Egyptian security forces have recently begun operations on the Sinai Peninsula, where some Jihadists are still present.
Fighters who came back to their home countries
The greatest concerns among European and US residents are those ISIS fighters who returned home. It is true that many of them can pose a threat. However, according to the latest Georgetown University report, there is no need to panic. Authors of the research analysed 153 cases of people who were detained because of ISIS-related incidents. 50 of them were caught before they managed to leave. Until January 1, 2018, none of the remaining 103 militants was able to launch terror attacks. Only one out of 12 fighters who returned to the country and were identified claimed that his goal was to carry out an attack within the country.
The authors of the report emphasize that “travellers” – the name for the fighters returning home – pose a threat, but it does not have to be associated with the assaults. They can build a terrorist network or help others to get into the country.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that there were 22 terrorist attacks motivated by Islamic fundamentalism in the United States between 2011 and 2017. None of them was carried out by a person who fought in Syria or Iraq.