Under constant military pressure from various forces in Iraq and Syria, the territory controlled by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is growing smaller by the day. But as the threat of the Islamic religious extremists as a true territorial state diminishes, authorities and officials around the world are faced with the grim realization that tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, many of whom are seasoned battlefield veterans, will be returning home to their countries of origin with the potential to carry the radical group’s version of jihad and terrorism to populations there.
It is well known that the Islamic State’s propaganda element has been encouraging those who would join their cause in the Middle East to alter their plans and carry out ISIS’s mission, which is to convert others to their brand of Islam or exterminate them, in their countries of residence. That same propaganda cohort, as the Washington Times reported this week, has also actively encouraged ISIS fighters to leave the battlefields in Iraq and Syria and go home, there to carry out other operations deemed of interest to the Islamic State.
Although the abandonment of positions in Iraq and Syria make the combat a bit less dangerous for all the various forces fighting against the Islamic State in those war-weary nations, it poses an ever-increasing potential problem for the nations that will receive the militants, especially those set on the continuation of fighting for ISIS against non-military populations.
According to Army Lt. Gen. Michael Nagata, head of strategic operational planning at the National Counterterrorism Center, the threat posed by these foreign fighters is “the most ethnically diverse, sociologically diverse, nonmonolithic problem we have seen so far.” During a recent speech in Washington, he said the following.
“Just identifying the nature and scope of the problem is unfinished work together, but it is, I think, inarguably the largest foreign terrorist fighter challenge the world has seen in the modern age.”
To gain a bit of perspective on what kind of global problem the war-hardened jihadis might present, U.S. defense officials estimate that approximately 60,000 ISIS fighters have been killed since 2014 in the Middle East and North Africa. But even more fighters have returned home to over 120 countries around the world.
FBI Director James B. Comey and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly have both issued warnings about the returning fighters.
“The expectation is that many of these ‘holy warriors’ will survive, departing for their home countries to wreak murderous havoc,” Kelly said Tuesday during a speech.
But even though the threat of the returning Islamic State extremists is global, people like Gen. Nagata have noted that the responsibility for containing the terrorism problem is local.
“We’ve had to adapt our thinking about the fact, unfortunately,” he said, “that the very welcome defeat of ISIS’ armylike capabilities in Iraq and Syria will not bring an end to the global terrorist attack threat that ISIS poses, including by the utilization of foreign fighters. Particularly if they return to their country, we’re relying on their judicial system.”
The war against ISIS in Iraq has seen the territory controlled by the Islamic State dwindle to less than seven percent of the country, according to Newsweek, down from roughly 40 percent that was controlled at the height of the Islamic State’s power in late 2014. The fight to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, is now a house-to-house, block-to-block affair. Raqqa, ISIS’s capital in Syria, is besieged by the Syrian army.
In recent weeks, those fighting what could very well be a rising tide of ISIS extremists returning to cause havoc in their homelands have been faced with another worrisome prospect. Iraqi vice president Ayad Allawi warned Monday, according to Reuters, that he had received intelligence that indicates that the Islamic State and al Qaeda might now have reconciled their differences. ISIS began as a splinter group of al Qaeda over a decade ago, and this reconciliation to the point of cooperating and coordinating in the future could be troublesome.
[Featured Image by Mikko Lemola/Shutterstock]