ISIS foreign fighters leave Syria and Iraq, heading to new battlefields further in Asia and Africa, according to a new analysis by security experts from King’s College London,
When Syrian Kurds, with the support of the U.S. Air Force, conquered the village of Baghuz on the border between Syria and Iraq in February last year, they erased the last remnants of ISIS-controlled territory from the map. The caliphate, which struck terror across the world for five years and occupied an area the size of the United Kingdom at one time, then disappeared.
But its warriors did not. It is estimated that over 40,000 foreign fighters have come to the Middle East to fight for the caliphate. About 5,000 of them were citizens of European countries and while some ended up in captivity, others tried to return to their homeland.
However, most of them stayed in Iraq and Syria, where they continue with conducting guerrilla warfare while the others have decided to go abroad to join other jihadist groups around the world. According to a new study by King’s College London, the latter group poses the greatest risk.
“Despite governments’ concerns, numbers of ISIS foreign fighters returning home and engaging with violent extremism remains relatively low. Of far greater risk, is the growing threat from Islamic State in both its former stronghold in Iraq and Syria and in terrorist zones around the world,” says the author of the study Francesco Milan.
Despite the loss of territory, the Islamic State remains a powerful terrorist organization. Since the middle of last year, it has worked hard to recruit and r-distribute jihadists to conflict zones in other countries, from Libya to the Philippines. Among the priority destinations are also Indonesia, Malaysia, and smuggling routes across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
At least 100 foreign fighters have joined the ISIS militias in the Philippines, where, three years ago, the army fought a five-month-long battle with local Islamists over the city of Marawi. The conflict claimed more than a 1,000 lives and put the Philippines on the jihadist map.
Furthermore, the analysis of British experts points out that the mobilization of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria has not stopped. The latest estimates indicate that about 3,000 of them arrived in the region last year.
Thousands of ISIS fighters, their wives, and children are now in captivity. That poses a risk of mass escapes and breeding a new generation of jihadists, as overcrowded prisons create a perfect environment for extremist ideology.
For example, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia operates about two dozen prisons, detaining ISIS fighters and their relatives. However, some of the facilities are, for example, remodeled schools. The Kurds cannot interrogate and investigate every jihadist, and securing the sufficient number of prison guards remains a problem as well.
This spring, with great difficulties, the Kurds managed to get two riots in an overcrowded prison in the city of Hasaka under control.
“ISIS prisoners significantly outnumber the SDF guards, and the generally poor conditions in these jails are driving detainees to take greater risks to break out,” Middle East expert Nicholas Heras told The New York Times.