The capture of El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexander Kotey, two British men attempting to flee Syria for Turkey, was a brief moment for celebration. The men had formed part of a brutal Islamic State (ISIS) cell, dubbed ’the Beatles’, which had executed foreign hostages on camera and become the global face of the terror group.
Their capture suggested the end of something but it also concentrated minds. Kotey and Elsheikh may have been attempting to flee the caliphate but they could just as easily have intended to carry out or otherwise inspire terror in Europe or the Near East.
No country wants responsibility for them. Britain is refusing to extradite the men and put them on trial. This is true of many foreign fighters, who went in their thousands to join ISIS and whose fates are in question.
As ISIS becomes less of a would-be state and more of an armed insurgency, it loses its ties to a fixed geographical space. It is freer to go global and its foreign fighters are at the forefront of that development.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Syria analyst, said via social media that many of the foreign fighters with whom he has communicated sincerely hope to flee Syria. They present less a threat than a challenge, the immediate problem being reintegrating them into their home societies.
However, Tamimi said: ‘The record demonstrates … that there are plenty of problems of homegrown extremists committing attacks’. He noted that the Islamic State has emphasised it in its propaganda.
Many foreign fighters, having seen their friends and comrades killed, may be disillusioned, but others are, if anything, galvanised. For them, leaving Syria does not mean an attempt to flee conflict but a desire to join the fight elsewhere.
ISIS has, from the beginning, adopted a hybrid strategy in waging jihad outside its core territories. Nominally, the caliphate established wilayats (foreign provinces) in Middle Eastern countries. ISIS accepted other groups into the fold by publicising the pledges of loyalty, which groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram swore to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph.
Both tactics were thought to be unserious. The groups who pledged allegiance did so largely for show and ISIS’s own foreign provinces were scrappy and rough-edged.
More recently, however, ISIS has been more successful in finding space in foreign countries. In Afghanistan, it established one of its most developed satellite territories, known as ISIS’ Khorasan Province (ISIS-K).
John Arterbury, an analyst in Washington, said via social media that ISIS-K has ‘illustrated remarkable resilience despite major initial setbacks’.
‘The Islamic State has shown that it can still mount successful urban terror attacks while maintaining an established presence in the countryside’, he said, and that Afghanistan ‘may make it an appealing destination for future foreign fighters’.
Evidence, he noted, has come to light of foreign fighters attempting to cross the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan and ISIS-K has seen the ‘alleged appearance of French and Algerian fighters in Afghanistan in late 2017’. ISIS maintains active franchises in Egypt’s Sinai region, which carries out frequent attacks on Christian minority groups, and in Libya, where ISIS forms part of a series of warring groups in the country’s developing civil conflict.
ISIS has a significant role in the Philippines, where authorities last year liberated the city of Marawi from jihadi fighters claiming loyalty to ISIS.
Pawel Wojcik, a terrorism analyst for Polish news site mPolska24, said via social media that ISIS ‘had been and continues to be an important part of local and regional affiliates’ … financing’.
He noted that ISIS’s regional emir, Isnilon Hapilon, had been linked to Mahmoud Ahmad, a Malaysian terror leader likely killed in fighting in Marawi, and a Filipino, Abdulpatta Escalon Abubakar, who was recently placed on the US terror sanctions list.
Wojcik listed three main ISIS groups key to post-Marawi situation: the Abu Dar group; the group led by Amin Baco; and the former Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) faction of Abu Turayfie.
A young Spaniard of Tunisian descent was caught trying to join Baco on the island province of Basilan in the Philipines at the end of January, he said, and recently ‘Manila police nabbed an Egyptian who had been a commander for Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and in 2016 started travelling to the Philippines’.
Despite the fall of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq, ISIS remains a global threat. ISIS has been defeated in its attempt to build a physical state but as a stateless insurgent brand inspiring and directing global terror, it may prove just as dangerous.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.