Fight­ers told to bring ji­had home from Mideast

Is­lamic State turns 60,000 loy­al­ists into hard­ened ter­ror­ists

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUNOZ

With the Is­lamic State’s strongholds in Mo­sul and Raqqa un­der siege, the U.S. and its al­lies soon will face a dif­fer­ent prob­lem: how to track and con­tain the thou­sands of for­eign fight­ers who have flocked to the ji­hadi move­ment and threaten to scat­ter to the winds to cre­ate may­hem back home.

The ter­ror­ist group’s pro­lific pro­pa­ganda arm has gone so far as to tell its fol­low­ers to aban­don bat­tle­fields in the Mid­dle East in fa­vor of op­er­a­tions else­where, and it’s not clear that the Pen­tagon has a plan to deal with the next phase of the war.

U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that roughly 60,000 fight­ers loyal to the Is­lamic State, or ISIS or ISIL, have been killed in the two years since the group’s blis­ter­ing cam­paign across North Africa and the Mid­dle East. But thou­sands more have fled those bat­tle­fields and re­turned as com­bat-hard­ened ex­trem­ists to over 120 coun­tries around the globe.

The for­eign fighter threat is “the most eth­ni­cally di­verse, so­ci­o­log­i­cally di­verse, non­mono­lithic … prob­lem we have seen so far,” Army Lt. Gen. Michael Na­gata, head of strate­gic op­er­a­tional plan­ning at the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter, said this month.

“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,” he said dur­ing a speech in Wash­ing­ton.

An anal­y­sis by the So­ufan Group in late 2015 tracked how thou­sands of for­eign fight­ers had flocked to the Mid­dle East to join the Is­lamic State’s strug­gle and to pro­tect the self-pro­claimed “caliphate” there.

An es­ti­mated 5,000 fight­ers were from Western Europe, and nearly 300 were from North Amer­ica. The ques­tion of the se­cu­rity threat posed by re­turn­ing for­eign fight­ers was a ma­jor fo­cus of a March sum­mit that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion or­ga­nized for nearly five dozen na­tions that are part of the U.S.-led an­titer­ror coali­tion.

“We don’t want to see [the Is­lamic State] re-emerge else­where in the world; other­wise, we’ll be back in a few years’ time talk­ing about how to de­feat a caliphate in the south­ern Philip­pines,” Aus­tralian For­eign Min­is­ter Julie Bishop told Sky News af­ter the sum­mit.

FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey and Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly have is­sued pub­lic warn­ings about the threat posed by re­turn­ing fight­ers. Mr. Kelly said coali­tion vic­to­ries against the Is­lamic State overseas present a new se­cu­rity headache in the U.S.

“The ex­pec­ta­tion is that many of these ‘holy war­riors’ will sur­vive, de­part­ing for their home coun­tries to wreak mur­der­ous havoc,” Mr. Kelly said in a speech Tues­day.

The numbers of bat­tle-hard­ened Is­lamic State fight­ers could in­crease as U.S.-backed Syr­ian forces con­tinue to drive ji­hadis from their safe havens in Raqqa and else­where.

U.S. and coali­tion forces re­port­edly launched an air as­sault with mem­bers of the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, or SDF, the group of Arab and Kur­dish mili­tias bat­tling the Is­lamic State in the coun­try, against the group’s po­si­tions near Deir-i-Zour.

Tar­get­ing Is­lamic State weapons de­pots in the east­ern sub­urbs of the city, U.S. he­li­copters dropped SDF fight­ers early Mon­day, ac­cord­ing to re­gional re­ports. It was the sec­ond such oper­a­tion ex­e­cuted by Syr­ian forces in as many months.

Pen­tagon of­fi­cials say Is­lamic State lead­ers, in­clud­ing “caliph” Abu Bakr alBagh­dadi, have be­gun to flee Raqqa for the group’s safe havens in Deir-i-Zour. The south­ern Syr­ian city could be the jump­ing-off point for a mass ex­o­dus by Is­lamic State fight­ers as coali­tion forces tighten the noose around Raqqa. Join­ing forces

The for­eign fighter threat is not lim­ited to the Is­lamic State, one re­gional an­a­lyst said.

“We have a dis­persed ISIS and a stillpo­tent al Qaeda net­work to reckon with, and we may even see some­thing of a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion be­tween the two groups,” said Thomas San­der­son, di­rec­tor of the Transna­tional Threats Project at the Wash­ing­ton-based think tank Cen­ter for Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies. “These de­vel­op­ments point not to a less­en­ing of the for­eign fighter threat, but pos­si­bly to a height­en­ing of the danger posed by them.”

Iraqi Vice Pres­i­dent Ayad Allawi said Mon­day that the Is­lamic State and al Qaeda, once bit­ter ri­vals with di­a­met­ri­cally op­posed strategies for wag­ing re­li­gious war, have be­gun dis­cussing an al­liance. “There are dis­cus­sions and di­a­logue” be­tween the Is­lamic State’s al-Bagh­dadi and al Qaeda leader Ay­man al-Zawahri, via en­voys and mes­sen­gers from the ter­ror­ist groups, the Iraqi leader said.

The Is­lamic State was born out of al Qaeda’s Iraqi fac­tion that bat­tled U.S. and coali­tion forces dur­ing the bloody years of the U.S. war in the coun­try. It broke with al-Zawahri and the Pak­istani-based ter­ror­ist group in 2012 and formed the Is­lamic State in Iraq and the Le­vant, or the Is­lamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Al-Bagh­dadi re­mains in hid­ing within the group’s ter­ri­tory in Syria af­ter re­port­edly flee­ing its self-styled cap­i­tal in Raqqa in March. Mean­while, al-Zawahri re­port­edly re­mains in hid­ing along the Afghan-Pak­istani bor­der.

If such an al­liance ma­te­ri­al­izes, the Is­lamic State will not end with the lib­er­a­tion of Raqqa and Mo­sul, the group’s Iraqi strong­hold, Mr. Allawi said.

“I can’t see ISIS dis­ap­pear­ing into thin air,” Mr. Allawi said. “They will re­main covertly in sleep­ing cells, spread­ing their venom all over the world.”

Those cells will not be lim­ited to the group’s tra­di­tional re­doubts in North Africa and the Mid­dle East. As Is­lamic State fac­tions and self-rad­i­cal­ized “lone wolves” in Western Europe and the U.S. have cap­tured head­lines with vi­o­lent, high-pro­file at­tacks, the ter­ror­ist group has ex­panded its ter­ri­tory.

While al Qaeda has planted oper­a­tives in­side the U.S. to plan, co­or­di­nate and launch at­tacks, those sleeper cells main­tained ties to the group’s chain of com­mand that U.S. and al­lied in­tel­li­gence agen­cies could ex­ploit.

The lack of such link­ages, es­pe­cially by lone-wolf at­tack­ers and re­turn­ing fight­ers from Is­lamic State wars in Iraq and Syria, the po­ten­tial ca­bal of ter­ror­ists threat­en­ing the West is surg­ing.

“A lot of what comes out of ISIS is just, ‘Go where you can and kill who you can,’” Gen. Na­gata said. “There’s an in­her­ent danger to this, be­cause their use of for­eign fight­ers is more un­pre­dictable.

“Even though they acted to save their skin by flee­ing Iraq and Syria, there’s still a la­tent de­sire to wreak havoc. And they’ll find an out­let for that,” he said. New ter­ri­tory

The Is­lamic State’s com­mand struc­ture also has al­lowed the group to take ad­van­tage of non­tra­di­tional net­works tied to il­licit traf­fick­ing and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­nized crime groups, to move men, ma­teriel and their vir­u­lent mes­sage into ar­eas as far as South­east Asia and South Amer­ica.

U.S. South­ern Com­mand chief Adm. Kurt Tidd said his com­mand was work­ing with na­tions in the re­gion to iden­tify and shut down a grow­ing num­ber of sus­pected Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist cells.

“Right now, what we’re try­ing to do is iden­tify the in­di­vid­u­als them­selves so that the coun­tries can be­gin to try to pay at­ten­tion to them and see what else they might be up to,” said Adm. Tidd, de­clin­ing to spec­ify the na­tions in Cen­tral and South Amer­ica.

Drug smug­gling routes through western and north­ern Africa, which South Amer­i­can drug car­tels use to move nar­cotics across Europe’s south­ern bor­ders, are con­trolled by the al Qaeda-af­fil­i­ated Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Ma­greb, the group’s West African cell.

While Ira­nian-backed ter­ror­ist groups such as Hezbol­lah have reg­u­larly main­tained a fundrais­ing pres­ence in the re­gion, the Is­lamic State is look­ing to es­tab­lish an op­er­a­tional pres­ence, Adm. Tidd said.

“We know that there was some [Is­lamic State] fundrais­ers that sup­ported some of the for­eign fight­ers that trav­eled over … but what’s of con­cern now are in­di­vid­u­als who may in fact be rad­i­cal­ized to the point of con­duct­ing at­tacks. That’s the danger,” Adm. Tidd told re­porters at the Pen­tagon.

While the threat posed by re­turn­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers is global, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for con­tain­ing that threat is not, Gen. Na­gata said.

“We’ve had to adapt our think­ing … about the fact, un­for­tu­nately, 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 three-star gen­eral said.

The U.S. and its al­lies are do­ing their best, “but you know, if you want to hide, you can hide. If you want not to be counted, you can not be counted,” he said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

OUT WITH A BANG: U.S. sol­diers from the 82nd Air­borne Di­vi­sion are sup­port­ing Iraqi forces fight­ing Is­lamic State mil­i­tants from their base east of Mo­sul.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mo­sul res­i­dents cel­e­brated when Iraqi army sol­diers lib­er­ated them from bru­tal Is­lamic State op­pres­sion. As for­eign fight­ers are forced from Is­lamic State strongholds in Iraq and Syria, they will re­turn to their home coun­tries to spread ter­ror­ism.

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