Despite defeat, between 20,000 and 30,000 Daesh foreign fighters remain across Syria and Iraq, according to a new United Nations report.
The remaining Daesh fighters are likely to be equally distributed between Syria and Iraq, countries concerned told the UN monitors. “Among these is still a significant component of the many thousands of active foreign terrorist fighters,” the report warned.
In Syria, Daesh is still able to “mount attacks”, and though “it does not fully control any territory in Iraq, it remains active through sleeper cells”, the UN report said.
Syria has been locked in a vicious civil war since early 2011, when President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests. Since then, more than 250,000 people have been killed and in excess of ten million displaced, according to the UN.
Daesh dubbed itself as an “Islamic State” with “caliphate” ideology and launched attacks to dominate the world in late 2014, attracting scores of foreign fighters. But gruesome killings, torture and potential war crimes against minorities attracted a US-led coalition of 77 countries to hit back against the group over its “extremist” ideology and militant strategy.
By the end of 2017, Daesh‘s statehood dreams crumbled. Its foot soldiers are now in pockets across Syria and Iraq, surrounded by rival non-state armed groups backed by several international players.
Foreign fighter ‘phenomenon’
The number of foreign fighters leaving Daesh “remains lower than expected” according to the UN, and no other conflict has emerged as a key destination for the foreign fighters. However, between 3,500 and 4,500 Daesh fighters have transferred to the conflict in Afghanistan and set up a foot-hold in Yemen with up to 500 fighters there – compared to some 7,000 Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fighters (AQAP).
In recent months, the group has sought to expand its influence to Mali and Niger, though allegiance there by fringe armed groups are more strategic to attract attention to local conflicts.
The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are currently holding some 600 foreign fighters in custody. A US military official with the coalition told CNN that of the foreign fighters in detention, some 40 are from Russia, with around a dozen from Germany and France respectively.
But according to the Soufan Group, a strategic security intelligence service run by former FBI agents, some foreign fighters are going to be returned to their respective home countries. “The SDF is not the answer to the pressing need of the detention, prosecution and subsequent determination of the appropriate action to take, for the estimated 600 foreign fighters now held in northern Syria,” a briefing by the group read.
Adding: “The SDF, as a non-state actor, is not capable of conducting fair trials within an established judicial system and then meting out appropriate verdicts and sentences”. The United States continues to experience negative consequences over using “extra-judicial measures to deal with terrorism” – for example Guantanamo Bay and targeted drone strikes.
Home countries of these foreign fighters have hesitated to repatriate them back for legal proceedings, while others have opted for lethal counter-terrorism methods to neutralise them.