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The new report suggests most western governments are primarily concerned with the threat posed by ISIS fighters returning to the UK and the rest of Europe – hence the ongoing exclusion of Begum. However in resisting efforts to repatriate them, the report warns the West is likely to be storing up trouble further down the line, with jihadis more likely to abscond from poorly guarded jails in Syria.
Researchers from the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, in collaboration with the Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), found far less attention had been paid to the number of veteran jihadi fighters heading elsewhere – for example, to Libya and the Philippines.
Dr Francesco Milan, lecturer for the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College London, and lead author of the article said: “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.”
“The long-overlooked question of how to deal with captured foreign fighters is rapidly becoming a pressing issue, given the huge numbers of surrendering fighters and their families massing in prisons in Syria.
“By overly focusing on returning foreign fighter and pursing a short-term, wait-and-see response to the management of captured foreign fighters, Western governments are leaving us all vulnerable to the re-emergence of a stronger and more wide-spread ISIS presence.”
The report argues inaction from Western governments in adequately dealing with ISIS detainees in Syria and Iraq, coupled with a worsening humanitarian situation, offers an ideal breeding ground for a revival of the terrorist caliphate.
As such, it posed a far greater long-term strategic risk to countries in the West, they say in their paper, which is published in the IISS 2020 Armed Conflict Survey.
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An estimated 40,000 foreign fighters joined the caliphate over the last six years, including nearly 5,000 European citizens.
Far from returning to their countries of origin after the fall of the last ISIS-held territory in 2019, the vast majority have either stayed in the region or relocated to areas of growing ISIS influence around the world.
Even though it no longer exists as a ‘state’, ISIS remains a robust terrorist organisation, Dr Milan argues in his paper.
Since mid-2019 ISIS has led targeted recruitment and re-distribution of jihadis into conflict zones in other countries from Libya to the Philippines.
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These ‘relocators’ allow ISIS to evade direct confrontation while strengthening their operations across the world.
Areas currently being targeted in Asia include regions beset by political instability, such as smuggling routes across the Afghanistan–Pakistan border.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, at least 100 new foreign fighters having joined ISIS militias in the Philippines following a siege in 2017 which put the country on the jihadist map.
Indonesia and Malaysia are also becoming priority relocation destinations.
Additionally, the mobilisation of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria has not stopped – the most recent estimates from 2019 suggesting up to 3,000 foreign fighters out of between 14,000 and 18,000 present in the region.
About 10,000 of these, including the wives and children of jihadis, are currently detained under poor conditions in makeshift prisons.
The report’s authors argue the situation has the potential to exacerbate existing grievances and therefore breed a new generation of ISIS militants, especially since political tensions which have raged in Iraq since October 2018 offer breathing space for ISIS’s insurgency as well as its re-emergence as a state actor.
The paper warns that, despite appeals from the UN, Western governments are avoiding taking charge of the repatriation, trial, detention and eventual reintegration of ISIS affiliates who are citizens of their countries.
Specifically, despite having one of the largest foreign-fighter contingents in Europe and between 250 and 300 captured foreign fighters held in Syria, the UK is pursuing a ‘not-in-my-backyard’ policy by stripping prisoners of their British citizenship but otherwise not dealing with them, the report says.
Some countries have used national laws to try to convict ISIS fighters, but faced major difficulties in finding evidence.
The authors also say the region has seen increased instability as a result of the withdrawal of all US military forces from northern Syria in October 2019, and the subsequent incursion of Turkish forces into Syrian Army territories.
As a result, inadequately guarded detention facilities have seen the escape of an unspecified number of ISIS fighters, with at least 76 jihadists having joined Turkey-backed Syrian militias operating in northern Syria.
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