Islamic State terrorist group is preparing to rise once again
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- Islamic State ISIS is an Islamic extremist terrorist organization controlling territory in Iraq...[+]
As a UK court rules to allow Shamima Begum to return and fight a decision to revoke her British citizenship, Foreign Editor David Pratt takes a wider look at the threat still posed by the Islamic State group with which she was associated
The grainy CCTV images have been shown and reproduced countless times on television and in newspapers across the world. It was over five years ago now when those pictures were captured and three east London schoolgirls, who were subsequently dubbed the “Bethnal Green trio”, were thrust into the media headlines.
The eldest, Kadiza Sultana, was 16 years old at the time, the other two girls Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were only a little younger, both 15.
From Gatwick Airport to a bus station in western Istanbul in Turkey, the images caught the girls during their 17-hour trip en route to Syria’s warzone and the ranks of the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group.
Today the story of what happened to those girls in the five intervening years since then serves as a stark reminder of the shadowy and violent Islamist extremist world that continues to pose a threat today.
As far as can be ascertained, Kadiza Sultan was reportedly killed in an air strike on the IS stronghold of Raqqa back in 2016. The whereabouts of Amira Abase, meanwhile, remains unknown.
Only Shamima Begum, born in the UK to parents of Bangladeshi heritage and now 20, continues to make the headlines, as she did again last week after the UK Court of Appeal ruled that she should be allowed to return to Britain to fight the previous decision by the Home Office to revoke her citizenship.
To say it was a controversial decision would be an understatement. But then Begum’s case is one that has polarised both public and political opinion, and doubtless will continue to do so.
For its part the Home Office said the court’s decision was “very disappointing” and that it would “apply for permission to appeal”.
But putting Begum’s individual case aside for a moment, the thorny issue of what should be done about the thousands of other foreign jihadi terrorists, their wives and children still languishing in Kurdish-controlled detention camps in northern Syria, remains a cause for international concern.
Likewise the threat posed by those IS cadres still at large has not gone away, with experts warning that many groups are regalvanising while the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
According to research conducted by the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London in collaboration with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), it is estimated that some 40,000 foreign fighters joined IS’s self-proclaimed caliphate over the past six years, including almost 5,000 European citizens.
Far from returning to their countries of origin after the fall of the last IS-held territory in 2019, the vast majority have remained in the region or relocated to areas of growing IS influence around the world.
Researchers warn that the mobilisation of foreign fighters has not stopped, with the most recent estimates from 2019 suggesting up to 3,000 foreign fighters out of between 14,000 and 18,000 are still present in the region.
Currently there also many women and children previously associated with the IS caliphate – like Shamima Begum – being held in northern Syria in camps controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mostly Kurdish militia that “defeated” the jihadist group with the backing of the US, UK, and other members of the international coalition.
It was in one of these, Camp Roj, that Begum, who lived under IS rule for more than three years, was found in February last year. Subsequently moved to another facility known as al-Hol camp while nine months pregnant, Begum’s baby later died of pneumonia, the third of three children she has spoken of losing.
The al-Hol camp is the region’s largest, with some 67,000 people living there cheek by jowl. Those women and children inside the al-Hol camp annex are among nearly 14,000 foreigners from more than 60 countries being held in northeastern Syria due to suspected IS links. Some 30,000 Iraqis also live in a separate, larger section of the camp.
According to The Washington Post, which cited aid workers and other officials in touch with the women held in the al-Hol annex, it was on June 10 last month that the authorities said it had begun registering the foreign inhabitants of what it called “the most dangerous camp in the world,” almost a year-and-a-half after they first arrived. The registration attempt last month was said to be part of an effort to streamline the camp’s administration, by creating a comprehensive list of who is actually held there. But it came at a time when concerns are growing over the dozens of women who have reportedly vanished from the camp.
According to Anne Speckhard, director of the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), a steady stream of escapes by women has taken place from camps like al-Hol since the autumn of 2019 when President Donald Trump pulled back US special operations forces in the region.
Smugglers, according to a number of sources, are reportedly often charging tens of thousand of dollars to help these women escape and flee.
Writing recently on the US Homeland Security Today website, Speckhard cites the case of one Swedish and three Finnish women with links to IS who paid smugglers to facilitate their escape out of the al-Hol camp. In this instance these were women, says Speckhard, who were so desperate to come home with their children that they put their lives into the hands of smugglers.
According to research by ICSVE, the going price for smuggling out of al-Hol runs from $10,500 to $100,000, with the higher price ensuring a safer journey.
Monitoring of social media by ICSVE where IS women discuss the costs of being smuggled out of the camp found far lower prices for bribes to local guards and payments to smugglers. These amounts range from $3,000 to $4,500 per person six months ago with today’s rates being closer to $7,500. Much of the money generated for such payments is reported to be raised through shadowy online campaigns and contributors.
The Swedish and Finnish cases, Speckhard says, are those that are known about and represent some women who have grown weary, afraid and disillusioned with IS. However, others who have escaped do not necessarily fit this profile and with their whereabouts unknown remain an obvious cause for concern among the security services of various countries.
“One worrisome case is that of Hayat Boumedienne, whose partner Amedy Coulibaly was one of the perpetrators of the horrific January 2015 attacks in Paris, France,” Speckhard says, adding that Boumedienne is one of 13 French female jihadists who have escaped from al-Hol and Ain Issa camps and remain on the loose.
Speckhard’s unease over those who have vanished is shared by Jean-Charles Brisard, co-founder of the Paris-based Terrorism Analysis Centre.
According to Brisard, the number of French IS female escapees from camps in northeast Syria amounts to 10% of the French women detained in Syria, a not insignificant tally.
Just as concern grows over those women linked to IS currently held in detention or on the loose, so too are analysts closely watching the situation regarding male fighters in detention. Among the thousands of IS foreign combatants currently locked up in prison are many high-ranking IS leaders.
Just two months ago a quarterly US government report warned that there remains the “high-impact risk of a mass breakout” of IS prisoners from detention camps in Syria.
The quarterly Inspector General report, covering January through to March of this year, provides the US congress with an update on the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria, using information from the Defence Department, State Department, and US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Barely a year after the final territory controlled by IS was retaken, the report says that IS prisoners pose “one of the most significant risks to the success of the (defeat-IS) mission”.
This danger was underlined in March when IS combatants locked up at Hassakeh jail in northern Syria staged a prison riot, temporarily bringing the jail’s ground floor under their control. The riot also reinforced the arguments put forward by the Kurds who for a long time now have called for international support in guarding former IS combatants, or for them to be repatriated.
Around the time of the Hassakeh riot, US General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) called the Kurdish-led coalition’s efforts to train and equip prison guards and construct prison structures “a tactical-level Band-Aid, not a long-term solution”.
“Military solutions do not exist for the issues of deradicalisation and repatriation of (foreign terrorist fighters),” McKenzie told the US Congress. “They are international problems requiring international solutions.”
Many agree, highlighting the fact there also remains very acute external threats to the integrity of the camps. They point out that any assault by Syrian regime forces, Turkish-backed rebels, or IS sleeper cells on the Kurdish-led coalition positions could see camp guards redeployed to battlefronts, leaving the camps unguarded.
This, too, before the onset of coronavirus, which has raised the dangers and stakes even further. Reports at the time of the March riots at Hassakeh prison by the Kurdish Rojava Information Centre (RIC) suggest it was sparked by inmates’ fear of contracting Covid-19.
Meanwhile, outside of the camps and prions holding IS combatants, the jihadist group’s propaganda newsletter al-Naba has celebrated that its enemies are growing fearful of the pandemic. Bulletins are often to be found urging attacks on its adversaries amid the crisis, and calls for inmates to be freed from prisons and camps.
As the international community focuses its attention on combating the virus, there are signs IS are keen to take further advantage while such a distraction prevails.
According to the recent joint King’s College London and International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) research, the vast majority of fighters still at large after the fall of the last IS-held territory in 2019 have remained in the region or relocated to areas of growing IS influence around the world.
“Despite government’s concerns, numbers of IS foreign fighters returning home and engaging with violent extremism remains relatively low,” says Dr Francesco Milan, lecturer in the Department of Defence Studies at King’s College London. “Of far greater risk is the growing threat from IS in both its former stronghold in Iraq and Syria, and in terrorist zones around the world.”
As one of the contributors to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Armed Conflict Survey 2020, Milan warns that inaction from Western governments in dealing with IS detainees in Syria and Iraq, and a worsening humanitarian situation, provides a perfect breeding ground for a revival of the terrorist caliphate and “poses a far greater long-term strategic risk to countries in the West”.
Many analysts concur, stressing that while IS might no longer exist as a “state”, it remains a formidable terrorist organisation. From Syria and Iraq its members have been decanting to other vulnerable and unstable places like Libya and Afghanistan, in some cases creating a presence that has shifted the internal dynamics of conflicts in such places.
These “relocators” enable IS to evade direct confrontation and to strengthen their operations across the world. In other words, IS’s threat to the West remains very real and has done so ever since its “last stand” at the Syrian town of Baghouz in March 2019 and the death of its former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
As the group continues to thrive in various parts of the world, here in Europe there was a reminder of the threat it still poses after German police arrested five IS suspects in April said to be planning attacks on US bases. Some reports suggest the suspects had not only pledged allegiance to IS but were in touch with senior operatives.
Last week, with the UK Court of Appeal ruling allowing Shamima Begum to return to Britain and fight the decision to revoke her citizenship, IS found itself back in the headlines.
It has been five years since Begum and her two teenage friends, popular straight-A students at the Bethnal Green Academy in east London, began their journey to join IS.
In the intervening years much has happened and in a world preoccupied with fighting Covid-19, it’s all too easy to forget that other threats of a different kind lurk around the globe. IS and its terrorist cadre is one of them and few doubt we have heard the last from them.
Source: Herald Scotland