The Islamic State group is facing an exodus of foreign recruits who have grown disillusioned by the terror group’s failure to establish a legitimate state. But this news isn’t as good as it might initially sound, as experts warn that ISIS is now more dangerous than ever, and could use the departing supporters as a way to spread its message of terror in the West.
An investigation by the Guardian found that in recent weeks, dozens of people who travelled to Syria and Iraq to support the ISIS cause have fled the region, fed up with the group’s inability to hold on to territory.
While many have been captured as they try to cross the border into Turkey, an unknown number are thought to have successfully evaded the authorities. Embassies in Turkey and across Europe say an increasing number of ISIS operatives who have joined the group since 2013 are now seeking to return.
Among the more high-profile defectors are Briton Stefan Aristidou, from Enfield in north London, who went missing two years ago after flying to Cyprus. Last week he and his wife — a British woman of Bangladeshi heritage — surrendered at the Kilis crossing into Turkey.
U.S. citizen Kary Paul Kleman, from Florida, also surrendered to border police at the same time, after spending two years living in ISIS-controlled areas.
The worry now is that as more and more people flee the conflict, ISIS will use the defectors as cover to transport people still loyal to the caliphate out of Syria and into Europe. “ISIS now is even more dangerous, because it is a wounded animal,” Adam Deen, executive director of London-based counter-extremism think tank Quilliam, told VICE News.
As the caliphate crumbles in Iraq and Syria and they lose key battlegrounds, ISIS can no longer rely on being able to entice supporters to join them in their fight. “I think in the last 10 months or a year, they just haven’t been able to convince more of the foreigners that this is going to work out for them,” Renad Mansour, an expert in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, told VICE News.
Previously, the group has called on supporters to either join them in their Middle East caliphate or commit an act of terrorism where they lived. “Without that state, it only leaves one option,” Deen warned.
Those seeking to cross the border into Turkey can be organized into three categories, Deen says.
- The disillusioned: those who have realized the ISIS message is not all it was claimed to be
- The disturbed: those suffering from trauma akin to PTSD
- The dangerous: those who have not disavowed their beliefs but pretend to have done so
According to the Global Terrorism Index, which was published last November, up to 30,000 people from 100 countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS since 2011. Half of those came from North Africa, with up to a quarter coming from Europe and Turkey. The U.S. government estimates that as many as 25,000 of them have since been killed.
While it is easy to label all those travelling to support ISIS as “foreign fighters,” the reality is that many have never seen the front line of battle, with most simply wanting to go and live in the promised ISIS “caliphate.”
“Some of those called foreign fighters were really just people who were looking to be citizens of the state,” Mansour said. “Some of them went into social media, they were doing other things as citizens, as a government.” Aristidou was among them, admitting that he went there to settle rather than to fight, according to Turkish officials.
Unlike al-Qaeda, which recruited only foreign supporters who were willing to fight, and operated highly organized camps to train them, the quality of fighters ISIS attracted was not very high, Mansour said. “The main fighters on the front line were the Arabs — Iraqis and Syrians,” he added.
Despite their lack of fighting skills, foreign recruits were key in “internationalizing the group, making it a global product,” Mansour said.
One of the more well-known foreign recruits was Briton Mohammed Emwazi, thought to be the real identity of the man known around the world as Jihadi John. “He became almost some kind of celebrity speaking to the camera with his British accent, as he had more appeal than a local fighter,” Deen said. “Foreign fighters were instrumental in propaganda and also to commit terrorist attacks in western countries.”