Islamic State (IS) claimed the responsibility of the Holey Artisan terror attack on on 1 July 2016. The Bangladesh government, however, rejected the claim. At the time, IS had established a so-called state in a large area and carried out terrorist activities across the world.
Security analysts and policymakers have no easy and specific answer as to what IS leadership and its followers would do in future after three years of its fall in Baghuz, a small village near the border of Syria and Iraq. What will be the form of world terrorist activities in the days ahead and what ways would be taken up to tackle it? Security analysts of the region should concentrate as to how much IS will give priority to South Asia as part of its strategy in global terrorist activities.
IS led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi is not a lone global terror organisation. But this organisation used to control an area similar to Britain in size and it surpassed all in killing and brutality. It built a state. It took over four years to militarily defeat this organisation. So the future activities of this organisation and its followers are important in any consideration. In the consideration of human resources, such a big organisation did not grow in the past. It is presumed that the number of IS fighters were around 4,000 in 2014. The number increased in the following years. In operating their so-called state in 2018, around 200,000 people were involved in various activities including intelligence activities, internal discipline, tax collection and other administrative functions. Out of the region, several hundred people worked for publicity and propaganda.
International intelligence agencies, security analysts and the media have estimations as to how many people around the world joined IS as fighters. Citizens of at least 85 countries have been identified. While retrieving different bases of IS, documents were recovered. According to the documents, the number of foreign fighters stands between 30,000 and 40,000.
According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 13 per cent of the foreign fighters were women. In a study by International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism in 2017, IS had three women battalions. One of these was foreign. It was formed with women from Europe. It was called the Al-Khansaa Brigade. A study of London Kings College said 13 per cent of those, who joined IS as fighters, can be identified as minors.
Why did so many people from different countries go to the so-called ‘Islamic State’? What was their inspiration? According to a section of former IS fighters, religion was their inspiration.
At the beginning, many went there at the call of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Harvard University researcher Vera Mironova shows that people joined IS for three reasons. These are: finance, discontent over Middle East politics and situation and grievances of the people against their respective governments. Mironova has written that foreign fighters had two grievances. One is the abuse of power by the law enforcers and other is corruption. But they had no scope to publicly protest against this. (Who are the IS people? Perspective on Terrorism, February 2019)
Those who joined for finance came from Syria and Iraq. Efraim Benmelech and Esteban Clores in a research report said that they did not get any evidence that a foreigner joined IS out of poverty. (What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS? Terrorism and Political Violence, October 2018). Those who joined as fighters are ideologically followers of IS.
In mid of 2018 when the fall of IS was imminent, many of the fighters returned to their home countries or went to other places. Local fighters started to surrender since February. After the IS occupied areas were freed, many fighters mixed with the local people. The number of these people is 30,000, according to an editorial of USA Today published on 26 March 2019. In some cases, SDF made an arrangement that tribal people will help rehabilitate the fighters. Journalist Robin Wright in a report described his experience of visiting such a rehabilitation camp. (The New Yorker 16 April 2019). It cannot be said that all of these efforts are positive. Many of them still mentally support the ideology of IS.
There were Bangladeshi citizens among the foreign IS fighters. The number was at least 40,000 in 2014-15. Many joined later. Some of them were killed at different times. After the recent fall of Baghuz, at least nine Bangladeshis surrendered to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or were arrested. Saifullah Ozaki, Junayed Hasan and Tahmid Shafi are among them. Ozaki was the chief recruiter of IS in Bangladesh.
Extremist supporters and fighters of IS fought to the last in Baghuz. SDF has already identified at least 1000 foreign fighters and sent them to jail. Around 70,000 people, who lived in Baghuz, are in the SDF and US-run camp Al-Hall located in Rojava. There are 11,000-12,000 women and 3,000 children in this camp. Male members of these families were killed in the battle. Female members went there from different countries. It is presumed that many of them were active fighters.
What is their future, nobody knows. No country is willing to take back their nationals who have already been identified as fighters. Many of these detained peopled were brought to trial in Iraq, but those trials have already been turned into farce. Meanwhile, at least 100 people were sentenced to death or given long-term jailed sentences. The courts in Iraq recently sentenced 15 French citizens, but the French government did not question the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts. United Nations human rights affairs top official Michelle Bachelet recently said those detained in camps should be brought to trial soon or be released. Many have raised questions whether the detained people would be turn to violence.
We should keep in mind that radicalisation in the jail was one of the reasons behind the rise of IS. The base of IS started to grow when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was in Al Buka jail in Iraq for nine months in 2004.
Meanwhile, it has been learnt that those who are in the camps are trying to regroup and women are playing the key role in this.
The IS and its global terror activities will be determined by the future role of those IS fighters and supporters who returned to their home countries, who are in the jail or in camp, who are not getting any justice due to lack of initiative globally and who are taking shelter in other places after failing to return to their home countries.
It is not just individual action, but the organisational steps that indicate the future of IS. It is assumed that Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has left after the fall in Baghuz and is somewhere in Iraq. Though a video message, Baghdadi not only confirmed his existence but also boosted the morale of IS members and supporters. US Senate National Intelligence director Daniel Coats published the compiled reports of intelligence agencies on 19 April. According to the report, IS has already built eight branches and 12 networks. IS supporters in Syria and Iraq are trying to regroup and resume fighting.
It has already been exposed that IS has turned its attention to South Asia. Baghdadi in his video message on 21 April mentioned the attack on Sri Lanka on 21 April. Many, however, doubt whether IS carried out that attack. Once the entire South Asia was included in the Khorasan province. But on 10 May and 15 May, IS has declared India and Pakistan as separate provinces.
IS issued statements claiming the responsibility of small scale attacks on India-controlled Kashmir. The direct presence of IS in this region is noted in Afghanistan. Many IS fighters from Syria and Iraq have gone to Afghanistan and carried out attacks. The presence of IS in Nangarhar, Nuristan and Kunar of Afghanistan was reported by the media.
The incidents hint that the IS Khilafat has fallen geographically. However, it will take a long time to defeat IS as an ideology.
* Ali Riaz is professor at the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University in the US. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.