Daesh: What happened to all the foreign fighters?

In this photo released on April 25, 2015 by a militant website, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, young boys known as the "caliphate cubs" hold rifles as they parade after graduating from a religious school in Tal Afar, near Mosul, northern Iraq. (AP)
Updated 17 December 2017
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Daesh: What happened to all the foreign fighters?

WASHINGTON: An estimated 40,000 people traveled from around the world to take up arms for Daesh as it occupied territory in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
A few hundred are believed to still be fighting as Daesh struggles to survive, having lost most of its territory to campaigns by Western-backed Syrian and Iraqi coalition armies.
But what happened to the rest?
Many thousands were certainly killed in the intense fighting, but US experts believe many have survived, posing a formidable threat going ahead.
“The issue is: How many have died? How many are still there and willing to fight? How many have gone elsewhere to fight?” said Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation.
“How many have given up? I don’t think we have a good answer.”
International counterterror groups are putting huge efforts into answering those questions, working hard to name, count and track Daesh foreign fighters.
In France, officials say, around 1,700 people went to Iraq and Syria since 2013 to join Daesh. Of those, 400 to 450 have been killed, and 250 returned to France.
Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Dec. 8 that about 500 are still in the Iraq-Syria theater, and for them it is now very hard to return to France.
But that leaves another 500 whose whereabouts are unknown, many of them with the skills of war, wielding weapons and making bombs.
Terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University estimated during a conference on Wednesday that “thousands” have escaped the war zone.
“Today, some of them are most likely in the Balkans, lying low for the time being, waiting for the opportunity to infiltrate themselves to the rest of Europe,” he said.
Some have traveled to other militant fronts, according to Thomas Sanderson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Transnational Threats Project.
For example, he said, at least 80 Daesh militants from Morocco, Russia and Yemen have joined since May the Daesh-allied Abu Sayyaf insurgents battling government forces in the southern Philippines.
Local people in the northern Afghanistan province of Jowzjan have told AFP that French-speaking Daesh veterans — from France or northern African countries — have recently set up camp there.
And they also have the option of other conflict zones in northern Africa, like Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere where militant groups akin to Daesh are conducting violent insurgencies.
The defeat of Daesh on the battlefield in Syria in Iraq did not close off escape routes. Daesh militants were able to blend in with civilian refugees or bribe their way to sneak into Turkey.
Many do not have much choice but to continue to fight: They never had a plan to return to their home countries, where they face imprisonment in most cases, according to Jones.
“For many, it was a one-way trip. They wanted to live in the caliphate, permanently. So we don’t see a major move back.”


Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

Nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted from their homes. AP
Updated 3 min 27 sec ago
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Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

  • Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
  • In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.