Daesh’s message continues to reach region’s disaffected youths
The death of Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi over the weekend was a milestone in the fight against the terror group. The Global Coalition Against Daesh has succeeded in liberating the territories it captured and destroying the trappings of its state. It has also captured or killed some of its most prominent leaders. But these achievements have not removed the threat posed by Daesh or ended its appeal among the youths of Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
Daesh has maintained a large and lethal capacity, as a Pentagon report published in August stated: “Despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ (Daesh) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria.” Deputy Inspector-General of the anti-Daesh operation Glenn Fine attributed this resurgence to the reduction earlier this year of US forces, which “decreased the support available for Syrian partner forces at a time when their forces need more training and equipping to respond to the (Daesh) resurgence.”
During the height of the campaign to dislodge Daesh from its Syrian strongholds, the US had about 3,000 troops in Syria, but that number has since dwindled to just a small fraction of that total. With the recent further withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria, it will likely be easier for Daesh to regroup in that area. The Turkish incursion into that region and the subsequent redeployment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have already enabled Daesh to carry out a number of violent operations there.
Reports from the US, UN Security Council and other organizations estimate there are still about 30,000 Daesh fighters in Iraq and Syria. Although there has been an overall decrease in violence since Daesh’s territorial defeat, its fighters are still present, acting in small cells and continuing to plant explosives and carry out kidnappings and other terrorist attacks. Despite the damage to Daesh’s “state” structures, it remains a formidable terrorist organization with functioning security and financial infrastructures.
While the flow of fighters from abroad has effectively stopped, the number of local fighters is still a major threat. In addition, the previously expected return of foreign fighters to their home countries is not taking place at the magnitude previously expected. Some have remained underground and are ready to engage in terror activities. Thousands have been kept in camps run by local governments or militias. Some foreign fighters who have been denied readmission into their home countries have gone to troubled areas or ungoverned spaces in Libya, Yemen, Nigeria or elsewhere.
So while the death of Al-Baghdadi may temporarily lead to defections from Daesh, there are many other factors that could lead to an increase in the number of Daesh fighters. Let us consider some of those factors.
First, the volatility of US policy could cause Daesh to wait out Washington, especially after its abandonment of the SDF. Daesh is again making its presence felt in northeastern Syria and may be getting ready to make a major attack once all the US troops have left.
Second, Iran’s presence in Syria and Iraq is an effective recruitment tool for Daesh. The presence of Iran-supported militias and their horrific sectarian crimes have been rallying cries for the terror group in both countries.
Third, the fact that some countries have refused to take back their nationals is effectively creating a stateless group of seasoned fighters who, along with their families, have nowhere to go. So they stay and fight, providing Daesh with a dedicated fighting capacity.
Fourth, the Turkish incursion in northeastern Syria and attacks against the SDF, Daesh’s sworn enemy, have enabled it to make some inroads back into that region.
Fifth, the prison camps that host captured Daesh fighters have become breeding grounds for radicalization and simmering resentment, making it easier for the group to recruit.
Sixth is the chaos and violence in Iraq. The promised stabilization programs have not materialized and the failure to provide security or basic government services has helped Daesh retain its hold on its fighters.
Seventh, the sheer violence of Syria’s Assad regime and its refusal to restart the political process to implement UN Security Council resolution 2254, which calls for a transitional government to organize fair and free elections, have created hopelessness and despair. Together with a lack of services and the displacement of half of Syria’s population, this situation has maintained Daesh’s appeal with some desperate youths.
Eighth is the failure of the Global Coalition Against Daesh to effectively counter Daesh messaging. The coalition is essentially a military construct that destroyed Daesh’s infrastructure and its organized troops, but it has otherwise failed. It has not been able to go after Daesh fighters who morphed into smaller urban guerrilla outfits; its communication enterprise has been ineffective compared to its military efforts; and it has not been able to significantly reduce Daesh’s appeal or debunk its message.
Despite the damage to Daesh’s ‘state’ structures, it remains a formidable terrorist organization.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
For these reasons, Daesh may appear to be here to stay, unless there are changes in the way the campaign against the terror group is conducted.
I will address one change only: That of countering Daesh’s ideology. The global coalition could learn from the specialized centers that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have set up over the past decade, focusing solely on debunking terrorist ideologies and countering their messages. This week, the GCC is hosting a two-day meeting of 12 of these centers to share knowledge and best practices. Practitioners from the centers will discuss the lessons they have learned while combating terrorist discourse. Some have established effective methods for rehabilitating returning terrorists.
The success of GCC efforts can be seen in the drastic reduction in the number of terrorist acts within their borders and the noticeable fall in the number of their citizens joining Daesh or other foreign terrorist groups.
The tried and tested methods of the GCC’s countering violent extremism centers could be deployed to deal with Daesh’s lingering appeal to desperate youths in Iraq and Syria.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1