Battlefield defeat doesn’t mean ISIS has gone away
It has practically been crushed on the battlefield but the extremist group that grandly called itself Islamic State still poses a grave threat to the region and to the world.
Most of the group’s fighters in Iraq and Syria are on the run or confined to pockets such as Qadam, the district near Damascus from which they drove out Syrian Army units just days ago. However, from these tiny footholds, the Islamic State (ISIS) continues to carry out guerrilla attacks.
ISIS is also looking for refuge outside the Levant with perhaps one-tenth of its fighters having left the region. Some of them are trying to sneak back into their countries of origin.
Disparate governments, not least those within the anti-ISIS coalition, are faced with the dilemma of how to deal with former fighters. Even in the best of circumstances, it is not easy to reverse radicalisation. Detention centres in Syria and Iraq may not be the best places to try and may enhance the risk of the militants forging alliances with other detainees, promoting further radicalisation and mobilising them to fight another day.
For Iraq, there is the memory of Camp Bucca prison in which US troops held Iraqi militants after the 2003 invasion. Camp Bucca is infamous as the birthplace of ISIS. It was there that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi worked for five years to recruit and organise the leadership and rank and file of his new group. “We will never allow Bucca to happen again,” vowed an Iraqi Interior Ministry officer in Mosul.
Nasiriya Central Prison, 320km south-east of Baghdad, has about 6,000 jihadist detainees. It is grossly overcrowded and insufficiently supervised. This enables committed ISIS fighters to propagate their ideology and take charge of other detainees.
There is no easy answer to the question of dealing with detained jihadists. The Iraqi official in Mosul suggested they should “all receive the death penalty.” Some Western governments, in fact, stated the view that it would be better if their jihadist nationals died in Syria or Iraq. This is why human rights groups expressed alarm at the expeditious death sentences.
Whatever fate befalls the detainees, ISIS’s ideology remains a clear and present danger to regional peace and security, as well as to impressionable young people.
The factors that drive youth towards ISIS’s perverted ideology have not gone away, whether it’s a misconstrued idea of religion, sectarian divides, the lack of educational and economic opportunity or a sense of injustice — real or perceived.
Fighting the group’s lethal pitch is bound to be the trickiest aspect of the war on ISIS.