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‘Daesh remains a threat’

Nov 30,2017 - Last updated at Nov 30,2017

Last Friday’s massacre by a Daesh-affiliate of 305 civilians in a Sufi mosque in the Egyptian Sinai town of Bir Al Abed demonstrates, once again, that the cult remains alive and active although its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria has been destroyed.

The elimination of the cult’s vast cross-border territorial base is dispersing Daesh fighters across the region and the world.

Many remain committed to its brutal, puritanical ideology and determined to carry on its mission with violent attacks.

The massacre — the worst terrorist incident in modern Egyptian history — was conducted by 25-30 bearded, long-haired men dressed in camouflage uniforms who arrived in vehicles flying the black banner of Daesh.

While the identities of the attackers remain unknown, it is likely there could be foreign, non-Egyptian fighters among them.

Some of those escaping Syrian and Iraqi battlefields in recent months have made for Libya, from where they can easily cross into Egypt where they are operating in the western desert as well as the long, lawless North Sinai province.

North Sinai takfiris are said to number in the low thousands; the majority is recruited from among local bedouin, alienated by official discrimination, abuse and neglect.

At least one foreign fighter was captured after taking part in an attack that killed 16 police officers in October. Up to 20 vehicles carrying fighters, weapons and munitions were seized and destroyed early this month near the Libyan border.

Egyptian recruits cross the porous border with Libya, receive training along with fighters of other nationalities in Daesh camps, and return home. Other takfiris fan out across North Africa and move into Sub-Saharan Africa.

Salman Abadi, the Daesh recruit who killed 22 concertgoers in Manchester last May, was trained by and had assistance from cult supporters in Libya. Others who plotted operations elsewhere had advice and logistics assistance from Daesh, including the provision of material for bombs.

Some perpetrators issue pledges of allegiance to Daesh before staging suicide missions which have not directly involved the cult.

Since last spring when military pressure increased on Daesh’s pseudo-caliphate, hundreds of takfiri fighters and their families have crossed from Syria into Turkey. Although scores have been arrested by Turkish security, unknown numbers have transited Turkey en route to Europe. Their journeys have been along well-established smugglers’ routes which still have not been discovered and uprooted. These routes were developed in 2011-15 when thousands of fighters flowed the other way from Europe and the Caucasus through Turkey into Syria where Ankara was determined to overthrow the government of president Bashar Assad.

According to “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees”, a report issued by the authoritative US-based Soufan Centre, some 5,600 takfiris from 33 countries have gone home from Syria and Iraq over the past two years.

There are also returnees from other countries who have repatriated. Data seized in Daesh command centres identified 19,000 of 40,000 foreign recruits from 110 countries. A slim majority, however, remains unidentified and many, perhaps, are still committed to the Daesh cause. This makes them a greater threat than those who have been identified.

The Soufan Centre report states: “While returning foreign fighters have not yet added significantly to the threat of terrorism around the world, the number of attacks inspired or directed by [Daesh] continues to rise. All returnees, whatever their reason for going home, will continue to pose some degree of risk.”

The largest number of fighters, 3,417, came from the Russian Federation. So far, 400 have been documented as returning home. The second largest contingent is 3,244 Saudis, 760 of whom have gone home. The third largest group of recruits were from Jordan, with only 250 returning home.

The fourth and fifth largest numbers of recruits were from Tunisia (2,926) and France (1,910). Eight hundred Tunisians and 271 French citizens have repatriated.

The European Union, as a bloc, has the greatest number of returnees, 1,200 out of 5,000. These figures give serious cause for concern because the number of Daesh fighters who have not repatriated is far larger than the number of those who have gone home.

The Soufan report asserts: “States have not found a way to address the problem of Daesh returnees. Most are imprisoned, or disappear from view.”

Until the fall of Daesh-held Mosul, in Iraq, and Raqqa, in Syria, high-ranking US military officers expressed the view that Daesh fighters should be killed in battle. However, during the assault on Raqqa, the US permitted hundreds of Arab and foreign fighters to escape the city and disappear either into the desert or across the border into Turkey.

Governments have also failed to deal with returning women and children, many of whom have been radicalised and could carry out terrorist attacks in their countries of origin.

The Soufan report points out that it is “highly likely” the Daesh leadership will “look to supporters overseas, including returnees, to keep the brand alive”.

Daesh could be successful if returnees, in particular, “begin to feel as rootless and lacking in purpose” as they did before joining Daesh. Returning to “normal life” may be a challenge too great for them.

In addition to recruits who have joined battle in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, there are, reveals the Soufan report, at least 53,781 persons from 146 countries that, the Turkish authorities claim, intended to join the fight in Syria and Iraq but were halted while transiting through Turkish territory.

The report argues Daesh remains a threat precisely “because it has been so successful in attracting foreign recruits”, including in countries where the group uses social media and other means of securing volunteers.

Many have joined in reaction to “poor governance and social stagnation” in their homelands as well as “discrimination and injustice”.

Al Qaeda, Daesh’s chief competitor, also relies on these factors to win recruits, boosting the number of takfiris on the loose who might be prepared to undertake deadly and destructive operations around the world.

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