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Daesh must never be allowed to regroup

Aug 06,2019 - Last updated at Aug 06,2019

Five months after the last Daesh stronghold in Syria was overrun by US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), there are worrying signs that fighters belonging to the now-defunct, self-proclaimed caliphate are regrouping. The US envoy to the international coalition fighting Daesh, James Jeffrey, told reporters in Washington last week that thousands of the extremist organisation’s members are scattered around Syria and Iraq, adding that they remain a global threat.

US State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales also told reporters that “Daesh branches and networks now span the African continent from east to west and north to south”. He claimed that roughly 1,200 Daesh fighters are now in Europe, with more trying to cross borders. He warned that while Daesh had taken on much of the world’s focus, Al Qaida had rebuilt itself and is as strong as ever.

Coinciding with these statements, a UN report by specialists released last week warned that a recent pause in international terrorist violence may soon end, with a new wave of attacks possible before the end of the year. It pointed to the fact that many of the estimated 30,000 foreign fighters who travelled to the “caliphate” to fight may still be alive.

The report, which is based on information supplied by intelligence agencies of UN member states, concluded that “some may join Al Qaida or other terrorist brands that may emerge”, adding that that the threat from Daesh and Al Qaida, or similar groups, is unlikely to decline further. The report warned that the threat to Europe remains high.

Last week, militants belonging to Daesh launched an attack in Iraq’s Salahuddin province for the first time since the group was defeated in 2017. Also earlier this month, Daesh claimed responsibility for a bloody suicide attack on a police station in Aden in Yemen, which killed 13 policemen. Daesh is active in Afghanistan, according to various reports.

This is not the time for complacency. The 80-member anti-Daesh international coalition must mobilise to make sure that Daesh, or any other extremist group, does not regroup or dig roots in the region and beyond. One area where international cooperation is urgently required is in Syria, a country still embroiled in civil war and where a number of state and non-state actors are vying for control. There are literally thousands of foreign fighters and their families in make-shift prisons awaiting repatriation. With minimum oversight of these incarceration centres, the possibility of some fighters finding their way back into the open desert is high.

Daesh emerged out of the chaos and vacuum that plagued Syria and Iraq following 2011. It took massive international and regional military and intelligence resources to defeat the group. But the fall of the so-called caliphate never meant that the dark dogma that the group espoused had gone away. And while the world was busy fighting Daesh, other extremist groups, especially Al Qaeda was regrouping in Yemen, North Africa, the African Sahara and others.

Lack of international cooperation and absence of a new strategy will only help these groups expand and reorganise. Last week, US President Donald Trump underlined the lack of coordination with Europe when he declared that “we have thousands of Daesh fighters that we want Europe to take and let’s see if they take them. And if they don’t take them, we’ll probably have to release them to Europe”.

What is needed at this stage goes beyond military and intelligence cooperation. The nefarious extremist dogma that these groups embrace and promote continues to challenge governments as they try to deal with youth radicalisation. The world, especially this region, cannot afford to let a new wave of religious militancy emerge. The level of destruction that Daesh has caused in both Iraq and Syria goes beyond the massive loss of life and the destruction of cities and national treasures. It had dealt a heavy blow to the diverse ethnic, cultural and religious fabric of the region; a calamity which will take us decades to recover from.

While Europe must rise to the challenge and face its responsibility by reclaiming thousands of foreign fighters being held in Syria and Iraq, the international community as a whole must focus its efforts on bringing stability to countries where civil wars and ethnic and sectarian tensions provide a fertile ground for extremist groups. These include Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen.

It is a tall order, and for some it may appear impossible to achieve. But the price of failing to do nothing or little is hefty. Our region had become a battleground for religious militancy, and Muslims had been its main victims. The challenge for our leaders is to make sure that our youth is exposed to the values of tolerance, plurality of ideas and diversity. The dark chapter of Daesh and Al Qaeda must be closed forever.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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