By David Otto
February 22, 2019
After Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spoke at Mosul’s Great Mosque of al-Nuri in mid-2014, proclaiming himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ and the areas under his group’s control in Iraq and Syria a reborn Caliphate, the terrorist group attracted thousands of foreign jihadist fighters (FJFs) from across the globe, many of whom came with their families.
ISIS, known in the region by its Arabic acronym Daesh, has now lost control of most of its so-called Caliphate, with only a few pockets of territory remaining under its control around the village of Baghouz in Deir al-Zor Province in eastern Syria. Baghouz is held by a small number of die-hard Daesh loyalists, whose resistance will soon crumble under the pressure of Kurdish ground forces and airstrikes by the US-led coalition, according to US President Donald Trump.
The question of what to do with hundreds of captured FJFs with European nationality is a subject of intense debate in the global media. But it appears the impact of releasing captured African FJFs, who might return to a continent that is more vulnerable and exposed to threats than Europe, due to African states’ more limited technical and structural capabilities, has been ignored. A returning foreign fighter (RFF) flow risks greater instability in Africa itself, already a zone that stands out as fertile ground for both Daesh and Al-Qaeda jihadists, and beyond.
At the peak expansion of Daesh’s so-called Caliphate, many EU and African states did not do enough to prevent their most vulnerable citizens from accessing Daesh’s online propaganda materials, nor to interrupt more traditional face-to-face recruitment tactics. Radicalized individuals and their families were able to make the journey to the Levant to join Daesh, becoming fighters, brides, or ideological and religious missionaries. In some instances, notably in the case of Russia, state entities not only looked the other way, but encouraged young people who showed signs of extremism and support for Daesh’s twisted ideology to travel to areas controlled by the terrorists. These states hoped this would be a one-way journey that eliminated a domestic security challenge.
The belief that those who travelled to live in Daesh’s so-called Caliphate would not want to come back, or would die there, was common within many governments. This belief was not unfounded: the feared flood of RFFs and their families as the Daesh statelet collapsed did not materialize, and many other FJFs have been killed. Even where FJFs have survived, many of them remain in the area, some within the borders of the ruined ‘Caliphate’ and others displaced, either acting as sleeper cells and insurgents, or captured by the Western-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The states in Europe and Africa that ‘exported’ the FJFs now face the unenviable task of preparing to repatriate their radicalized, battle-hardened citizens from the makeshift SDF prisons.
As a result of the ‘war on terror’ against Daesh’s core in Iraq and Syria, it is estimated that more than 800 European FJFs have been taken into custody by the SDF. This figure does not include the Daesh FJFs still engaged in guerrilla operations against the various governing authorities in Syria and Iraq. It also does not include more than 700 ‘jihadist brides’ and 1,500 young children who travelled to the so-called Caliphate and are now living in squalid camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).
What Happens to FJFs and Their Families
US President Donald Trump has indicated that US and coalition forces will soon liberate the last Daesh-held territory, and thereafter he plans to rapidly withdraw American ‘boots on ground’ and many other physical resources in the region. He has called on EU states and indirectly others to take responsibility for their citizens who joined Daesh and now sit in SDF prisons.
Holding FJFs is straining US and SDF resources in Syria. As this pressure grows on the US and SDF, and other nations are not meeting expectations on burden-sharing, Trump has hinted that there is a potential risk the hardcore, trained, and experienced jihadist ideologues will be released. In a similar manner, to try to compel EU, African, and other states to get their acts together, the SDF has stated that it cannot retain control of captured FJFs indefinitely and is seriously concerned that the jihadists will escape the camps and move abroad.
What Should African States Do With Their Share of Captured Jihadists?
The prospect of bringing home hardcore and potentially dangerous FJFs, along with their indoctrinated brides and innocent children, is a hot public and governmental debate in Europe as the legal reality hits home that Daesh FJFs and their families are the responsibility of their countries of origin, particularly so in cases where the FJFs are not dual nationals and thus cannot be stripped of citizenship if it will render them stateless.
As European nations proactively debate what measures to put in place as each country is called upon to take back ideologically toxic and potentially dangerous citizens who travelled to join Daesh, African countries are going through the same experience. Thousands of Africans joined the so-called Caliphate and are now held by the SDF.
The SDF has said it will not release Daesh prisoners in Syria, even as it says it cannot cope with this problem alone and calls on European and other governments to collect their citizens. The governments of Iraq is also unlikely to handle the FJF issue for foreign governments, even though much of their terrorist and criminal behavior was committed on Iraqi soil.
The African Union commissioner for peace and security has warned that with the collapse of Daesh’s twin ‘capitals’, Raqqa and Mosul, and the imminent demise of the last shreds of its so-called Caliphate, 6,000 Africans could become RFFs, and this figure is possibly an underestimate. There are lines of communication between Syria and Libya, and if the African RFFs can make it to Libya there are then porous borders stretching into the Sahel, Lake Chad, and Central Africa.
Africa has long been plagued by political instability. Warlords and other armed groups pose serious challenges to government authority in Libya and to a lesser extent in Tunisia and Egypt. There is a growing nexus between Al-Qaeda jihadists and organized criminal elements in the Islamic Maghreb, from Algeria to Burkina Faso and Mali. Al-Qaeda’s Al-Shabaab and Daesh are active in Somalia, Kenya, and other East African States. Religious, ethnic, and political struggles, some of them secessionist in nature, afflict Central African states such as the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cameroon, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. Despite a split in the Daesh movement operating in West Africa and the Chad Basin, the two affiliates, Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP), continue to terrorize Nigeria, northern Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Benin.
The resource-rich African continent, therefore, is host to some of the most active Daesh and Al-Qaeda jihadists and some of the most dangerous organized crime syndicates in the world. The nexus of these two forces compounds the danger. Yet, most African states score poorly when it comes to the political will to prioritize long-term national peace and security strategies. This is made worse by severe corruption at all levels of the state, creating ungoverned and uncontrolled spaces.
When it comes to FJFs and their families, most African states have under-resourced criminal justice systems, which would struggle to effectively investigate and prosecute RFFs. These states lack an effective national security and counter-terrorism structural framework and the infrastructure of regional coordination and collaboration capabilities that would be needed to deal with an RFF problem on this scale.
These lapses in state capacity make Africa a high-risk environment for the dumping of FJFs. African countries are unprepared, both technically and politically, to deal effectively with their share of the captured hardcore FJFs and their families.
Every sovereign state has the full responsibility to take care of its citizens, within and outside its borders. In Africa, mismanagement of state resources, lack of opportunity, and an ineffective border control system stand out as key factors in allowing for jihadi recruitment. The African continent is fertile ground for Daesh and Al-Qaeda operatives, whether seeking refuge or planning and executing attacks against their sworn enemies. Addressing these issues would make Africa a less ideal choice for RFFs.
For states to tackle homegrown jihadism, both internally and those who return from foreign conflicts, they require a robust, non-corrupt criminal justice system. There is a need to create public awareness about the dangers of radicalism in order to try to prevent people being drawn into groups like Daesh, and to establish programs for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of those individuals who are drawn into such groups. These programs can be backed by technical support from outside, but they must be based on the local context and dynamics to be sustainable over the long term.
Fighting global terrorism and organized crime is most effective when it is intelligence-led, when the measures adopted are proportionate, when there is effective communication, and when information, practice, and challenges are shared appropriately between local, regional, national, and international stakeholders, who are working for a common goal.
Daesh and Al Qaeda jihadist groups in Africa continue to create instability, damaging the continent’s prospects for socio-economic development. These groups exploit this fragile environment they help create, while benefitting from the return of experienced FJFs from other battlefields. Terrorists take advantage of security lapses on the continent to regroup, and to plan and launch attacks, against local governments and Western interests.
Africa should take its share of responsibility for the ‘war on terror’. Developing equitable regional capacity against terrorism benefits the entire international community, including the big players – the US, UK, China, and Russia – who have at times undermined African security. The moment for stakeholders to find effective measures to deal with RFFs is here; it should not be delayed until the SDF runs out of patience and starts to expel angry, hardcore FJFs from its jails, letting them make their own haphazard way home.
The important power balances in the 21st century go beyond conventional warfare. A sovereign state that cannot secure the territory within its boundaries, build ideological and physical resilience against the asymmetric threats of the Daesh and Al-Qaeda type, and maintain internal peace and order for its citizens should consider “closing shop”.