The withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989 provoked a type of “dandelion effect” in regards to the dispersion of the foreign fighters who had traveled there to wage war against Russia. Some remained to fight the communist government of Afghanistan, while others went home or on to other distant battlefields. The war created a situation akin to the seed dispersal of a dandelion, casting the seeds of conflict in many directions. Groups like al-Qa’ida, Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) spawned from fighters who left Afghanistan. This concept of a dandelion effect may become relevant to the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they scatter across the world as their “caliphate” collapses.
ISIL is losing ground to a myriad of forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Iraqi Army. On July 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that Mosul had been liberated from ISIL. Many areas of Anbar Province remain under ISIL control, but Iraqi forces are closing in. Now, the SDF, supplemented by air strikes and other support by U.S. forces, have captured Raqqa. As such, the future is unclear for ISIL combatants who came from foreign nations ranging from France, to Tunisia, to Indonesia. Some of these combatants will continue to fall in battle while others will lay down arms, return home, and seek a return to normalcy. However, many will likely continue to fight in other capacities and in different battle spaces as they spread from the collapsing caliphate.
ISIL fighters may attempt to join other Jihadist groups in Syria warring against the regime. Moderate Islamic groups will likely not want members of ISIL due to the ideological extremes of their beliefs. Pragmatically, accepting them could invite targeting by coalition forces and labelling as a terrorist organization, which could interfere with financial support from foreign entities. Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi had stated that ISIL wants to merge with al-Qa’ida, but these claims have been unsubstantiated, and Al-Qa’ida’s leadership has denounced ISIL on multiple occasions. Yet, some armed groups in Syria may be desperate enough for experienced fighters that they overlook previous affiliations with ISIL. The key takeaway is that foreign fighters may have no choice but to leave Syria if a collapse occurs. The loss of key cities and significant loss of personnel will force the dandelion effect into motion. Those wishing to continue the fight will look to relocate to other vulnerable states with weak governance. These types of environments are what allowed ISIL to rise in Syria and Iraq.
ISIL’s foreign fighters have the potential to supplement ISIL-affiliated groups further abroad, such as Jahba East Africa in Somalia and ISIL-Sinai Province (ISIL-SP) in Egypt, which have not hitherto garnered much attention. Jahba East Africa consists of former al-Shabaab fighters who defected and pledged allegiance to ISIL. Operating in the northern Puntland region of Somalia, the group notably sent gunmen into the Village Hotel in Bosaso, killing at least four of the hotel guards. The addition of ISIL fighters could increase Jahba East Africa’s capabilities substantially. Tactically, the additional numbers could allow the group to conduct more attacks against civilians or the Somali Government. Furthermore (and perhaps more importantly), the new influx of fighters could bring greater perceived legitimacy to the group as units from the former caliphate join their ranks.
ISIL-SP, based in Egypt’s Sinai Desert, could also benefit from displaced fighters. ISIL-SP’s most notorious claim of responsibility comes from the downing of a Russian airliner departing from Sharm el-Sheikh, which killed at least 220 people. More recently, the group attacked a Coptic Christian church, killing 27 people and wounding 78. ISIL-SP has committed attacks against civilians and security services alike across Egypt. The well-funded and relatively well-trained Egyptian military has been unable to quell them thus far. Estimated to number fewer than 1,000 combatants, a surge of experienced fighters from Syria and Iraq could significantly improve their capabilities.
There is also a fear, particularly in Western Europe, that fighters who traveled to join the Islamic State, will try to return to their home countries to wreak havoc. While many will likely be caught by authorities, there is the concern that they may link up with comrades-in-arms upon returning home and become part of the Emni, the external operations and intelligence branch of ISIL. This brand of terrorist are the type responsible for the Paris attacks in 2015, the Brussels airport bombing and the Nice truck attack.
Survivors of the collapsing caliphate who wish to continue their militant endeavors will either continue their role as combatants in Syria, travel to other battlefields, or return to their homelands. No matter their fate, the fighters who traveled to Syria and Iraq to serve the caliphate will continue to be problematic, constituting a policy concern for states around the globe. Just as a dandelion’s seeds disperse wildly across a field, global powers will struggle to control the scattering seedlings of ISIL.