Prepared by: Studies Unit at Middle East and North Africa MENA
When Islamic State in Iraq and Syria ISIS declared its Caliphate State middle of 2014 in Al Rakkah as the capital, the World was surprised with the power of ISIS and how it managed to expand its domination and control of large areas in the middle and Eastern parts of Syria and how it extended to parts of Iraq. ISIS imposed its laws and policies on areas under its control. It was even more astonishing how ISIS managed to attract fighters from different parts of the World like the United States of America and France. Those foreign fighters quickly organized themselves and formed a striking power that enabled them to develop the structure of terrorist organizations through the fusion of foreigners with locals who exchanged experience in the economic, military and technological fields.
ISIS foreign fighters had special qualities that were not available with local fighters, therefore ISIS leaders assigned special tasks to those fighters and kept them in specific groups in order to facilitate control of those fighters. This was particularly applied to American and French fighters, or those fighters with two nationalities like Moroccans and Tunisians with French nationality.
In accordance with this structural development, Western governments took stern military, intelligence and security measures to face the increasing danger of those fighters. The United States and France deployed their special forces and fought many battles against ISIS. They also provided logistic and military support to local fighting groups like Syrian Democratic Forces to undermine the strength of ISIS which is now stuffed in two pockets in Syria, one to the east of Suweida in the South of the Syrian capital, Damascus and at the border with Iraq. It is true that the measures taken by these two countries contributed to weakening the structure of ISIS, the question remains: Were these efforts as successful as expected to anticipate any terrorist attack in the United States of America and France?
American and French ISIS Fighters (quantity and activities)
According to some estimations, the number of Americans fighting with ISIS mounted up to 70 terrorists with American nationality. USA comes last in the list in terms of number of fighters compared with other countries. 700 French persons are suspected to have joined ISIS in Syria, therefore France comes in the fifth position in the list.
At that time, battles fought by ISIS French and American fighters focused on conquering many areas, mainly Al Mosul of Iraq and some parts of Deir Ezour countryside. They conquered 95% of these areas in addition to Kubani in the North of Syria and Al Rakkah to the Southeast.
According to formal statistics, the number of American ISIS fighters increased to 150 in 2015. Some informal resources said that there were about 250 fighters. 1700 French multi-national fighters, all Tunisian origin, were affiliated with ISIS. These statistics show that the number of French fighters rose by 142%, whereas the number of Americans increased by 114%.
According to the French Government, the number of French fighters fell down to 700 fighters in 2016. 275 of them were women. Some French research centers reported that the number of French fighters decreased to 900 after some were killed and some other fighters went back home. Other resources stated that the number fell down to 1330 following the death of 119 fighters. The number of American ISIS fighters decreased to 94 after the death and arrest of many.
Foreign fighters participated in many battles to conquer areas like Al Yarmouk Camp in the Capital city of Damascus, Rakkah Countryside, Palmyra and the Eastern Countryside of Homs in the Syrian Desert.
When ISIS started to lose its domination in 2017, the number of French fighters became less than 700. About 302 French fighters returned to France, whereas only 7 American fighters went back to the United States. Yet, the number of American ISIS fighters rose up to 129 according to informal estimations.
In general, the number of foreign fighters with ISIS decreased especially after losing many strategic areas like North-eastern countryside of Aleppo following a battle with pro-Turkey rebel forces. ISIS was also defeated in Al Rakkah following the Euphrates Anger military operation launched by Syrian Democratic Forces with the support of the International Coalition Forces. Bu Kamal and Al Mayadeen to the South of Deir Ezour were also liberated together with Deir Ezour which was restored by Assad’s Forces, sectarian militias and Russians.
In 2018 the number of French ISIS fighters decreased and became 690 fighters including 295 women which means that only 43% of them were still affiliated with ISIS. As for American ISIS fighters, 12 of them went back home, but there was no formal statistics of their number. Some experts estimated that only 64 American were still with ISIS.
Reviewing the tasks assigned to those foreign fighters with ISIS, we can see that they were exploited for propaganda activities because of their live languages, French and English. Technological assignments were also part of their duties which were intended to develop the tools of ISIS. Also, some medical tasks were assigned to those foreign fighters.
Many French fighters were nominated as leaders. Rasheed Kasim, who was suspected to have plotted some terrorist attacks in France, was thought to be involved in killing a policeman with his girlfriend on the 13th of June 2016 in Manianvel in Evelin Province. He was also convicted with beheading a priest inside a church in Saint Etienne on the 26th of July 2016. Rasheed Kasim might have been killed by an American air strike on Mosul in Iraq.
Jonathan Jefara, who is one of the prominent leaders of ISIS with French nationality was arrested by Turkish authorities, was handed over to the French authorities. Syrian Democratic Forces arrested Aderian Lionel Kayali, known as Abu Ussama Al Farnaci, who had a key role in many terrorist attacks in France. It is clear that ISIS was keen on assigning terrorist tasks to French ISIS leaders to be carried out in France. High rank positions for French persons were due to their ability to coordinate with terrorist networks and cells from Syria to Iraq and even to France territories.
Procedures taken to confront French and American Terrorists working with ISIS
In the context of military campaigns, France and the United States of America launched many air strikes against ISIS positions. France sent 70 soldiers of its special forces to Syria to support Syrian Democratic Forces in their battles against ISIS. These French special forces are positioned in a French military base in Mushtoor Hill near Kubaneh to the North of Aleppo and Sheikh Essa to the North of Al Rakkah. On its part, the United States of America deployed 2000 soldiers and deployed them between Euphrates and the border with Iraq. American troops are also positioned in Al Tanf military base at the border of Syria with Jordan and Iraq.
The US-led International Coalition with the participation of French Air Forces launched a large number of air strikes in Syria and Iraq. Ever since ISIS captured Al Rakkah in 2014, 700 air raids were launched by the International Coalition. In 2015, 2400 air strikes were also launched. The number of air strikes in 2017 dramatically rose to record 7840 strikes. During January 2018, 800 air strikes hit ISIS positions. Thus, the total number of air strikes against ISIS has mounted up to 14500 raids. The increasing number of air strikes refers to the fact efficiency of these attacks in undermining the control of ISIS in Syria. This military campaign should have been followed by efforts to reconstruct and rehabilitate the targeted areas for the sake of restoration of stability to areas that were evacuated by ISIS. These efforts should be part of the strategy of International Coalition, but unfortunately nothing has so far been done in this regard, and this can be clearly noticed in the areas controlled by Syrian Democratic Forces.
Regarding the legal procedures related to ISIS fighters, who returned to France from ISIS areas, Paris made many steps:
- On 8 of June 2017, the French Government proposed a law to fight terrorism. This French law grants Local Authorities much freedom to protect civilians in any case of emergency or potential risk without referring to the legal system. According to the new law, Local Authorities have the right to impose security measures and launch raids to investigate luggage by special security forces without prior authorization. Local Authorities have the right to close worship houses for six months maximum in case these houses promote terrorism and extremism.
- Paris imposed intensified security measures in the context of a plan made by the French Police in June 2017. This plan was called “Tourism Plan 2017”. This new plan was made by French Police following the Champs-Elysees attack. An additional security forces were formed to care for Eiffel Tower and Trocadero areas.
- In July 2018, French Prime Minister, Edwardes Philip proposed a new plan for fighting terrorism. This plan was based particularly on anticipatory management of inland jihadi risks. This plan includes monitoring prisoners after they are set free and establishing a special attorney for fighting terrorism.
The United States made a comprehensive holistic strategy for fighting terrorist organizations in 2017. ISIS was on the list. The new American Strategy includes 10 points:
- The United States of America made special arrangements to exchange data of terrorists and suspects with 60 countries around the World. Secretary of State used Anti-terrorism program to update and applied Preservation of Information through Safe Comparison and Evaluation System PISCES. This has been used through 215 windows for data entry in 24 countries. Anti-terrorism and PISCES programs have been shared with partner countries that are very decisive to prevent free movement and travel of terrorists through airports and border crossing gates.
- Anti-terrorism Office and Corporate Office for diplomatic security continued to build the capacity of other countries and prosecute terrorists and their supporters. This office provided 365 training sessions, workshops and technical consultancies in the field of Anti-terrorism investigations, security of borders and immediate response to emergencies in 2017. 6641 participants from 41 countries have so far benefited from these training courses and workshops.
- The United States of America developed a security plan called “Strong Cities Network” made by Anti-terrorism Office together with governments of Denmark and Norway in 2015. This network, which has got more than 115 active members in six continents, enables cities to communicate with partners throughout the World and share experience and develop low-cost and effective strategies. Twining cities program has been applied by the Anti-terrorism Office. Boston in the United States and Manchester in Britain is one of the twining cases.
Possible scenarios for their end
Foreign fighters with ISIS have a common fate especially American and French ones. As the United States of America got boots on the ground, and its forces are assigned tasks to follow-up on the file of American fighters with ISIS, it is very easy to target them on the ground. France is terribly suffering from the large number of fighters with French nationality and the bloody terrorist attacks inside France. The French Government thinks that it is better to fight French fighters with ISIS outside France i.e. in Syria or Iraq to mitigate their danger inside France. All in all, both French and American fighters with ISIS are facing many possible end scenarios to terminate their activities with ISIS as follows:
- French and American ground forces are in charge of chasing of and collecting data on these fighters including locations and numbers in collaboration with local fighters like those of Syrian Democratic Forces. Last June, Syrian Democratic Forces did a secret intelligence task in which they arrested a high rank French leader of ISIS.
- Giving a chance for repentance is another tactic as a part of containment policy as there are some women and children accompanying those fighters. This Problem is one of the main concerns for politicians and decision makers in Europe. There are few options under discussion regarding the best way to deal with those fighters who returned home. This includes making laws and discussing these laws prior to ratification. Giving more time to fighters to give up might be the best choice for France and the United States of America. This strategy can help these two countries lessen their air strikes in Syria and Iraq and impose more pressure on those fighters. This strategy helps in pushing fighters to give up and go back home so as to weaken ISIS and terminate the activities of foreign fighters.
- The third option is to directly target these foreign fighters with condensed air strikes. This strategy aims at preventing any of those fighters from going back home which anticipates any terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States of America. Britain explicitly called for identifying the position of British fighters with ISIS so as to kill them all for fear of their return. This British option might be difficult for France as the number of French fighters is high, and the existence of children and women among these fighters. Consequently, it is a controversial issue to target French fighters as it might be a violation of Human Rights. As for the United States of America, the first two options are more likely as there are very few fighters having American nationality.
ISIS foreign fighters managed to make quality change in the structure of terrorist organizations because the diversity of nationalities helped in reinforcement of ISIS ever since it declared Caliphate in Al Rakkah middle of 2014. This continued until middle of 2016. During that period, ISIS benefited from experience of those fighters especially the French and American ones who used to have technological skill to administrate other foreign fighters and attract more fighters to join ISIS. This peculiarity necessitated immediate action to mitigate their threats. Thus, the United States of America led the International Coalition to fight terrorism, and France actively participated in the military campaign against ISIS with the aim of anticipating any terrorist attack in France or the possible development of ISIS. ISIS could have developed small groups depending on multinational fighters in Syria and Iraq. Some French or American might establish mini terrorist groups parallel to ISIS which is a real threat. Apart from the problem of returning fighters and mechanism of dealing with this problem, such threat comes on top of priorities of countries of the International Coalition. For France and the United States of America, the danger of ISIS is not only limited to their activities in Syria and Iraq, but also extends to the time following the termination of ISIS.
 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria declares Caliphate and pledges allegiance to Abu Baker Al Baghdadi. BBC Arabic 30 June 2014 https://bbc.in/2PpkwZC
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