BY JOHN GRAHAM
I begin with a memory and a question. Once, I found my way into the cellar of an old house that my family and I were staying in for the holidays. I found an incredibly fat spider scuttling across the floor and made the short-sighted mistake of stepping on it. It turned out that the spider was pregnant.
Now that you have cleared away the mental image of an army of baby spiders scurrying away in all directions, here is the question: when the Islamic State group is defeated, as eventually it surely will be, what will the thousands of foreign fighters in its ranks do? In Nov. 2015, Paris was given a horrifying hint of the answer. Five of the nine Paris attackers had fought with jihadist groups in Syria, and a sixth in Yemen. Of these, three snuck back into Europe, posing as Syrian refugees. What will happen when several tens of thousands of experienced fighters are left without an umbrella organisation under which to fight? The least likely possibility is that they will all retire and live out their days peacefully, leaving the rest of the world alone.
According to Central Intelligence Agency estimates from early 2015, the Islamic State group’s ranks included around 20,000 foreign fighters. The majority of these are from Arab countries, but they also include almost 4,000 fighters from Western Europe. If the Islamic State group is defeated, most of the Arab fighters might join up with other jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is more narrowly focused on overthrowing the Assad regime rather than global jihad; but non-Arab fighters mostly joined up for the latter reason, not the former. Of these fighters, 1,700 are from Chechnya, and an estimated 300 are Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang Province. Would these fighters return to their home countries and put their new skills and training to murderous use? Bet on it.
As The American Interest pointed out after the Iraqi army recaptured Ramadi from the Islamic State group, now is the time to start thinking about the endgame. I am in favor of a scorched earth strategy, one which leaves few of the Islamic State group fighters alive to continue jihad elsewhere. Thus far, the campaign against them has been more of a slow and steady burn, with Western countries providing air support to Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces. Comparatively, limited Western support means that when the Islamic State group is finally defeated, the geopolitical situation in the Levant will be tilted in favour of Iran and Russia.
Like the pregnant spider mentioned above, a squashed Islamic State group is still likely to release numerous well-armed, well-trained, and highly motivated jihadists in all directions. Unlike the spider, however, the proliferation of veteran terrorists will not be a single wave, but a steadily growing trickle of deserters. As the Islamic State group loses territory and its image as the new caliphate unravels, fighters will grow disillusioned with the organization and leave, taking their weapons and skills with them. Now is the time to start preparing for this eventuality.
Another issue to consider is that not all powers with interests in the region are necessarily interested in the group’s complete defeat. Turkey’s support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria is well known, but a growing body of evidence also points to Turkish involvement with the Islamic State group. Consider this: how is it that so many of the group’s Western recruits, as well as much of its military supplies, have reached their destination via Turkey? Allegations have been raised by the Agency’s deputy director David Cohen as well as Russia that the Islamic State group’s oil revenue comes in substantial part from oil sales to Turkey, or at the very least through Turkish middlemen. A U.S. Special Forces raid on the compound of the group’s “chief financial officer,” Abu Sayyaf, also yielded evidence that the group’s commanders have had direct contact with Turkish officials.
Why would Turkey effectively ally with the Islamic State group? The answer is the Kurds. For Turkey, it’s the Kurds, by far the most effective fighting force against the Islamic State group and a majority in the southeastern part of the country, who are its primary concern, not the Islamic State group. According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, if current demographic trends continue, half of Turkey’s military-age population will be ethnic Kurds in 20 years. Combined with the fact that the Kurds are actively fighting for an independent state comprising parts of what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, this makes the Kurds the principal security threat to Turkey, leaving Islamic extremists as the lesser of two evils.
Some sporadic crackdowns on Islamists have occurred in Turkey, but if the Islamic State group is defeated, what is to stop all those foreign fighters from making their way back across the border into Turkey and causing havoc there? Or, if the extent of cooperation between the Islamic State and Turkish intelligence is as great as has been suggested, what is to stop these fighters from regrouping in Turkey and continuing the struggle against Assad or the Kurds? The destabilization of Turkey will be the most immediate consequence of the Islamic State’s demise, but the effects will be felt across the hinterlands of Russia, China, and most likely, in European capitals as well. Now is the time to prepare.