Five years after Islamic State blitzkrieged through the Middle East, the group’s territorial caliphate is in its final hours. But a recent Israeli intelligence assessment has warned that those Islamic State terrorists who are still alive might return to the West to carry out terror attacks.
At the height of its power, ISIS controlled nearly half of Syria and large parts of Iraq, and had some 10 million people living under its rule, including thousands of foreign fighters who left their home countries to join the group.
In June 2014, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, gave his infamous speech at Mosul’s Great Mosque, officially declaring himself caliph over the group. At the group’s peak, it controlled “provinces” in dozens of countries around the world, including across Africa’s Sahel, Southeast Asia including the Philippines, and in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
But after some 13,300 air strikes conducted by the US-led coalition, the group has been reduced to less than seven square kilometers in Syria, and thousands of its fighters have been killed or arrested.
It is believed that with the group’s territorial caliphate defeat, it will return to being a guerrilla terrorist group operating out of the Syrian desert bordering Iraq, as well as in its provinces, conducting attacks against security forces and civilians.
According to a recent Israeli intelligence assessment, which was presented two weeks ago to IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi and the General Staff Forum, there are some 150,000 to 200,000 Islamic State terrorists left around the world.
The group’s ideology also remains popular among a large number of disenfranchised youths across the globe, including in the Middle East, where a large number of them are jobless, homeless and hopeless.
The group’s expertise in online propaganda will allow it to continue to operate as a “virtual caliphate,” urging its supporters to carry out attacks in their home countries.
Authorities from Western countries have become increasingly concerned about their citizens returning from the Middle East, having had training and experience on front lines. And according to Israel’s intelligence assessment, there is concern that those fighters will return to their country of origin with intent to commit a terror attack.
The Israeli assessment echoes a warning by US intelligence, which was released by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in late January. It found that the group’s battle-hardened fighters have the skills to continue to conduct attacks and bolster its capabilities around the world.
“ISIS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and it maintains eight branches, more than a dozen networks and thousands of dispersed supporters around the world, despite significant leadership and territorial losses,” reads the Worldwide Threat Assessment, adding that “ISIS very likely will continue to pursue external attacks from Iraq and Syria against regional and Western adversaries, including the United States.”
Israel is also concerned that the returning foreign fighters will not be prosecuted for their crimes in Syria and Iraq, and will be released into the community where they might also target Jewish institutions and establishments, such as embassies or community centers. Such an example is the 2014 attack by Mehdi Nemmouche against the Jewish museum in Brussels.
Nemmouche, who is currently on trial as the sole suspect in the attack which killed four people, was identified by a French journalist who had been held by ISIS in Syria as being one of his torturers.
With shared threats in the Middle East, cooperation between the intelligence communities of Israel and Western countries has always been close and has intensified since the early 2000s, despite Israel not being a part of the “Five Eyes” – a term used for the US and the four core countries it does surveillance-sharing with – Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Israel’s intelligence community has helped thwart dozens of terror attacks around the globe planned by Islamic State and al-Qaeda terrorists including, according to The New York Times, a planned ISIS operation in 2017 to blow up passenger planes flying to Europe using explosive devices hidden in laptop computers.