Fall of Raqqa: Middle East Security Brief
By Andrew Rogan
The Islamic State (IS) proclaimed its caliphate in 2014, designating Raqqa, Syria as its capital city. Since then, the city has been embroiled in fierce conflict, especially in recent months. IS influence around the globe led world powers to engage in advanced offensive action to finally push IS out of their stronghold. During this time, the city was subject to gunfire, explosives, and extensive air strikes. Civilians suffered the most, with an estimated 1,800 casualties and thousands of refugees. As of October 2017, Raqqa has fallen and IS fighters have all but deserted the remains of their staging ground. With the city now liberated, IS has lost its ability to centralize its command and can no longer produce effective operations. However, the dispersal of IS fighters continues to be a pressing concern for international security. The Soufan Group estimates 5,600 foreign fighters have returned home. This briefing document will look at where these fighters are going and the routes they’re taking to get there. It will then analyse the responses of these destination states before exploring recommendations going forward.
With much of the Middle East under scrutiny and under fire, developing a new centralized command for IS in the region presents a great risk to the terrorist organization. In order to regroup and strategize, IS fighters move to other vulnerable states, often weak or collapsed, to seek safe haven. As the Maghreb region produced one of the highest foreign fighters per capita ratio and because those states are among the weakest, it is essential to examine returning jihadists to the region.
Tunisia is estimated as the largest producer of foreign fighters in the region, and fourth in the world, at around 3,000 individuals. This sheer volume has put Tunisia at great risk of not only growing numbers of radicalized citizens, but also the return of experienced terrorists. Since the siege of Raqqa began in mid-2017, Tunisia has seen a return of 800 foreign fighters. It is assumed that these individuals are using underground networks, traffickers, and organized crime to return to the state.
Not far behind Tunisia, Morocco is responsible for more than 1,600 foreign fighters. At first content to rid their nation of the radicalized, Morocco is quickly adapting to the reality of returning foreign fighters and the risks they pose. As of October 2017, officials have been able to account for 200 returnees in Morocco, whose return is likely facilitated by the same networks used by Tunisians. This number remains small due to the hard-line security approach along Moroccan borders, preventing their entry.
While Algeria is not a leading contributor to the Maghreb’s staggering number of foreign fighters, it does face issues of growing cells and returnees from neighbouring states. Algeria is known to have close to 200 foreign fighters in IS command, and nearly half have returned. Algeria’s true concern is the influx of jihadists to its territory, with the goal of expanding cells within its borders. Further, due to Morocco’s border security response, many of Morocco’s foreign fighters are seeking haven along its borders, particularly in Algeria. With the fall of Raqqa, these numbers are likely to grow, threatening the stability of Algeria’s security framework.
Similar to Algeria, Libya also had a relatively small number of foreign fighters, at just over 600. Also like Algeria, Libya faces a growing population of jihadists flocking to its territory from elsewhere. In fact, Libya’s political vacuum has allowed IS to flourish its base there. US intelligence estimates 5,000 IS militants are in Libya, and numbers continue to grow with the exodus of IS militants as their territory collapses. Further, monitoring returnees is extremely difficult due to the lapse in a stable Libyan government. The chaos in Libya is the perfect breeding ground for an IS stronghold, with the increasing likelihood of spilling into the broader region.
As states finish up implementing actions to prevent travel of their citizens to become foreign fighters, they’re not yet prepared to handle their return. Weak states, like those discussed above, lack security and intelligence capabilities to expertly oversee these returns. Porous borders and power vacuums prohibit appropriate responses, but there are measures in place to interrupt these return routes.
Fortunately, the fall of IS strongholds have led to the discovery of data and information on foreign fighters, which assists international efforts to break-up connected cells in other countries. Most often, using this data and other intelligence, capable states incarcerate returnees. This is not without its own drawbacks, as radicalization in prisons is always a concern. The alternative to incarceration is reintegration, a process that seeks to de-radicalize returnees, adapting them to society once again. Both aforementioned responses have flaws and rely on states with stable governments.
Some examples of responses in the states of the Maghreb region are closing borders and building security facilities. Tunisia has erected an earthen wall along its Libyan border to keep returnees and IS-Libyan militants from entering unnoticed. Tunisia also has opened its territory to American military forces. This increased cooperation allows the conduct of US operations with stealth and ease. Similar cooperation can also be seen across the region. In Niger, the US is constructing a drone base to stage strikes in Libya. In Algeria, the government opened a new air base to better protect its borders with Mali, Niger, and Libya.
As IS continues to collapse across Iraq and Syria, its jihadists will scatter. In what’s known as the “dandelion effect,” IS fighters will disperse like the seeds of a dandelion across the world, agitating conflict where it already is rampant. The current threat remains strongest in Libya where there is no functional government, thus no effective security capacities throughout its vast territories. The Maghreb region will continue to grapple with issues of returnees as well as being the receiving end of foreign fighters, particularly in states like Algeria and Libya. It is essential for cooperation among the nations, as well as among foreign military powers, like the US. Together with expanded reintegration and de-radicalization programs, the Maghreb can prevent a new IS from arising within its borders.