Where are Isis fighters now?
US withdrawal from Syrian-Turkish border fuels fears of resurgence of the jihadist group
Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Syria-Turkey border has sparked fears that Islamic State may once again tighten its grip on the region.
At its peak, five years ago, the militant group controlled 34,000 square miles of territory stretching from western Syria to eastern Iraq, before being pushed back to small pockets in the north of Syria.
Kurdish fighters were key US allies in defeating Isis in the region, but Turkey views the biggest Kurdish militia in the alliance - the YPG - as a terrorist group. The US pullout is seen as paving a way for a Turkish offensive against these Kurdish forces, reports the BBC.
Today, Turkish warplanes dropped bombs on the area and ground forces gathered on the border. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said the aim is to create a “safe zone” that will house Syrian refugees, with no Kurdish militia.
“America’s allies in the fight against Isis have again been undermined - and they should begin to grapple with the fact that while Trump has promised to pull America from its forever wars, the local soldiers who have fought this version of it will sooner or later be forced to do it alone,” says The Atlantic.
“Whether they can withstand an Isis resurgence on their own - amid the same sort of chaotic conditions in Iraq and Syria that saw Isis rise up in 2014 - is another question.”
So where are these Isis fighters now?
The US-led Global Coalition to Defeat Isis believes the vast majority of the jihadist militants are dead or in custody.
According to The Times, a total of at least 12,000 suspected Isis members are being held in seven prisons in northeast Syria. Most of the prisoners are Syrian or Iraqi, but at least 4,000 are said to be foreigners, from a total of more than 50 countries worldwide.
The exact locations of the jails are not published for security reasons, but some are believed to be close to the Turkish border.
In addition, three “closed” refugee camps house more than 100,000 women and children who fled Isis-controlled areas. “Many of the women are still radicalised and may have committed atrocities,” says the newspaper.
The prisons are guarded by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but the coalition group has warned that it cannot continue to hold the prisoners and their families in the long-term.
Officials have previously said there is a high risk of a breakout, and the SDF has now declared that guarding the prisoners must be a “second priority” to defending against the expected Turkish offensive.
The White House this week said that Turkey will be “responsible for all Isis fighters in the area captured over the past two years” - but Ankara’s former foreign minister Yasar Yakis has predicted that this task will prove to be a “nightmare”.
“There are already dormant Isis cells in Turkey. They may wake up and wreak havoc in the country,” he warned.
In August, The New York Times reported that thousands of Isis fighters were still roaming free in Syria and Iraq, supported by funds of as much as $400m hidden somewhere in the two countries or smuggled to a neighbouring state.
“Although there is little concern that the Islamic State will reclaim its former physical territory, a caliphate that was once the size of Britain and controlled the lives of up to 12 million people, the terrorist group has still mobilised as many as 18,000 remaining fighters in Iraq and Syria,” according to the newspaper.
“These sleeper cells and strike teams have carried out sniper attacks, ambushes, kidnappings and assassinations against security forces and community leaders.”
Some other fighters have tried to return to their home countries.
A 2018 study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London concluded that more than 41,000 people from 80 countries were affiliated with Isis. This figure included 850 people from the UK. The researchers found that, by June last year, around 7,300 had returned home, including 425 to the UK, the BBC reports.
Others, such as former Londoner Shamima Begum, have been stripped of their national citizenship and are unable to leave Syria.