ISIS Is Here: Return of the Jihadi

December 14, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: Islamic StateISISAl QaedaTerrorismForeign Fighters

ISIS Is Here: Return of the Jihadi

The foreign fighter phenomenon goes global.


“This is sort of the new normal,” FBI Director James Comey observed after the most recent Fourth of July. Comey was talking about the ten persons who were arrested in connection with a variety of plots linked to ISIS in the weeks leading up to that national holiday. But while the threat of homegrown violent extremism inspired by either ISIS or Al Qaeda is now accepted as fact, there is still surprisingly little consensus on the potentially far greater danger posed by radicalized foreign fighters trained by ISIS, returning to their native or adopted homelands in the West, ready to carry out terrorist actions—despite the attacks that occurred in Paris last November.

Indeed, long before the latest incidents, the May 2014 killing of four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium appeared to validate fears of the potential for violence imported from abroad. The alleged perpetrator, a twenty-nine-year-old French national of Algerian origin named Mehdi Nemmouche, reportedly had spent more than a year in Syria. When he was arrested in Marseilles days after the attack, French police found in his possession an ISIS flag and a tape recording claiming responsibility for the incident. An interview with a French hostage previously held captive in Syria by ISIS subsequently revealed that Nemmouche had not only fought with the group, but also had tortured prisoners and boasted of having committed worse atrocities.


The only other well-publicized terrorist incident in Europe involving a veteran of the fighting in Syria was the fracas last August on a high-speed train traveling from Belgium to France. A passenger discovered Ayoub El Khazzani in the train’s lavatory while the twenty-five-year-old Moroccan-born resident of Spain was trying to load a Kalashnikov assault rifle. A scuffle ensued as other passengers tackled and disarmed El Khazzani, who was also carrying a Luger pistol, nearly three hundred rounds of ammunition, a Molotov cocktail and a box cutter. Already on the watch lists of at least four European security services because of his ties to Islamist groups and to radical mosques in Spain, El Khazzani is believed to have traveled to Syria where he was trained by, and fought for, ISIS.

Before the assaults in Paris, such “boomerang” attacks were rare. Casualties and costs were low. At a time when America and its NATO allies are showing fatigue at coping with the ongoing wars on terrorism, when their cemeteries and hospitals are already populated by a new generation of battle casualties, when their treasuries are drained by fourteen years of global conflict and when defense and intelligence budgets are either declining or mostly flat, it is tempting to regard the potential foreign-fighters “boomerang” effect as exaggerated, if not alarmist. It isn’t—as the Paris incidents demonstrate. There are good reasons to resist being lulled into the false sense of complacency that the paucity of actual returning foreign-fighter incidents to date suggests. Neither the raw number of attacks so far, nor the instances of attacks foiled in the planning stages, is in itself a sufficient metric with which to measure the danger posed by ISIS. Instead, the current terrorist threat against Western nations is best understood only when ISIS’s virulent concatenation of ideology and ambition, of strategy and sheer numbers, is taken as a whole.

The threat posed by ISIS has previously been dismissed—often with dire consequences. Less than six months after President Obama denigrated ISIS as a second-rate security concern, for example, the group’s fighters stormed into Iraq, conquered half that country, resurrected the caliphate, declared a state and set about slaughtering and enslaving thousands of Christians, Shia and members of other minority sects. Organized into battalion-sized assault forces, the ISIS units effortlessly routed approximately thirty thousand U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers. As the defenders fled, they left behind almost three military divisions’ worth of equipment—including American-made Humvees and M1 Abrams tanks, totaling tens of billions of dollars—which ISIS gleefully absorbed into its burgeoning arsenal. Of course, ISIS had previously seized similarly large stockpiles of weapons, equipment and cash from the Assad regime’s military forces while fighting in Syria.

In addition to its conventional military capabilities, ISIS has demonstrated an embryonic capacity to function as a legitimate governing entity. Avoiding the mistakes and excesses of its earlier incarnation as Al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS heeded Ayman al Zawahiri’s advice from 2005 about winning the support of local populations by establishing legitimate Islamic governance. In several cities across Syria and western Iraq, ISIS has now become the local government, mediating disputes, regulating and overseeing the produce sold at markets, guarding against price gouging and organizing a variety of community events. In Minjib, for instance, ISIS’s play for exclusive control led to war with the Kurdish faction. ISIS prevailed and installed an even more robust government, providing everything from medical services to courts and bakeries. ISIS’s strict laws and swift, impartial justice over the territory it controls also quickly imposed peace and order. It has thus attracted many followers by providing a better alternative to the lawlessness and corruption typical in Free Syrian Army–controlled areas or elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq under the respective reigns of Bashar al-Assad and Nouri al-Maliki. The most common praise heard for ISIS in these regions is that right or wrong, they are more honest and efficient than either the Syrian or Iraqi Baathists or the democratically elected Iraqi governments. At times, ISIS has tried to empower existing local leaders and avoid micromanagement, as well as to punish its own members if they commit unsanctioned crimes against the population.

Unlike most terrorist groups, ISIS actually possesses its own means of income generation and financing. ISIS controls oil fields in the regions it governs, reportedly yielding revenue of up to $2 million per day. ISIS sells its oil on the black and grey markets using a complex network to smuggle oil to surrounding states, including Turkey and even the Assad regime in Syria. Since August 2014, U.S. and coalition airstrikes have reportedly reduced ISIS’s income from oil and petroleum products—but not critically. One recent report in the Financial Times described ISIS’s petroleum enterprise as “a sprawling operation almost akin to a state oil company that has grown in size and expertise despite international attempts to destroy it.” The group goes to great lengths to protect this vital source of revenue. Oil wells are heavily guarded and defended by protective sand berms and other physical security measures. ISIS’s secret police, the Amniyat, oversees all aspects of production, distribution and payment, making sure the oil and the money flow exactly where and to whom they’re destined.

One of ISIS’s largest sources of revenue, however, is war spoils, including millions of dollars worth of captured U.S. equipment abandoned by the Iraqi military. ISIS has also collected at least $20 million in ransoms paid for the return of European hostages it seized and held captive. The group’s extensive extortion rackets, targeting citizens living in or visiting the region, reportedly bring in an additional several million dollars per month. Smuggling, human trafficking and other criminal activities further add to ISIS’s gains.

In addition, ISIS forces the citizens of its conquered territories to work as common laborers and imposes economic and agricultural regulations to maximize profits. It makes millions of dollars from Islamic alms (calculated as a percentage of savings, assets, commodities and profits) paid to ISIS by populations under its control. ISIS’s control of electrical plants and other essential services allows them to levy additional taxes on any companies or individuals that wish to enjoy uninterrupted service. Local activist groups have even claimed that ISIS has made a secret deal to provide electricity and natural gas supplies to Syria. Another source of income is outright confiscation and theft. Donations from foreign sponsors and wealthy members provide a comparatively small portion of the income.

All this is in service to ISIS’s goal of creating an Islamic caliphate where fundamentalist, Sunni Islam is the only accepted religion and where sharia, the legal system based on Islamic religious precepts drawn from the Quran and Hadith, is the only law. In resurrecting the caliphate, ISIS aims to redraw the map of the Middle East, erasing the artificial states and borders created by the Western powers following World War I and resurrecting the Islamic empire that once stretched from Spain across North Africa, through the Middle East and the Caucasus and into South and Southeast Asia. Unlike other Islamic movements that accept or tolerate coexistence with various minority sects of Islam and sometimes even non-Islamic religions, ISIS offers no compromise and identifies its enemies as the West, Christians, Jews, puppet Arab regimes, Sufis, Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Yazidis and other minority sects, along with Iran and all Shia Muslims. ISIS claims that it is currently fighting to protect the oppressed Sunni Muslims of Iraq and Syria.

To further its objectives, ISIS has appropriated Al Qaeda’s ideology and strategy, depicting itself as the most faithful embodiment of bin Laden’s vision. There are deep ideological commonalities between ISIS and Al Qaeda that have shaped the former’s strategy and explain why it was so intent on declaring the resurrection of the caliphate and establishment of the Islamic State in June 2014. Like Al Qaeda, ISIS sees itself and its fighters as defending the Sunni ummah against an array of aggressive predators, including supposed apostate Iraqi and Lebanese Shia, Iran, the United States and the West. ISIS also shares Al Qaeda’s unmitigated animus towards the Western liberal state system and especially to democracy—which it has derided as a “wicked methodology.” And ISIS patently thinks and acts strategically—having basically usurped the seven-stage strategy to victory first articulated by Al Qaeda’s operational chief, Saif al-Adel, in 2005. ISIS is currently at the fifth stage along this path—which explains the preemptive declaration of the caliphate in 2014. These stages entail:

-The Awakening Stage (2000-2003), which coincided with the September 11, 2001 attacks, and is described as “Reawakening the nation by dealing a powerful blow to the head of the snake in the U.S.”

-The Eye-Opening Stage (2003-2006), which unfolded after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and was allegedly designed to perpetually engage and enervate the United States and the West in a series of prolonged overseas ventures.

-The Rising Up and Standing on the Feet Stage (2007-2010) involved Al Qaeda’s proactive expansion to new venues of operations, as we have seen in West Africa and the Levant.

-The Recovery Stage (2010-2013), which was originally intended to allow Al Qaeda to consolidate its previous gains and catch its breath, but which ended up having to be adjusted in light of both bin Laden’s killing and the exploitation of new opportunities created by the “Arab Spring” to topple apostate regimes, especially in Syria.

-The Declaration of the Caliphate Stage (2013-2016), when Al Qaeda will achieve its ultimate goal of establishing trans- or supranational Islamic rule over large swaths of territory in the Muslim world. ISIS has clearly stolen a march on Al Qaeda in this respect.

-The Total Confrontation Stage (2016-2020) will occur after the caliphate has been created and an Islamic Army commences the final “fight between the believers and the nonbelievers.”

-The Definitive Victory Stage (2020-2022), when the caliphate will ultimately triumph over the rest of the world.

It is indeed disturbing to map the accuracy of this strategic trajectory dating from 2005 to the present and to realize that, from ISIS’s vantage point, the movement is right on al-Adel’s previously articulated schedule in having declared the caliphate in June 2014. Moreover, no matter how half-baked ISIS’s grandiose pretensions in this respect may be, the fact remains that propaganda doesn’t have to be true: it only has to be believed. For ISIS’s supporters its fulfillment of this seven-stage strategy presents a compelling narrative—thus accounting for ISIS’s continued appeal.

The temptation to dismiss these developments as primarily a “local” phenomenon—confined to the perennially violent, unstable Levant—is further belied both by the growing number of ISIS “provinces,” the recent mid-air destruction of a Russian passenger jet by its Sinai branch, its recruitment of an estimated twenty-five thousand foreign fighters, and its continued efforts to radicalize a worldwide stable of amateurs, whom the group encourages to carry out low-level, lethal attacks in their respective homelands. To date, ISIS has established bases in at least half a dozen countries: stretching from West and North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and from the Sinai to South Asia and the Caucasus. And, over the past year alone, ISIS-inspired homegrown attacks have occurred in the United States, Australia, Canada, France and Belgium.

The call to violence from ISIS’s chief spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has proven much more effective in inciting random acts of terror worldwide than more than a decade of similar Al Qaeda entreaties. Absolutely seminal in this respect was al-Adnani’s September 2014 clarion call to would-be ISIS supporters to carry out independent, self-directed acts of violence against ISIS’s enemies in their own countries and homelands.

Some answered al-Adnani’s call in their own countries on their own initiative; others have been explicitly guided by ISIS operatives, either in person or over the Internet and social media. The group thus clearly seeks to inspire individuals to commit acts of terrorism either directly on ISIS’s behalf or in support of ISIS’s ideology and broader political goals.

ISIS, for instance, has claimed responsibility or affiliation with two lone-wolf attacks that took place in Canada in October 2014. The attackers in both incidents had direct contact with ISIS and had sought to leave Canada to become foreign fighters with ISIS in Syria or Iraq before deciding instead to carry out entirely domestic terrorist attacks. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the September 2014 attack in Melbourne, Australia, where a man stabbed two police officers after being summoned for questioning in connection with his public display of an ISIS flag.

In all, the size, weapons and tactics of ISIS forces, combined with their ability to seize and hold terrain and exercise governance (however crude), are probably unique in the annals of terrorism. Accordingly, ISIS (and perhaps also Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen) is now as capable, if not more so, than some of the conventional militaries of established nation-states in the region. Like their government counterparts, this hybrid force holds territory, controls populations, conducts business and enforces laws. ISIS has already defied predictions. It has shown itself to be more brutal, lethal, unconstrained and adaptable than perhaps any substate actor since Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. In the circumstances, given its barbaric practices, sadistic executions, unmitigated violence and sufficient resources, is it even conceivable that ISIS would display any reluctance to dispatch foreign fighters back to their homelands to undertake future terrorist attacks?

The vast scope of ISIS’s ambitions, the extraordinary number of foreign fighters answering its battle call and the movement’s professed ideology of confrontation with a vast array of foes all but ensures that this struggle will grind on indefinitely. The estimated twenty-five thousand foreign recruits fighting under ISIS’s aegis already exceed by a factor of ten the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq at the height of the war there a decade ago. According to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, the number of volunteers for ISIS who have arrived in Syria and Iraq thus far in 2015 was more than three times the number recorded in 2014. Although the majority hails from the Middle East and North Africa (with Tunisia, ironically the only country where the promise of the democratic reforms raised by the Arab Spring appears to have taken root, providing the largest contingent), some 4,500 come from Europe, North America or Australia, including more than 250 Americans. Their ranks include nationals from some eighty countries around the world. Among them was Omar Abdul Azis of Indonesia—the son of Imam Samudra, one of the terrorists convicted of the 2002 Bali bombings.

In just four years ISIS’s international cadre has come to equal even the most extravagant estimate of the number of foreign fighters that the U.S. Intelligence Community believes had traveled to Afghanistan during the 1980s. Viewed from another perspective, more foreign nationals have been trained by ISIS and other radical Islamist groups in Syria than were trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the five years preceding the 9/11 attacks. The situation in Syria today thus creates the same conditions—but on a far greater magnitude—that led to Al Qaeda’s rise and the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

These numbers alone are disturbing. The vast pool of recruits drawn to Syria affords ISIS and any of the other militant Islamist groups active there a surfeit of potential terrorists from which to cherry-pick and potentially dispatch back home to carry out terrorist attacks. As Director Comey noted, Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s provides a clear template for this eventuality. The 9/11 Commission Report’s conclusion in this respect is revealing. “Thousands flowed through” bin Laden’s camps before the September 11 attacks, it states, but “no more than a few hundred seem to have become Al Qaeda members.” Indeed, this small number, hand-picked from the larger crop, were subsequently screened, vetted and, having been deemed “worthy,” were provided with specialized terrorist training that enabled them to complete their assigned missions.

In fact, ISIS has long cast a deliberately wide net in its recruiting practices, thus providing it with a larger and more diverse pool of foreign fighters to draw upon and potentially assign to specialized tasks, much like Al Qaeda did in Afghanistan during the years leading to 9/11. ISIS, like the old Al Qaeda, attracts and accepts devout Muslims; but it critically also recruits recent converts, opportunists, profiteers, sadists and thrill seekers—essentially anyone who can contribute to the cause.

In this respect, ISIS’s most fundamental appeal is based on a profound sense of catharsis, empowerment and satisfaction derived from striking a blow at a hated, predatory oppressor. ISIS’s core propaganda messages invoke the same justifications of self-satisfying violence articulated by Frantz Fanon in the 1950s during Algeria’s struggle for national liberation from France. “At the level of individuals,” Fanon famously explained, “violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores self-respect.”

ISIS effectively propagates this message through the Internet and social media to speak directly to its international audience, thereby preventing the foreign press from misinterpreting or otherwise distorting this basic message. Their grisly propaganda videos of brutal executions, for instance, attract many more viewers than bin Laden and al-Zawahiri’s comparatively staid videos reciting complex theological treatises or imparting didactic philosophical and historical lectures. Through these means the group is able to tailor its messages to specific target audiences. One of ISIS’s most efficacious means of attracting foreign fighters is its visual depictions of heinous acts of violence that not only attract the attention of this audience, but also help motivate and inspire them to join ISIS’s struggle. This also shows why one of the main sources and mechanisms for ISIS recruitment has been prisons, which also serve as training academies and safe locations for indoctrination and planning.

Of course, ISIS also relies on more traditional methods of recruiting. It appeals to Muslim fundamentalists by citing historical references; by claiming to include descendants of pious families of ancient, respected lineage and stature; and by identifying its leaders as the messengers and executors of apocalyptic prophecies. All of these themes have a very powerful effect on Muslim communities familiar with these stories and traditions. Its eschatological messages in particular, as ISIS expert Will McCants recently wrote, have greatly “invigorated” the group, accounting for “the inrush of foreign fighters to Syria, many of them seeking a role in the End-Time drama.”

One does not have to speculate terribly much to see the potential threat from ISIS to the West given its vast cadre of foreign fighters native to, or previously resident in, those countries. This unprecedented pool of foreign recruits suggests that ISIS would certainly have the capability to undertake more attacks modeled on the simultaneous assaults and running gun battles that occurred in Mumbai in November 2008 and Paris almost exactly seven years later. Given that ISIS has already established clandestine logistical support bases in Turkey, the prospect of some of its fighters piling into a car with a trunkful of Kalashnikov assault rifles, hand grenades and RPGs and driving into the European Union undetected is not outside the realm of possibility. It is also not difficult to imagine a less complex operation—such as the one mounted by the Somali jihadi terrorist group, al-Shabab, in September 2013 that targeted Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall—occurring in some European city or suburb. Either type of attack would be well within the grasp and capabilities of ISIS fighters in Europe or even in North America, requiring little in the way of resources or planning.

Any notion that this potential has not already been pursued by the Islamist terrorist organizations operating in Syria was put to rest by the American journalist, Theo Padnos, who spent two years in Syria as a hostage of ISIS’s rival, the Nusra Front. In his account published last year in the New York Times, Padnos related how

The Nusra Front higher-ups were inviting Westerners to the jihad in Syria not so much because they needed more foot soldiers—they didn’t—but because they want to teach the Westerners to take the struggle into every neighborhood and subway station back home.

Given the symmetry between ISIS’s approach and Al Qaeda’s, a Mumbai-style type of attack in Europe or elsewhere in the West would also have the attraction of fulfilling bin Laden’s 2010 wish to stage these type of assaults across Europe. Nor can attacks along the lines of the July 7, 2005, London suicide bombing on mass transit be ruled out. Similar plots have already been thwarted at least twice in recent years—in Barcelona in January 2008 and New York City in September 2009. Conventional bomb attacks against mass transit that do not involve suicide bombers are indeed also possible—much as occurred in Madrid in March 2004 and in Mumbai two years before the November 2008 simultaneous assaults that galvanized world attention.

In addition, ISIS-trained fighters might not return home empty handed. The threat of a chemical-weapons attack targeting civilians elsewhere in the Middle East or in Europe has to be considered in respect of ISIS’s repeated use of these agents in Syria, often against civilian populations. There are already indications of ISIS’s interest in a variety of harmful toxins for use as weapons. For example, in May 2013 Iraqi authorities arrested an ISIS cell in Baghdad overseeing the production at two factories of sarin and mustard blistering agents.

Finally, there is the prospect of a grand bargain and reconciliation between ISIS and Al Qaeda, which would profoundly change the current conflict and result in a significantly escalated threat of foreign-fighter terrorist operations in the West. It was only a little more than a year ago that the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway was that the bloody split between Al Qaeda and ISIS would neuter and ultimately destroy them both. As the conventional wisdom on Al Qaeda has rarely been correct anyway, it is not surprising that this too proved to be little more than wishful thinking. Indeed, efforts to reunite are continuous from both sides—as al Zawahiri alluded to in a recent public statement. Significantly, ISIS propaganda has always been deeply respectful of Al Qaeda, referring to its soldiers, emirs and sheikhs in a positive manner and continuing to glorify bin Laden’s accomplishments. The main impediment to reconciliation, however, is the strong personal enmity and vicious rivalry between al Baghdadi and al Zawahiri. Hence, al Baghdadi’s death would likely pave the way for a rapprochement producing a combined terrorist force unprecedented in scope, size, ambition and resources.

Fifty-four years ago, Jean-Paul Sartre warned of the “boomerang” effect in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. “It is the age of the boomerang,” he observed, a new phase “of violence: it flies right back at us, it strikes us and, once again, we have no idea what hit us.” More than half a century later we are again confronted by the boomerang—this time from a hard core of battle-hardened terrorists drawn from the thousands of foreign fighters trained and commanded by ISIS who may at this very moment be awaiting orders to deploy back to their homelands.

Bruce Hoffman directs Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program and is a senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. His latest book is Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (Knopf, 2015).

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America