Is the Caliphate really over? The migration of ISIS militants
Ilaria Romano 7 March 2018

Almost the entire territory captured by Islamic State since 2014 has been retaken in the last several months. In December, after more than three years of war, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS. The fall of Raqqa, the caliphate’s stronghold and symbolic city in Syria, validated this “happy ending”.

But is Daesh really over?

Unfortunately not, and the organization can take advantage of the chaotic situations in both Iraq and Syria.

First, it is still impossible to ascertain the exact number of casualties that have resulted from the conflict with ISIS. The United Nations estimated that at least 3,298 civilians were killed in 2017 in Iraq. According to the Iraq Body Count project, 67,376 civilians have been killed since 2014. In Syria, the UN has reported on the inaccessibility of many conflict areas and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented 346,600 casualties (including 103,490 civilians) since 2011, in addition to 56,900 missing people.

Based on reports by the Iraqi Parliament’s Security and Defence Committee, about 20,000 supporters of the Islamic State are still in Iraq, hidden in the western deserts or among the displaced people who fled from the war. These militants could change strategy from war with clearly established battlefronts to guerrilla warfare, based on ambushes and attacks against civilians (the last tragic events in Baghdad and suburbs are evidence of this shift). Moreover, there is no fast and sustainable plan for reconstruction and reconciliation between communities. As Hussein Allawi, professor of national security at Baghdad’s Al Nahrain University, said to New York Times, “among the urgent challenges officials now face to ensure security and stability are reconstruction plans for cities like Mosul, which was destroyed by the fighting, as well as reconciliation programs for the country’s Sunni and Shiite communities.

The situation in Syria is more complicated than that in Iraq because of the ongoing war. ISIS continues to hold pieces of territory, and many sources have discussed a deal between Syrian Democratic Forces and the Islamic State to evacuate thousands of fighters and their families before the most recent attack in Raqqa. There is also evidence that ISIS fighters remain in areas controlled by Syrian regime.

Hassan Hassan, co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror and resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, analysed Daesh’s new strategy after the end of the caliphate and suggested a point of interest. Hassan writes, today these “fighters could replenish and revitalise insurgencies scattered across the region in a way they could not when the group’s focus was its core in Iraq and Syria. The branches of Isis that sprung up remained limited in size and some weakened as the pool of militants had been small. This could change as former fighters make their way out of Syria and Iraq to countries in the region, where it is easier to link up with existing affiliates than if they travelled to their homelands, such as in Europe and Britain. The group thrives on polarisation and religious minorities present it with soft targets to turn people against each other. These targets also enable it to recast itself in opposition to al-Qaida and other Islamist groups. In addition to political stagnation and persistent conflicts, sectarianism will continue to provide the group with growth opportunities in a region beset with ever deepening divisions and amid the increasing role of Iran in the Middle East.

In sum, ISIS fighters can take advantage of non-state actors or look for new opportunities to manipulate crises in countries all over the world.

That being said, the African continent remains the best way to recruit fighters. Libya was ISIS’s first successful territorial conquest outside Iraq and Syria. North Africa in particular would appear to be the easiest place to reorganize a new headquarters, due to its proximity to the most recent battleground and the existence of a big, underground network of a non-state armed groups. Additionally, a significant number of ISIS foreign fighters have come from Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. A report by the International Crisis Group about the activities of ISIS in Maghreb shows that Islamic State has served three principal functions: “as a recruitment agency for militants ready to fight in Iraq and Syria, as a terrorist group mounting bloody attacks against civilians, and as a military organization seeking to exert territorial control and governance function. While ISIS does not consider the Maghreb its main area for any of those activity, how it performed in the region, and how states reacted, tell us a lot about the organization.


The division between Libyan rival groups and governments was crucial to ISIS’s expansion of influence in the country. In 2014, members of the Battar Brigade began to return to their home country. The Battar Brigade had been the only group from Libya fighting in Syria since 2012, joining ISIS on year later in 2013. In Derna, they formed the Islamic Youth Shura Council with others local jihadi groups, including Ansar Sharia. However, they were also met with resistance from rival jihadists connected to al-Qaeda and militias unified under the banner of the Shura Council of Derna Revolutionaries. The two opposing councils clashed over many issues, including the recognition of a caliphate outside of Libya and the national and international nature of the organization. Anyway, Derna-based militants planned to extend their network to Benghazi, Sirte and Sabratha. In 2015, the Shura Council of Derna Revolutionaries defeated the Islamic Youth Shura Council dominated by Islamic State militants and drove them out of the city.

In Benghazi, the Shura Council of Revolutionaries was created in 2014 to oppose forces led by general Khalifa Haftar, inclined to take control of the city. The organization included both Non-Islamist and Islamist forces, like Ansar Sharia. But the chaotic and extremely fluid relationships between those groups, including ISIS (likely responsible for the death of Muhammad Ali al-Zahawi, the Ansar Sharia Benghazi’s leader), facilitated the rise of Haftar and allowed him to claim the fight against Islamic State.

After Qadhafi’s defeat, the city of Sirte remained ungoverned, local authorities were dismantled, and as a result since 2012, some Islamist group (mostly from Misrata) appeared and promised security. Originally, residents welcomed Islamists, because at first, like in Iraq at the beginning, they did not use harsh and punitive measures against locals.

Both governments underestimated the situation in Sirte until it was too late. In 2015, ISIS expanded its control over 100 km of the coastline to the east of Sirte and also took control over major crossroads, oil wells and water station. In Qadhafi’s birthplace, ISIS offered loyalists the opportunity to assume new identities and new roles, but other competing groups like Madkhali Salafis did the same. Because of this, it’s impossible to compare the rise of ISIS in Qadhafi’s birthplace to that in Mosul, where Baathists provided ISIS with their political expertise and knowledge of the situation on the ground

Before the al-Bunyan al-Marsous offensive launched on 12 May 2016, an estimated 6,000 ISIS members were in Sirte, but during the battle less than 2,000 were killed. These numbers suggest that approximately 5,000 jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State could still be present in Libya. According to Tarek Megerisi, analyst and contributor to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Isis will try to exploit the ongoing power struggle. The trajectory of the country is toward further conflict between large parties and an increasing fracturing of existing power groups and militias.”


In Tunisia, ISIS has attempted to exacerbate the fragile transition process. In 2015, the group engaged in a series of attacks on predominantly public areas, such as the Bardo Museum in Tunis and a beach resort in Sousse and on a bus carrying presidential guard members in Tunis. These attacks destabilised the government and produced a turning point in security management, including the imposition of a state of emergency. One year later, on 7 March 2016, ISIS fighters attempted to take control of Ben Guerdane, a town on the Libyan border, in retaliation for U.S. air strikes on an ISIS camp in Sabratha, western Libya. Jihadists appeared to replicate the same strategy used in Mosul, Raqqa, and Sirte: maintain control of a territory by stoking local tensions. Since then, there have been no signficant attacks in the nation.

Like Ansar Sharia, the salafi jihadist militant organization established in Tunisia in 2011, ISIS manipulated feelings of injustice shared by large portions of the population, and combined proselytism, services, and violence. Economic crises and strong security measures rekindled the opposition between Islamist and Anti-Islamist forces, especially regarding the field of social control.


Morocco and Algeria share a past of jihadism and as a result have developed strong security services that were until now able to contain the rise of Islamic State.

Despite several cases of fighter recruitment, Morocco is the only Maghreb country that has not experienced an ISIS attack. After the 2003 Casablanca bombings, the country improved intelligence and security measures. In 2014, it deployed gendarmerie and police patrols to many sensitive locations and in 2015 it has created the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation to prevent terrorism.

In Algeria, only a small number of militants have pledged allegiance to ISIS. In 2013, a jihadist group led by former members of al Qaeda in Maghreb attacked a natural gas site in Tiguentourine, near the Libyan border. After that attack, the intelligence agency was reformed. Algeria learned the lesson of the 1990’s, and has since been working to identify places and techniques of radicalisation, in order to protect its borders with Libya, Niger and Mali.

Credit: Bulen Kilic / AFP



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