The High Cost of Defeating the Islamic State
U.N.: A military defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq could scatter extremists around the globe.
This story was updated
Would the world be a safer place if the United States and its allies were to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Not necessarily, according to a U.N. Security Council counterterrorism monitoring team.
Extremist fighters have proven remarkably adept over the past three decades at transforming themselves at the close of battles. Consider, for example, the case of al Qaeda, which had its roots in the Afghan mujahideen uprising in the late 1980s against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The U.S.-led overthrow of the Afghan Taliban in 2001 in response to its harboring of Osama bin Laden served to unleash a new generation of jihadis that applied their skills on other battlefields, including Syria and Iraq.
“The military defeat of ISIL in the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, which is not impossible in the medium term, could have the unintended consequence of scattering violent foreign terrorist fighters across the world, further complicating the response,” the U.N. monitoring team, headed by Alexander Evans, concluded in a report issued this week. “The strategic threat is even greater in 2015 and the years ahead.”
The team estimated there are currently more than 25,000 so-called foreign terrorist fighters from 100 countries active in conflicts from Somalia to Syria. The vast majority of these fighters — more than 20,000 — are in Syria and Iraq, serving in a “veritable international finishing school” for violent extremists and defying U.S. and U.N. efforts to contain them. The personal relations developed among these connected, Internet-savvy jihadis in the Middle East conflict may be applied elsewhere. “Those who eat together and bond together can bomb together,” according to the report.
“More than half the countries in the world are currently generating foreign terrorist fighters,” according to the Evans report. “The rate of flow is higher than ever, and mainly focused on movement into the Syrian Arab Republic and Iraq, with a growing problem also evident in Libya.”
Many jihadis will return home from the wars in Syria and Iraq and put a life of violence behind them. But others will look to take up the fight elsewhere. There are already indications that some foreign fighters are moving on.
“Since the beginning of 2015, there has even been a new reverse flow from the Middle East to Libya,” according to the report. “Libya is increasingly becoming a base for incoming fighters to receive military-style training” — including, the team concluded, in attack planning, evasion, bombing, and psychological warfare.
The resilience of international jihadi movements underscores the challenges facing U.S. and U.N. policymakers as Jeh Johnson, the U.S. secretary for homeland security, attends a high-level meeting Friday, May 29, of the U.N. Security Council to coordinate the international response. The 15-nation council issues a statement urging countries to enforce border controls and plug other legal gaps that allow suspect terrorists to travel unimpeded across international borders. It registered it’s concern that only 51 of the U.N.’s 193 member states are using advancing information systems to screen passengers passing through their territories.
“More than 22,000 foreign terrorist fighters from more than 100 nations have traveled to Syria since the beginning of the conflict there, including 4,000 from the West,” Johnson told the council. “More than 180 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria.” Johnson said states need to implement U.N. measures requiring the criminalization of travel by foreign terrorist fighters. They also need to impose tighter border controls, expand criminal investigations and prosecutions of extremist combatants, and counter the promotion of extremist ideology at home.
The meeting — hosted by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose nation holds the Security Council presidency this month — comes six months after U.S. President Barack Obama chaired a September 2014 Security Council summit to adopt a resolution that criminalizes individuals planning to travel to war zones to engage in terrorist activities. Friday’s meeting in New York aims to take stock of the progress and setbacks the international community has faced since then. The meeting also highlight statements from U.N. counterterrorism officials, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, and Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock.
In advance of the meeting, the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate issued a separate report Thursday assessing the impact of U.N. efforts to confront extremism and identified several shortcomings.
“There appears to be virtually no short-term possibility of ending certain threats” by the Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, and other al Qaeda inspired extremist organizations, according to the directorate’s report. “A significant long-term risk will derive from ‘alumni’ foreign terrorist fighters upon their return to their own countries or upon their arrival to third countries.” The movements “will not be fully geographically contained,” the 30-page report concluded.
The directorate — which surveyed 21 countries — found that only a handful of countries had complied with Security Council demands to adopt laws criminalizing the planning or preparation of terrorist acts committed in another state. Only five of those countries require advance information about the identity of entering travelers.
“In visa-free or visa-upon arrival regimes, such systems may offer the only meaningful way to identify potential foreign terrorist fighters,” the directorate’s report found. And only one country — which was not identified in the report — tracks transiting passengers without going through customs. The directorate “considers that to be a global systemic shortfall which should be addressed as a matter of urgency,” the report said.
But human rights advocates claimed that the Security Council’s approach to battling terrorism has infringed on human rights.
“Every time the Security Council has passed a binding counterterrorism resolution since 9/11, a wave of draconian counter-terrorism laws has followed,” said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher on human rights and counterterrorism at Human Rights Watch.
“States have not only violated suspects’ rights with these laws, they also have used them to quash legitimate dissent and target ethnic and religious groups,” she said.
Tayler urged the Security Council to make clear that human rights must be respected, even as states crack down on terror traffic. “Foreign fighters legislation that tramples on rights is not only unlawful, it will also backfire,” she said.
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Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch