The Year Ahead

The Year the Islamic State Lost Its Last Strongholds

Many of its militants are now in prison, but that doesn’t mean the battle is over. In 2020, conflict could rise anew.

A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State near Mosul, Iraq, on March 1, 2017.
A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State near Mosul, Iraq, on March 1, 2017. Iraqi forces launched a major push on February 19 to recapture the west of Mosul from the Islamic State jihadist group, retaking the airport and then advancing north. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images) Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

A member of the Iraqi forces walks past a mural bearing the logo of the Islamic State near Mosul, Iraq, on March 1, 2017. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

At the start of 2019, the Islamic State lost its last territory in Syria, and tens of thousands of its remaining members were imprisoned. Behind bars, they added to the ranks of terrorists already jailed in Iraq, Syria, and even in Western countries.

The year was bookended by another extremist event: Usman Khan’s stabbing attack in which two people were murdered in London while he was on parole after being sentenced on terrorism charges related to a 2012 attack plot. In the coming years, thousands more Islamic State and other terrorist prisoners will be released. And if what happened in the jails before that group’s rise is any guide, the consequences will be deadly.

Before 2013, when the Islamic State first started its expansion and took control of some land in Syria, the majority of Islamic State leaders had already spent time in the United States-run Bucca prison camp in Iraq. Many among the group’s rank-and-file had, too. Some Russian-language Islamic State recruitment videos used such heavy prison slang that they were hard for the average person to even understand.

Now, back in prison, Islamic State members can coordinate to spread propaganda, make future plans, orchestrate operations in other countries, and even develop technical equipment. According to an interview this winter with a member of the U.S. military who was a guard at Bucca when Islamic State leadership was there, Islamists there were drawing prototypes of the future Islamic State drone program—kites with hand grenades attached to them. But their activities among themselves are only a small part of the problem. While in prison, these inmates may also recruit others who are serving sentences for nonideological crimes but now have major grievances against their home governments.

It’s happened many times before. At Bucca camp in 2004, the future Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi spent much of his time offering religious and tactical classes to anyone who would take them. One of the Islamic State’s military leaders, Omar al-Shishani, was radicalized in a Georgian prison where he was doing time for illegal weapons possession. In Russia, according to inmates interviewed in December, even many men imprisoned for ties to neo-Nazis have turned to radical Islam, believing it to be the only effective violent opposition against the government. One inmate, in fact, had a Hitler tattoo on one side of his chest and an Islamic State flag on the other.

The Islamic State-prison connection is so pervasive that, in a 2014 interview, one foreign fighter with the group openly complained that he resented serving alongside so many people who had come to Syria after serving sentences for rape and pedophilia at home. Many other ex-inmates were former drug users who were in prison for drug-related crimes. They turned to radical Islam while withdrawing from heroin. And, according to a Syrian doctor from an area formerly controlled by the Islamic State, many foreign fighters he treated had poorly made prison-style tattoos.

With so many ex-Islamic State foreign fighters in prisons in different countries now, their recruitment base has only grown. The question for governments looking to head off a boom in terrorist recruitment is whether anything can be done about it. For plenty of prisoners, turning to religion is a normal way for inmates to find hope in the most desperate situations. In Latin America, for example, many gang members turn to Christianity while in prison and leave those gangs after being released. But in many of the prisons where Islamic State members and other terrorists are held, Islam has been weaponized as a last route for channeling anti-government grievances.

The key, then, is to address those grievances at the source. It is well known that the majority of Islamic State fighters come from countries with weak rule of law and adherence to democratic norms. In Russia and throughout Central Asia, a person may be sent to prison as on terrorism charges for liking anti-government posts on social media. Other punishable offenses are even more arbitrary. In Iraq, Sunni males are often detained simply because their name—however common it may be—matches one on a wanted list.

And prison sentences in many of these countries are brutal, with routine beatings and torture. To avoid serving time under such circumstances, one Tajik ex-Islamic State fighter cut his wrists before he was supposed to board a flight taking him to a prison back home, according to another ex-fighter who was with him in prison in Turkey. Understandably, many of the prisoners’ wariness of the government turns into extreme hatred while they are behind bars. According to one former prisoner I interviewed who had no ties to militant groups before his sentence, “while in prison my only dream was about joining an insurgency to revenge those who kept me there.”

The reach of these governments is long. Some even use Interpol to go after their citizens living in other countries. For example, according to one religious Kazakh man I talked to, in 2018 Kazakhstan requested his arrest on terrorism charges even though he had political asylum in the European Union. Although he was not extradited, he spent six months in prison in the EU. No doubt, this former inmate could now harbor grievances against not only his home country but also his host. But at least in this case, the EU has a strong and independent judicial system.

In Ukraine, by contrast, security services are rumored to have kidnapped members of the Tajik, Uzbek, and Russian diasporas that are wanted by their home country on terrorism and political opposition charges and to handle them there without any due process. Needless to say, that does not increase inmates’ trust in government.

The Islamic State has little real competition in the prisons for winning over such inmates. It has become the strongest anti-government force in many of them, and it’s one that openly promises (at least in its propaganda) to liberate the oppressed. According to one recently released ex-Islamic State fighter in Kyrgyzstan, “In prison we were very respected, because we stood up again oppressive regime in Syria.” Now that he is free, he is still respected among the criminal community of his town.

There will be many more like him on the streets in the years to come. Over the next five to 10 years, many will be released from jail and their sentences. And before then, the concentration of fighting-age, combat-ready militants in desperate prison situations increases the possibility of prison breaks. For example, in Tajikistan this May, there was major Islamic State prison riot, led by a son of Gulmurod Khalimov, the group’s military leader who was killed in Syria in 2017. In that case, 29 inmates were recorded to be killed and land border crossings with neighboring countries were closed.

Incidents like that could be just the beginning; riots tend to take on a life of their own, causing chain reactions through different countries. Successful Islamic State attacks, such as the 2017 Stockholm terrorist attack, and the group’s military achievements in Iraq are already reason for celebration in prisons all over the word, even among non-Muslim and not particularly religious inmates who are tired of the way they are treated.

Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov