I have gone on record several times to state that Islamic State (IS) does not pose an existential threat to anybody. It can certainly cause havoc and mayhem and destruction but there is no way that this motley crew of extremists is ever going to threaten the world. Yes, it has a state – sort of – and yes it has territory – sort of – but we need to stop talking about these terrorists as if they loom on the horizon like the Mongol hordes, or to use a more recent analogy, Nazi Germany. Now THOSE two groups posed existential threats to anyone who got in their way!
But what I find fascinating about IS is the sheer number of nations whence members have come. In previous jihads (Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.) there were thousands and they came from all over, but I do not think that we have ever seen either the quantity or diversity that we have with IS. Here are a few examples of countries we do not normally associate with foreign fighters that have featured among the extremists:
- Estonia: the government charged two men with helping a third get to Syria
- Trinidad and Tobago: a man posted a video with IS in which he said he fled his country because of the restrictions on Muslims
- In the idyllic Maldives, there may be as many as 200 fighting with IS
- 25 Swiss citizens are believed to have gone to IS
- a 25-year old man from Ghana informed his family in August 2015 that he had joined IS
Of course there are countries where thousands have left to enter Syria: Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and parts of the former Soviet Union. And some in the middle (ranging from dozens to hundreds) including the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, Australia, the US and Canada.
But it is the first group that worries me. When I worked as a terrorism analyst at CSIS we would have exchanges with a number of partners around the world. Some were well-versed in terrorism and what to do about because, like Canada, they had experienced the scourge of extremism all too often. With the smaller intelligence services, however, I could sense a puzzlement over violent radicalisation as their recent histories were different. Oh too be so lucky as to not have to worry about radicalisation among one’s citizenry!
It will be interesting to watch how these countries deal with the returnees. And although not all foreign fighters become domestic terrorists, these nations will now be faced with a new reality. They will have to decide how to best deal with these individuals, ranging from counselling to investigation to arrests/trials and incarceration.
In any event, the legacy of returning terrorists will outlast IS by years, if not decades, and cause us all problems, not just for the Maldivians and the Estonians. So when IS finally joins the many other terrorist groups that no one talks about anymore – well no one save historians – those who bought into its violent ideology will be with us for some time.
Which I guess will give me lots more material to blog about.
PS after I posted this blog I learned that 89 residents of Trinidad and Tobago have joined IS. 89!! From a small Caribbean island! This speaks volumes about the reach of IS.