Many have quietly slipped back into their old lives, and it is unclear how many still harbor loyalty to the organization and its ideas.
As the last pockets of ISIS are eliminated in the countryside of the city of Al-Bu Kamal, the fate of the thousands of fighters who once ruled over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria has become an important issue. Certainly, although many have died in military operations, thousands more managed to escape. This raises the question of how they vanished and where they went.
When considering how many former ISIS fighters may be around, it is important to remember that ISIS members fight in small groups that can more easily escape aerial bombardment, and also that many left their territories through military withdrawals or as part of agreements.
During the battle for Manbij in August 2017, for example, hundreds of ISIS members left the city and headed to Jarablus. ISIS members were moved from the Qalamoun border area to eastern Syria in parallel with work to withdraw ISIS fighters from the Lebanese border to areas under ISIS control in Syria, especially Al-Bu Kamal, as part of a deal with the Lebanese group Hezbollah. Hundreds, maybe more, then left the city of Raqqa in a deal between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS which remains surrounded by a great deal of secrecy. ISIS members then left the Yarmouk camp for the Syrian desert.
It is notable that the departures in these four instances took place at the final moments, meaning that many more escaped before the siege was imposed. This is in addition to the Iraqi ISIS members who fled after their successive defeats in that country.
ISIS members disappeared because the overwhelming majority understood that their ‘caliphate’ was vanishing after a series of defeats, and therefore it would be absurd to stay and sacrifice themselves for an aim that would not be achieved. At the beginning of its formation, ISIS members were not known to give in to surrender, instead preferring to die. But clear evidence has indicated that the mentality of its fighters has changed, and that they have begun looking for ways to live.
Facts on the ground indicate that most ISIS members went back to their normal lives, particularly those working in non-military fields, who are more likely to have joined ISIS out of necessity when their area was taken over than to be true believers. A significant proportion of those who joined ISIS hoping for power and material gains have also returned to their normal lives.
Some members moved quickly to switch their uniforms and join the ranks of the SDF, which just a short time ago they had been accusing of being atheists and infidels. There are no precise figures on the number of ISIS members who have joined the ranks of the SDF; while observers believe that they number more than a thousand, officials in the SDF say this is a media exaggeration.
Members of the SDF and the Free Syrian Army have also been accused of easing the flight of ISIS members in exchange for monetary amounts commensurate with the status of the ISIS member, as well as due to social and tribal considerations. There were also dozens of cases documented by activists of members handing themselves over to the Syrian regime in exchange for major sums of money.
Recently ISIS has taken up a new strategy to allow its members to survive. After previously rejecting prisoner exchanges, it has recently begun carrying out many such operations, including an exchange arranged secretly between ISIS and the SDF in the village of Hasou in the southern al-Hasakeh countryside, through which 11 ISIS members were released in exchange for the release of 18 SDF members.
Residents also speak of ‘mafia’ smuggling networks who are loyal to money alone and have smuggled ISIS members to SDF areas, then to the Euphrates Shield and Turkey and after that to their countries. Press reports indicate 550 ISIS members have returned to Europe.
A major problem with these escaped members is that no one knows their exact numbers or the extent of their loyalty to the organization’s ideas. More than 100 bombings attributed to ISIS have occurred in areas under the control of the Syrian opposition, sometimes more than one a day. The group has also claimed dozens of assassinations.
The Syrian opposition’s fear of the group’s sleeper cells has pushed them to carry out security operations which have led to dozens of arrests, including of prominent ISIS security officials. The SDF has recently done likewise.
But it is difficult to quantify how much of the dream of the ‘caliphate state’ still lives on in the minds of former members, and what paths they will take now.
Jalal Zainedine is a Syrian researcher and journalist. He writes for different newsletters and Think Tanks, including Al-modon, The New Arab, and Arab Reform Initiative.