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If ISIS falls, where will its fighters flee?

If the Islamic State group is driven out of Iraq and Syria, where will the remaining militants go? William Brangham learns more about the current state of the militant group from Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times and Peter Neumann of King's College.

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    Turning to Iraq, the battle for the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul is now taking shape, and with it, the hopes of the Iraqi government that the last major foothold for the terrorist group in that country can be retaken.

    But what is the overall status of ISIS?

    William Brangham looks for some answers.


    At its peak between November of 2014 and May of 2015, ISIS controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, but, since then, ISIS has taken serious losses on the battlefield and has lost critical territory.

    To understand what this means for the group's future, I'm joined by two people who studied ISIS in great detail.

    Peter Neumann runs the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College in London. And Rukmini Callimachi is a reporter at The New York Times.

    Welcome to you both.

    Rukmini, I would like to start with you, if you don't mind.

  • RUKMINI CALLIMACHI, The New York Times:



    Give us a status report. How is ISIS doing right now? Where are they operating? And how are they doing?


    They have certainly lost some territory both in Iraq and also more recently in Libya.

    And we have seen that there has been a significant dip in their output in terms of their propaganda. They're putting out less videos, less images, et cetera.

    But I wouldn't be quick to declare victory of any kind. This is a group that has shown itself to be very nimble. And despite their losses on the battlefield, we're seeing that attacks in the West are continuing to proliferate. Just in the last couple of days, German officials were able to dismantle a plot in Germany that was meant to be against the Berlin Airport possibly, and that, according to the officials I have spoken to, could have looked as bad as the Brussels attack that we saw in March of this year.


    Peter Neumann, is there anything you would add to that about how ISIS is doing globally?

  • PETER NEUMANN, King’s College:

    Right now, there are still an estimated 10,000 foreign fighters in ISIS territory.

    If Syria and Iraq fall, those 10,000 will have to go somewhere. Some will go to Turkey. Some will try to return to their home countries. Others will try to go to other battlefronts. So I think the story of ISIS is not over once ISIS is defeated in Syria and Iraq.


    Peter, just staying with you for a moment, your center just put out a study that showed how ISIS is increasingly recruiting individuals who have criminal backgrounds. And I wonder, just tell me, what is it that you have found?


    So, if you speak to European security agencies, they will tell you that, in Germany, for example, 66 percent of ISIS recruits were known to police.

    The same picture in Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, France. A lot of former criminals are becoming attracted to ISIS. The head of Brussels police is talking about ISIS as the super gang, and it's kind of true, because ISIS offers in many ways what gangs are offering, a strong sense of identity, power, a sense of strength. And it kind of recruits in the same areas, often very deprived, socioeconomically marginalized areas, the suburbs of Paris and those of Brussels.

    It's a very different type of recruit from the more sort of intellectual types that we saw in al-Qaida 15 years ago.


    Rukmini, this seems to fly in the face of what we — what many people believe, that ISIS is largely an ideologically, religiously-driven organization.


    I don't think that follows, William.

    I think that Peter's excellent report shows that one of the interesting outcomes of this recruitment of people in the criminal underworld is that ISIS has put a great accent in cloaking their actions in religious language.

    So, for example, one of the techniques that ISIS recruits are asked to use when they're trying to travel to Syria and they need to raise funds for the trip is, they're told to basically carry out burglaries, credit card fraud, everything from that to stealing cars, et cetera.

    And the word that ISIS uses to describe these stolen goods is ghanima. Ghanima is an Arabic term which means the spoils of war. And it's a term that appears in Islamic scripture to describe what happened during the time of the Prophet Mohammed, when he and his companions were going into areas that they were invading and taking the spoils of those areas. So, basically credit card fraud becomes a religious action, in their view.

    When I was in Germany a couple of months ago, and I had the chance to interview Harry Sarfo, who is a jihadist who was with ISIS' special forces, he told me specifically that ISIS was looking for people with criminal connections for a number of reasons, among them because, in Europe, it's not so easy to get guns, to get ammunition, to get weapons.

    And, so, by tapping into these criminal underworlds, they are able to then set up the networks that they need to be able to carry out attacks.


    Peter, does this connection, seeing this connection between the criminal underworld and ISIS offer law enforcement any obvious anti-ISIS strategy that they're not currently using?


    Well, it definitely asks them to think differently, because becoming pious doesn't necessarily mean that you stop being a criminal, and not being pious doesn't necessarily that you're not being radical.

    Also, it means that we have to think, for example, that things like countering terrorism finance in a different way. A lot of the financing of terrorist attacks in Europe never enters the international financial system. It doesn't show up on bank accounts. It is being financed through petty crime, through drug dealing, through credit card fraud, through counterfeit, illicit trade.

    And that needs to be paid a lot more attention to. In many ways, criminal policing and counterterrorism policing are becoming one and the same thing.


    Rukmini, one of the things that we have heard a great deal here in the U.S. is, President Obama has said that, as ISIS continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, that that is partly why we are seeing these attacks domestically, and that it's them lashing out, in a sense.

    I understand that you don't necessarily buy that as a theory. Can you explain why?



    I don't buy it because the data doesn't back it up. This is a group that was trying to send fighters from its earliest days. And it had the strategy of exporting terror at the same time that it had a strategy of holding ground.

    Now, what I think is partially correct and what the administration is saying is that, as Peter pointed out, you have these 10,000 foreign fighters who are trapped in Iraq and Syria right now. Some of them are, of course, going to with be killed in airstrikes and are going to be eliminated that way.

    But as the caliphate is strangled and is erased, those people have to go somewhere. And so there is, of course, concern that the pace of attacks will increase as Mosul falls and eventually as Raqqa falls.


    All right, Peter Neumann and Rukmini Callimachi, thank you both very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you.

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