ISIL - Archive/Reuters
CAIRO - 10 July 2017: Among the important questions that have been tackled this week is the question of the whereabouts of the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the Iraqi declaration of the full recovery of Mosul, the crown jewel of ISIL that has dominated the news since 2014.
Military intervention against ISIL started in October 2014 with the formation of international coalitions following the region’s invasion by ISIL, named at the time Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant, which had been operating in complete silence as one of the many militant groups permeating Syria since 2011, and which had been lodging itself in the northeastern provinces of Syria (Raqqa, Al-Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor) until it fully took hold of these cities.
After its strategic launch in June 2014, the organization broke into the Syrian-Iraqi borderlines, invading and seizing about a third of the Iraqi lands.
In the period after its launching, the organization occupied a proportion of Iraqi and Syrian lands, which significantly exceeded those that remained out of its grip.
Intoxicated by such victories, the organization announced its complete disunion and independence from Al-Qaeda and renamed itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and then proceeded to carry out the duties of this so-called “state” in the vast lands it occupied and on all its peoples and fortunes, establishing a fully-fledged ruling system.
The main reason for silence about the organization in its early days in Syria was because it was seen as an opportunity for exhausting and devastating the Asaad regime’s centralized domination over Syrian lands by using the notion of sovereignty to delegitimize his regime.
This silence was orchestrated by the main actors in the Syrian crisis, yet the fundamental threads of the organization remained in the hands of the Turkish Intelligence (MIT) at the time when Ankara was leading the fight against the Syrian regime.
Through these threads, the organization was able to win a very valuable goal for Turkey, and that is gaining control over the provinces of the north, in areas which matter to the Kurds of Syria more than they concern the regime which was preoccupied at the time with what was later called “Useful Syria”, i.e. regions which are far-removed from those dominated by the Islamic State and which center around the capital Damascus, its suburbs, and the western frontier with its coastal cities on the Mediterranean.
This silence could not have endured after Iraq took its step, i.e. breaking the borderline between Al Anbar and Deir ez-Zor. Whereas the first episode in the life of ISIL was given a considerable cover in the Syrian context, the Iraqi episode, in contrast, represents a colossal move for the organization and removes it from the track that was decided for it.
What is noteworthy about this phase is the fact that there usually comes a point along the journey of militant groups where their interests conflict with those of their supporters. In other words, there was a mission for which the organization was allowed to grow and remain in Syria.
But with its growing powers and capabilities arose its own special objectives, since the organization’s leadership is Iraqi, its objectives are Iraqi, and its main battlegrounds are with other Iraqi bodies.
It is only but logical, therefore, that calculated concordances of temporary silence have taken place in return for the organization’s Syrian mission, and its foundational declaration in the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul is but an interpretation of this fundamental equation.
Mentioning Mosul necessitates an answer to the question of the whereabouts of the ISIL fighters who conquered and dominated the aforementioned areas, especially with the daily news of the organization’s defeats in both Syria and Iraq.
Recovering Mosul, the symbol of the organization, foreshadows a dramatic end scene where spectators expect photos of thousands, or even hundreds, of the organization’s fighters who terrorized them for years, so that defeat could announce itself in the faces of the dead and the arrested.
Unfortunately, such a scene never came to pass, and thus the question was raised, with some even talking about “evaporation”, while others provided the short and easy answer that the organization has finished its mission and is subsequently being deployed to other locations to start a new episode and a new mission.
Members of the Islamic State were certainly not carried away by wind to other places, and the defeat we are talking about here is seen in losing grounds and losing control over cities; they were also certainly not killed, and none of the organization’s leaders were captured, but they all escaped to the deserts that lie on the fringe of these cities.
Many of the fighters of the organization in Syria and Iraq simply shaved their beards, changed their clothes and dispersed once more in their societies, resuming their ordinary lives with their families and waiting for the next episode.
This, in particular, is one of the things that remained unspoken of; namely that the majority of ISIL fighters are actually natives of the areas they dominated, whereas foreigners have always been a minority, which was exaggerated by some in order to give the organization a global character.
While this might partially be true, it remains a twist to the organization’s origin as a societal reaction to a pressing political crisis of an ideological nature, for the Sunni component in the region is facing unprecedented restraint, in contrast to a rapid Shiite growth.
Therefore, demographic changes, on the margins of what came to be known as the “War on Terror”, were and still are a threat to the inhabitants of these regions, which is why they automatically formed foster homes for the ISIL fighters in the early episodes.
Today, they are playing the same role in a new phase, i.e. that of the fighters’ “evaporation” in face of the troops targeting them and their patient wait for the coming episode. Those who look for easy and short answers overlook the view that this new episode will be fiercer and ever more belligerent according to readings of the present battles that are settling scores of the past episodes.