What will happen to IS members if Raqqa falls?
On March 11th two suicide bombers attacked a Shiite holy site in Damascus leaving 74 Shiite pilgrims dead and over 120 wounded. The responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) also known as the Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda front organization.
Al-Nusra has also been successful in attacking members of the Assad regime. Last month suicide bombers from the group were able to infiltrate a Syrian military facility in Homs and kill 40 military officials while wounding over 50. Among the people killed was General Hassan Daabul, a senior intelligence official close to Assad.
These attacks have also shown that Al Nusra has the infrastructure and logistics to conduct significant attacks. The attack on the Syrian army’s military installation in Homs likely took several months to plan due to the target being under heavy security while the suicide bombing of the Shia cemetery showed that Al-Nusra can inflict substantial casualties.
In comparison, the last time IS conducted a terrorist attack in Syria outside of territory under its control was July, 2016. That is when an IS suicide bomber killed 48 people and wounded additional 140 in Damascus.
Since then things have not been looking good for IS. Islamic State is besieged in its capital of Raqqa and about to be pushed out of Iraq. Their leader, al-Baghdadi, is on the run and hiding somewhere on the Syrian/Iraq border. The terrorist group still conducts terrorist attacks, but they are increasingly happening outside of Syria.
Meanwhile, the Al-Nusra Front is gaining new allies in the country. In January, 2017 it merged with Harakat Nur Al Din Al Zanki, Liwa Al Haqq, Ansar Al Din, and Jaysh Al Sunnah. This merger caused the Al-Nusra’s leader, Hashem al Sheikh, to change the group’s name to HTS from Jabhat Fath Al Sham (a name Al-Nusra took in order to obfuscate its ties with Al-Qaeda).
Without their strongholds in Syria IS could still operate and conduct terrorist attacks, similar to the way groups like Al-Qaeda have transitioned successfully between terror attacks when not holding territory, to insurgent efforts, to even securing and ruling territory, when the opportunity presents itself.
IS members are reportedly departing Syria and likely heading to Europe. Once on the continent these terrorists can move about easily and conduct suicide attacks. Plus, the policies adopted by some European countries will likely not make combating the jihadists any easier.
For example, Sweden has decided to reintegrate their returning IS members. This could encourage jihadists to come to there and conduct terrorist attacks because they would not be facing surveillance or prosecution.
However, certain European countries have adopted stringent counterterrorism laws that might discourage their IS members from returning. In states such as France, which contributed a substantial amount of IS terrorists, have enacted new counterterrorism laws. These laws expand government surveillance powers and mandate a 30-day house arrest for IS members retuning from Syria and Iraq.
In these circumstances defecting to the Al-Nusra Front might prove attractive to IS members. The organization has shown itself capable of targeting high-ranking members of the Assad regime and inflicting large death toll on the region’s Shia population. While rumors of occasional cooperation between Islamic State and Al-Nusra have appeared since the attack on the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in 2012, and it’s known that some Al-Nusra fighters have defected to Islamic State, but there is little documented evidence of a flow the other way.
Still possibility of IS members joining Al-Nusra Front should be taken seriously, particularly since an Al-Nusra Front bolstered by former IS members would put additional cash and expertise at their disposal, making the Al-Qaeda front group even more dangerous.
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