The battle to take back Mosul from ISIS began last week, and although victory is by no means certain, the possibility brings up one very important question. What will happen to all of the foreign fighters if ISIS is pushed out of the city?
European and American counterterrorism officials are worried that as ISIS loses territory, foreign fighters will abandon the group and seek to return home to Europe. Meanwhile, some U.S. officials are looking to organize an offensive to retake ISIS’s de facto capital in Raqqa, giving those fighters fleeing Mosul nowhere to regroup. It’s unlikely that coalition forces will be able to capture most of these ISIS fighters, whether Syrian, Iraqi, or foreign-born. This means that fighters from Europe might escape and try to go home.
As the coalition against ISIS moves to deprive the terrorist group of its territory, we must consider the consequences that victory could bring. The tradeoff for defeating ISIS territorially might be a spike in terrorist attacks in the West, at least in the short term. But the return of foreign Islamic State fighters to Europe could have other long-lasting effects on European civilization and the future of Islam in Europe.
Let’s Consider Several Possible Outcomes
There are several possible outcomes if ISIS is defeated in Mosul. Returning fighters may work as lone wolves, attacking in an unorganized fashion. This could take the form of small-scale attacks, like the one on the French priest over the summer. Or they could be more devastating, like the attack in Nice that killed 86 and injured more than 400.
Alternatively, these experienced fighters could take what they’ve learned over the last few years in Iraq and Syria and organize cells in Europe to carry out consistent and organized attacks, both large and small, like the coordinated attacks in Paris last November that killed 130 and wounded hundreds more.
The latter scenario has the potential to metastasize and bring enduring instability to the continent. But either one would cause panic in Europe and continue to increase the popularity of far-right nationalist political parties. This in turn would further degrade the viability of the European Union.
Another outcome that could have long-lasting effects on Europe doesn’t directly involve violence. These men (and some women) who have been fighting in Iraq and Syria may very well return to Europe without engaging in terrorism. But that means they will bring a radical form of Islam back to their mosques and communities. Rather than carrying out violent attacks, they’ll get involved with Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored Islamist groups and mosques. This would promote a strident Islamism as the preferred form of Islam in Europe, squeezing out more moderate versions of the faith.
That would affect the future of European society, potentially increasing the already tense relationship between Western liberalism and Islamic fundamentalism. A Europe with an increasing Islamist population will threaten equal rights between men and women, freedom of speech, and separation of religion and government—that is to say, some of the core tenets of Western democracy.
Returning fighters will also pass on their extremist views to their children. This has obvious generational consequences, including the continued spread of hardline Islamism in Europe. But it will also prime their children to be open to future iterations of al-Qaeda or ISIS. These groups may one day call on Muslims around the world to join them to fight in a new caliphate, or rise up to launch large-scale attacks in Europe.
Another Possibility: A Spike in Refugees
The liberation of Mosul could also result in another wave of migrants heading to Europe. The United Nations is predicting that as many of 700,000 of Mosul’s 1.2 million residents could flee the city. Some have already begun to leave in anticipation of intensified battle. While many are headed toward refugee camps, others may opt to begin life anew in a more prosperous Europe rather than wait to see which way the battle goes, especially given the concern that ISIS fighters will try to destroy as much of the city as they can, leaving citizens nothing to return to.
Residents of Mosul, a majority-Sunni city, also fear what will happen if Shiite government forces and Shiite militias take over the city. Iraqi military units already have been flying Shiite flags on army vehicles and planting them on top of newly reconquered vehicles. This indicates an uptick in sectarian tension, giving residents further incentive to leave.
The obvious security risk of another wave of refugees coming to Europe is that ISIS operatives, or simply foreign fighters wishing to return home, will camouflage themselves within these groups. This is a tactic that already proved successful during the migrant crisis in 2015. As discussed above, this would have numerous dangerous repercussions.
So What Do We Do Now?
So what can be done about this impending crisis? Coalition forces are now surrounding Mosul in an attempt to prevent ISIS fighters from escaping. Meanwhile, Turkey insists it has cut off the most widely used routes across its border with Syria, ostensibly preventing ISIS fighters from crossing into Europe.
However, counterterrorism officials in Europe are still on alert. There’s no telling what kind of unexpected turns the Battle of Mosul will take, and European fighters could find more circuitous routes home, through North Africa and across the Mediterranean.
Europe needs a plan if ISIS fighters do successfully return home to Europe. European countries have been working on de-radicalization programs for individuals who have begun down the road toward Islamist terrorism, but the success of these programs has been spotty so far. The difficulty here is that any foreign fighters who are able to get back into their country of origin will do so undetected by the government in order to avoid prosecution. Therefore, there’s no way for governments to try to de-radicalize them, because government agencies won’t even know they’ve returned.
The challenge of defeating ISIS has always been that it’s not just a territorial battle. It’s an ideological and religious one. If ISIS loses Mosul, many will defect and give up the fight. But others won’t, because they’ll still see themselves at war with the West. They’ll still believe in the supremacy of sharia and the division of the world between the dar al islam and dar al harb, the house of Islam and the house of war. As long as they hold fast to those beliefs, destroying ISIS will take a lot more than winning the Battle of Mosul.