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Daesh: What happened to all the foreign fighters?

By AFP - Dec 16,2017 - Last updated at Dec 16,2017

This file photo taken on February 8 shows members of the Syrian Democratic Forces , made up of US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters, riding in an armoured vehicle near the village of Bir Fawaz, 20km north of Raqqa, Syria (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — An estimated 40,000 people travelled from around the world to take up arms for the Daesh terror group as it occupied territory in Syria and Iraq and declared a caliphate in 2014.

A few hundred are believed to still be fighting as Daesh struggles to survive, having lost most of its territory to campaigns by Western-backed Syrian and Iraqi coalition armies.

But what happened to the rest?

 Many thousands were certainly killed in the intense fighting, but US experts believe many have survived, posing a formidable threat going ahead.

"The issue is: how many have died? How many are still there and willing to fight? How many have gone elsewhere to fight?" said Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defence Policy Centre at the Rand Corporation.

"How many have given up? I do not think we have a good answer."

 International counterterror groups are putting huge efforts into answering those questions, working hard to name, count and track Daesh foreign fighters. 

In France, officials say, around 1,700 people went to Iraq and Syria since 2013 to join Daesh. Of those, 400 to 450 have been killed, and 250 returned to France.

Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on December 8 that about 500 are still in the Iraq-Syria theater, and for them it is now very hard to return to France.

But that leaves another 500 whose whereabouts are unknown, many of them with the skills of war, wielding weapons and making bombs.

 

 'One-way ticket' 

 

Terrorism specialist Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University estimated during a conference on Wednesday that "thousands" have escaped the war zone.

"Today, some of them are most likely in the Balkans, lying low for the time being, waiting for the opportunity to infiltrate themselves to the rest of Europe," he said.

Some have travelled to other extremist fronts, according to Thomas Sanderson, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies' Transnational Threats Project.

For example, he said, at least 80 Daesh fighters from Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have joined since May the Daesh-allied Abu Sayyaf insurgents battling government forces in the southern Philippines.

Local people in the northern Afghanistan province of Jowzjan have told AFP that French-speaking Daesh veterans — from France or northern African countries — have recently set up camp there. 

And they also have the option of other conflict zones in northern Africa, like Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere where extremist groups akin to Daesh are conducting violent insurgencies.

The defeat of Daesh on the battlefield in Syria in Iraq did not close off escape routes. Daesh fighters were able to blend in with civilian refugees or bribe their way to sneak into Turkey.

Many do not have much choice but to continue to fight: they never had a plan to return to their home countries, where they face imprisonment in most cases, according to Jones.

 

"For many, it was a one-way trip. They wanted to live in the caliphate, permanently. So we do not see a major move back."

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