Are Returning ISIS Fighters a Threat to the U.S.?

*I tend to blog here mostly about faith and personal matters, but in real life much of my work revolves around national security and CVE (Countering Violent Extremism). This piece is a departure from my usual Patheos pieces and is an analysis of the latest risk we are being told is a threat to the US – American Muslim ISIS fighters returning to wreak havoc on the homeland.  

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-Rabia Chaudry, National Security Fellow, New America Foundation

ISIS has emerged from all other violent extremist groups as the most organized, successful, and terrifying terrorist outfit in the world today. Their territorial victories, slick digital presence, and rapid development of state-like functions is leaving the best political and military minds in the U.S. at a loss, and driving fears of attacks on American soil.  At the root of this fear is the phenomenon of foreign fighters joining ISIS ranks, in light of the group’s success at recruiting young Muslim men from the West.  It is estimated that roughly 100 Americans have joined ISIS, along with many more Muslims from Europe. The question that then follows is what will happen if these fighters return home?

To be sure, it is impossible to predict the future in such a fluid and highly charged situation in ISIS controlled territory. However, the risk of attack by fighters returning to the U.S. may depend largely on American interference in their mission.

It’s important to note that the primary goal of ISIS is not the conquest of non-Muslim lands, rather it’s the firm establishment of a “Khilafah”, the Islamic state. The objective is not “an” Islamic state, but “the” Islamic state, which will erase colonially imposed national boundaries, reclaim Muslim holy lands from corrupt regimes, and represent the interests of Sunni Muslims worldwide. Their latest publication, an incredibly well produced and visually engaging magazine, urges Muslims around the world to “perform hijrah (emigration) from wherever you are to the Islamic State…(R)ush to the to the shade of the Islamic State with your parents, siblings, spouses, and children. There are homes here for you and your family”.

As a recruitment tool, it’s proving more effective than Al Qaeda in luring Western fighters. Unlike other jihadi groups, ISIS is not asking American and European Muslims to stay home and attack Western targets. Instead they are urging a full migration of Muslims to the new state, a state which they intend to operate like any other, which issues passports and licenses, imposes taxes and laws, and has a presence among other nations on the international stage. A state in which Muslims should come to stay. While Al Qaeda and affiliates offered the promise of destruction, ISIS offers the promise of building something permanent, despite the horrors it has unleashed.

The fear of returning fighters is therefore perhaps overblown, unlikely because these fighters have little intention of returning home from their new supposed paradise.  Reports of those returning seem to indicate that they come back disillusioned with ISIS.

Add to this the success of U.S. officials thus far in identifying and arresting those attempting to travel to join the conflict in Syria, as well as those returning from it, and the actual opportunity to carry out terror attacks on American soil is low.  Only eight have ever been indicted for attempting to fight, or having fought, in Syria and until now, not a single American citizen involved in fighting in Syria with ISIS or any other group has been charged with attempting a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

So while ISIS remains a serious threat to Muslims, religious minorities, and nations in the region, the US does not seem to currently be in the line of fire. This could change given recent U.S. air strikes against ISIS though. While there is intense pressure for President Obama to develop a coherent strategy to neutralize ISIS, direct US action against them now may provide the incentive ISIS needs to plot and direct attacks in America.  Thus far no international coalition of regional partners has developed to take on the threat of ISIS. The U.S, seeks allies, but self-preservation may prevent potential partners from providing military assistance.

Analysts are rightly exasperated at the failure of the U.S. to arm and supporting the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups against Assad a few years ago, as well as the apparent inability to hold Maliki accountable for alienating Sunnis, both of which may have prevented the opportunity for ISIS to rise as they have.  But recent successes of Kurdish and Iraqi forces supported by the U.S. may indicate it is still the best strategy to support local actors without any further US involvement.

Ultimately, in this case our own self-preservation may mean stepping back and providing incentives, both carrots and sticks, for regional forces to take responsibility for regional stability. President Obama’s reluctance to strike ISIS in Syria is perhaps a strategy in and of itself to prevent the U.S. from being deeply drawn into a regional and civil war and becoming the target of ISIS and their Western recruits.

The phenomenon of young Western Muslims, including women and girls, traveling to join ISIS is troubling for the communities and families they leave behind. But whether these recruits will become a threat to the U.S. may depend largely on if and how we interfere with the mission of ISIS.