Where Have 30,000 Jihadis Gone? Regrouping for Revised, Massive ISIS Terror
“Let’s hope that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is deader than a doornail,” Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the US commander in Syria and Iraq, said Tuesday, July 11. Unable to confirm reports that he had been killed by a Russian air strike, the general added: “If he’s not, as soon as we find out where he is, he will be.”
But this did not matter too much, he added, because “What we’ve seen with all these paramount leaders is you take them out and someone else steps up.”
As to the number of ISIS fighters who survived the fall of Mosul this week, Townsend estimated “a couple of hundred.” But, he said, “I don’t think anybody really knows.”
This comment was odd coming from a general in charge of the nine-month long battle to liberate Iraq’s second city from the Islamic State. But DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources say it is part of a much broader and odder problem. None of the entities responsible for the war on ISIS have a clue to its present numbers and, still stranger, where they are hiding out after they were defeated in battle. Guesstimates hover around tens of thousands of jihadi fighters, who were formerly entrenched in the vast lands they seized in Syria and Iraq and have now disappeared without a trace.
This emerged when the American and European intelligence agencies tracking Islamist movements across the Middle East tried to find out the whereabouts of the fighters driven out of Mosul and Raqqa.
According to their final estimates, 3,000 withdrew to Deir ez-Zour and Mayadin in eastern Syria; less than 3,000 scattered through the Iraqi towns of Awe, Qaim and Huweija; and another 2,000 dispersed in western and central Syria. But 8,000 are still unaccounted for. Putting these estimates together leads to an estimated total of 30,000 or more Islamist fighters, known to be in Syria and Iraq up until six months ago, to have vanished.
The solution to this mystery offered by DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism experts is a Plan B held in store by the ISIS leader and his Iraqi generals. They prepared themselves well in advance for military defeat, confounding most world experts who predicted that they would hold the ground they seized in 2014 against attack. So when they faced superior odds, they were ready to move. Islamist leaders were under no illusion that their caliphate’s territorial base would last long, and so they drew up an alternative plan for a war of terror to go forward at full spate without he benefit of a territorial base.
The ISIS legion was broken up into autonomous fighting groups of 10-50 terrorists and scattered across hundreds of rural towns and villages in Syria and Iraq and other parts of the Middle East – specifically Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Sudan.
They were provided with accommodation in their new homes, as well as stocks of weapons, ammo, explosives and access to operational funds. Each group had a leader, who is well-trained in terrorist tactics and sabotage and capable of operating independently.
Some groups were ordained as sleepers and told to stay low for two to four years. Others were wound up for springing into action in short order.
US and Russian intelligence have gathered information on a chain of terrorist cells lying in wait in the Syrian towns of Hama, Homs and Aleppo and the north Lebanese town of Tripoli. Thousands of jihadists in large groups have been sighted heading from Syria into Turkey. They were not destined for West Europe, like many others in the past, but were directed to settle in Turkey and run terrorist cells from bases of operations in their new homes.
This flow of jihadis swelled to such massive proportions in recent weeks that US Defense Secretary James Mattis protested and personally warned the Turkish government to close their Syrian border without delay.
Ankara most likely ignored the American warning as irrelevant to its main obsession, which is to crush Kurdish rule in the northern Syrian provinces of Idlib and Efrin.
Some Middle East intelligence and counterterrorism circles attribute to a new regrouped ISIS cell the large-scale coordinated terrorist attack on Egyptian checkpoints in northern Sinai on July 7, which left 23 Egyptian soldiers dead and 33 injured.
Egyptian forces, backed by jets and attack helicopters, pursued the jihadists and killed 40 of their fighters. It was discovered that the group, which mounted the attack, consisted of 40-60 operatives, making it the biggest ISIS terror operation ever carried out outside Syria and Iraq.
The concern now is that it was the prelude for a round of escalated ISIS attacks on this enlarged scale in other parts of the Middle East as well.
There is little doubt that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi carefully studied and took to heart the lessons of US operations in the First Gulf War and its fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq in the early 2000s. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Al Qaeda’s man in Iraq, Musab Al Zarqawi, prepared an operational underground infrastructure for regrouping and rising anew in the event of the loss of their centers of power and bastions. Neither made timely preparations for the downfall of the Saddam regime in 2003 or the US victory over Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007.