There are over 10,000 terrorists from various groups still remaining in Syria’s Idlib, while the number of facilitators and sympathizers, including from the detention camps in northern Syria, may be much higher, Coordinator of the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team concerning Daesh, according to team coordinator for UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring concerning al-Qaeda*, Daesh**, and Taliban Edmund Fitton-Brown.
Sputnik: Talking about the military operation that Turkey was conducting in northern Syria, there were many reports that the Kurdish militants let out some prisoners from Daesh. There were reports about the number around 700. Do you have any information about it, can you confirm that indeed such thing happened that terrorists from prisons were released? How dangerous is it? Where do they go, how can they be tracked and what should be done now?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: It's a fair question because it relates directly to the threat from Daesh. So I would say that the prisons that exist or have existed up to now in northeastern Syria, they were improvised arrangements that were not based on jurisdiction, based on who has some level of military power or practical authority on the ground. So it was never a satisfactory state of affairs and that obviously was something that the international community was very worried about anyway, because you had all of these people being held in circumstances that are temporary, and with the risk that already existed. You may recall that Baghdadi made the statement in September about the importance of liberating some of the people who were being held or accommodated in some of these facilities. So the risk was always there, and it would be wrong to suggest that there was some perfect state of affairs that was then disrupted. That would be wrong.
But the concern that people had was that anything which threatened to disrupt the temporary impractical arrangements that existed was obviously increasing the risk. And I think that was a fair concern for people to have, and I think that concern would have grown if the military mission had gone out of control and if it had escalated, if there had been major battles which had then caused the mission to change or expand.
What instead we have now is I think an outcome, again temporary (we have to always remember that the dispositions in north eastern Syria still remain worryingly provisional), an outcome where because of discussions between the governments directly interested in this issue, it looks as if the objectives of the Turkish military operation have been very firmly maintained and restrained. The Turks have shown self-discipline, there has been peaceful interaction between a range of member states who are involved in this, Russia included, and so I think the conclusion is that the unpredictable disruption has been kept to a minimum.
But to answer your question, has that minimum been problematic? I think somewhat yes. We certainly believe that some people have escaped from facilities. It's not clear to us that this is a large number of particularly dangerous individuals. But we don't know enough yet to say that with any certainty. I think the numbers sound a little high. I've heard about 700 mentioned. I've also heard a thousand mentioned, but I'm not convinced that these numbers are not a little high. There were some mitigating measures I think that were taken at various facilities at the time when this military operation was looking more uncertain. So I think there are certainly more Daesh at large now than there were before the operation, but whether that's enough to make a significant difference to the nature of the threat I can't say.
Under the question about what should be done about that, well of course you've got significant movements of displaced civilians, so I think these people who have left the facilities, they will either consider themselves amongst the civilians or they would probably go into facilities provided for them by Daesh operatives and Daesh sympathizers. We know that Daesh were preparing to treat these people, they were trying to get these people out of camps as a priority, and that included obviously working on what to do with them if they came out. So there would have been some kind of reception available, probably not a very well formulated one and probably not much in the way of facilities. So I think that there will be a split between those two outcomes - some would be with facilitators and sympathizers of Daesh, and some will have disappeared into civilian population movements. Some may of course have sought to cross the border with some others into Iraq. We don't know the size of the problem. I don't think that we could say that the threat has been strategically increased, but we certainly need to monitor it.
Sputnik: In the end of September some statements from the Russian Foreign Ministry suggested that almost all Daesh terrorists had been defeated in Syria and that the only area in which some elements were left was Idlib. According to your estimation, what is the number of Daesh and Nusra terrorists remaining in Idlib? And in Syria in total?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: You'll get very widely varying numbers for this. Of course, one of the things that's important to remember is that there is a definitional issue here, which is what is a fighter? Is a fighter somebody who is now carrying a gun or is it somebody who has a gun available, or is a fighter someone who is a non-violent facilitator?
So we'd be cautious about numbers but I would say that to suggest that terrorists were defeated everywhere except Idlib would be incorrect. Idlib is certainly a big problem, but that sort of section of northwestern Syria that centers around Idlib province, there is a big problem there. As you know, Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham [banned in Russia] is the largest and the most dominant group in that region, but you also have Huras al-Din (Guardians of Religion, which is a sort al-Qaeda aligned group) [branch of al-Qaeda, banned in Russia], and you also have some non-aligned people who don't have such a precise affiliation but are extremists, some of those are extremists for purposes that are not clear. So it's a complicated picture in Idlib. But just to give you the best sort of figures that I can - you probably have seen that there's a fairly regular figure that the Americans quote about 14 to 18 thousand Daesh elements or fighters spread across the whole of Iraq and Syria still. It's a high number, it is the highest that I hear these days. I don't want to endorse it, but of course if you are prepared to accept people who are simply facilitators, supporters, I would certainly find that number credible. I'm not so sure about the number of actual people walking around carrying guns to be so high.
If you look at northern Syria, you have these camps that are combination of displaced camps, refugee camps, and detention facilities, and combined numbers of those are very high indeed. I mean we're talking about more than 70,000 just in Al-Hol. The other camps are much smaller than Al-Hol, but still we're talking about a cumulative number that is pushing up towards 100,000. That's a lot of people. Of course, a lot of those children and a lot of them are women of whom some may be innocent dependents, but of course you know that's a big serious question mark over that because many of the women have been active servants of the Islamic State in one form or another. Also, there is a big question that arises over what has been the radicalization effect of having these people cramped together in these facilities over the past nine months as they have been. So it's not unreasonable to think in terms of very large numbers of problematic people detained or semi-detained, and still significant numbers at large.
Just going back to Idlib, we have offered estimates of figures. I think our estimates are (though they are very approximate based on an attempt to triangulate different numbers that were given by different member states), but we've talked about each two years [the monitoring team provides a threat assessment report on Daesh twice a year – ed.] having significantly more than 10,000 fighters. We've talked about Huras al-Din having about 2,000 fighters. I don't know about the Daesh numbers in the area, but I think Daesh’s preparation in the area has been more with facilities and safe houses for their leaders. So I wouldn't want to put a guess on Daesh numbers in Idlib. They deliberately kept a low profile there. They don’t want to try and pose a military challenge to HTS [Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham, banned in Russia], because I think they know they would lose because HTS is so much bigger and so much stronger.
Sputnik: Talking about Al-Hol camp, which you mentioned, during the time that it has existed, has the threat of radicalization of those women and children who are related to IS (like wives of terrorists or their children) been growing? Is it growing now?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: Yes, I think it is. I mean I think that's widely recognized by the whole international community. The international community disagrees on what are the solutions to these displaced and detained people, but they all agree that it's a serious problem, both humanitarian and security. And this issue of radicalization… It’s quite clear that the guards of some of these camps are not able to police the insides of the camps.
Sputnik: And do you have any idea about how this problem can be solved? Do you have any solution in mind that could be useful?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: The UN is looking at it very actively with a range of concerned member states, Russia included, and I think people recognize that it's too large a problem. So that would be a single solution, in other words there's a need for everybody to pull together and find some way that includes more efforts by member states to bring home their own nationals, but it may also include the need for some kind of enhanced understanding with individual member states who may be able to help with processing at least some of these people who are facing legal cases.
Sputnik: Getting to the issue of foreign terrorist fighters returning to their countries of origin, how dangerous are they? According to your estimations, by now how many foreign fighters who joined IS exist? Which countries are they mainly from? Should we expect an increase in their returns now that IS is suffering military defeats one after another?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: Your implied analysis is right. It is a big problem. It's important also to remember that there are other foreign terrorist fighters, so you can have foreign terrorist fighters who've never been in Iraq or Syria, so we shouldn't entirely forget that there are veterans of Afghanistan, veterans of Somalia. I am just saying that because there are some parts of the world where the bigger problem may be people who have a different foreign terrorist fighter background rather than in Iraq or Syria. Nevertheless, it's certainly true that Iraq and Syria generated the biggest amount of foreign terrorist fighters that we have ever seen, like numbers were significantly more than 40,000.
We try to calculate based on member state information an approximate attrition rate of how many have been killed, and based on a very approximate calculation, sort of building upon what the experiences of different member states are, we're pretty confident that the number of still alive is well over a half, so we're talking about well over 20,000 people, and some people put that estimate above 25,000. These are huge numbers. These people have got to go somewhere. Some of them will end up doing long prison sentences in Iraq, in Syria, in Turkey or in their home countries or occasionally in transit countries that they go to where they may commits offenses, but also many of them will do very short prison sentences and then will be released again, and some of them may be impossible to prosecute, some of them may evade capture and prosecution altogether. So you have to ask yourself a question of what will these people be doing in 5 years’ time, 10 years’ time and more.
Then of course you have to go into this calculation - let's say the contingent of the women who were not active servants of Daesh or the caliphate, but who may become radicalized in present circumstances in the camps; and of course the issue of the minors and what is happening to all these children who are at the moment sort of growing up in these rather desperate circumstances in the camps. So, if you put all of these numbers together, you got a lot more people to worry about. And then the question is where will that worry manifest itself. I mean, if people sometimes talk about something called a blowback ratio, which is the proportion of people who go as foreign terrorist fighters and then subsequently haven't got it out of their system and decide to continue their struggle somewhere else, either going into another conflict zone or becoming terrorists in some non-conflict zone, and even if you estimate that ratio very low, the numbers we are talking about mean that there is still a very problematic number of people who are going to continue to pose a threat in the future.
I think that's why the international community is convinced that it's necessary as far as possible to get these people back to their home countries where there's a better chance that they can be addressed by the judicial system and also by the social services and also where there can be some kind of a supportive family or community into which people can be de-radicalized over time. That will help matters, but still we have to recognize that this is going to be a serious threat for the short-, medium- and long-term, and one thing which I often cite is the fact that one of the Indonesian foreign terrorist fighters who was killed in Syria in 2018 was five years old at the time when his father was involved in carrying out the Bali bombing. It’s so illustrative of the generational nature of this problem. We had this problem with Afghanistan, but the numbers were much smaller. So, the international community must do better this time, otherwise it's going to fall to our children and our successors to deal with a problem that's being made now.
Sputnik: And how do you assess the EU efforts to prevent radicalization of returning foreign terrorist fighters? How grave is the problem of the governments missing the track of returning foreign terrorist fighters who come back to Europe to obtain an EU citizenship? Is the international community missing any legal framework that would prevent their radicalization and would help to monitor their movements?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: I don't think any country has a perfect answer to this. Systems, for example anti-radicalization in prisons, de-radicalization programs and other local authority monitoring of subjects of concern, I think these are improving gradually in a number of jurisdictions, but they still need to get better.
Sputnik: In the case of Syria, politicians very frequently talk about the need to separate terrorists from opposition. Where is this line between terrorists and opposition in Syria? Who are the militants remaining in Idlib? Do terrorists take side of the opposition and fight against the official authorities?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: I think I can only I can only answer that by referring to the groups that are sanctioned under the 1267 sanctions regime and of course that includes Daesh, but also includes al-Nusra Front and the Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham [banned in Russia] coalition as an alias of al-Nusra Front [banned in Russia]. That decision was taken in 2018 to accept that the whole of the coalition under [Abu Mohammad] al-Julani is effectively just a rebranding that was reformed. And then of course you have Huras al-Din [branch of al-Qaeda, banned in Russia] and a bunch of other groups, which are for example Central Asian groups who are represented in that area. So there's a whole group of let's say very broadly al-Qaeda aligned groups, and then of course Daesh as well. So, we would define the terrorists as the people who are either members of those groups or helping those groups in some way facilitating them, financing them. What proportion of those people are devoting their time to fighting against the Syrian government, I couldn't say, I'm not a specialist in that.
Sputnik: As for the remaining Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham and Daesh terrorists in Idlib, why are they still undefeated? Who and what is supporting them?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: I genuinely don't know, I think part of the problem is certainly that the process of restoring the Syrian government’s control is not an easy one. It's obviously something that's been pursued over a prolonged period, very painstakingly with some success, but it's not an easy thing. So I think what's happened is that lots of people were displaced in Idlib, and that could be a scenario in which people vacate one area which has been successfully cleared and that then they go to another area. But if you get to an area which is your last resort, which from some perspectives Idlib looks as if it is, then you have the question of people fighting because they have no choice. In other words, they have two options which is to surrender or to fight essentially, but there's nowhere else where to go, so it may be that for that reason that the process of figuring out some kind of outcome in Idlib is just very slowly moving.
Also, those groups seem to have a very strong control over that small area of Syria. It's like a micro-economy up there of several million people, and that means that those groups are very well resourced. In the same way that Daesh at one point was able to tax areas under its control, HTS is able to tax the area under its control, it has money, so it that does represent quite a significant military obstacle.
Sputnik: Is it possible that even after military defeats they take covert forms and resurrect afterwards?
Edmund Fitton-Brown: Yes, that is possible. This is obviously a concern in the whole of Syria, not just in Idlib. This concern extends also to parts of Iraq as well where there's a major challenge in terms of reconstruction and stabilization, revival and rehabilitation. If that challenge is not met successfully, then the terrorist groups are smart enough to know that they can use that narrative to try and argue that the governments don't really care about the people and then they will try to make out that they care about the people whereas the governments don't. So that's the risk. The risk is that ultimately these terrorist groups go underground and they're sheltered underground by people who feel alienated from the governments. That's why it's obviously very important for the governments to be able to address those issues as soon as possible.
The Monitoring Team is subordinate to the Security Council and to the committees that deal with Daesh, al-Qaida and the Taliban. Two main functions of the Team are providing a threat assessment report on the three groupings, and maintenance of the sanctions, as well as advising UN member states to add or remove individuals or entities from the sanctions list.
*al-Qaeda is a terrorist group banned in Russia and many other countries.
** Daesh (ISIL/ISIS/IS/Islamic State) is a terrorist organisation banned in Russia