Skip to main content

The Demise of the Islamic State and the Fate of its Western Foreign Fighters: Six Things to Consider


Author: Lorne L Dawson

Date of Publication: June 2018

Journal / Publisher: ICCT Policy Brief


Purpose of the study

Key questions 

The risk represented by Foreign Fighters who survive the demise of the Caliphate.

Design of the study




The West

Type of ‘participant’ 



The study proposes that a greater proportion of FTFs returning from Iraq and Syria are more dangerous than those who returned from earlier conflicts in that:

  • They are more likely to have received training for covert operations;
  • Be battle hardened: and
  • May have been deliberately sent back as operatives by IS (otherwise it was difficult to escape) and be part of an organised network set up by IS.

However, the ferocity of the response to IS will reduce the number who survive, or elude capture, some will not be able to return and some will choose not to return.

The UK is cited as a country were large numbers are expected to have returned, and a figure of 425 is given. It is suggested that most were involved in the early part of the fighting and had returned since 2012. The UK Home Office stated that 54 had been convicted and 30 were being prosecuted in May 2016. In the US 9 out of 12 known returnees were arrested and charged with terrorism offences. 

The study suggests that IS will revert to an insurgent group fighting a Guerrilla War and some FTFs will make their way to IS affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. 

The study refers to the ‘new Program of extremism study’ which suggests that 1 in 12 returning FTFs “returned with the intent to carry out an attack on behalf of a jihadist group in Syria.” None of the 22 Jihadist attacks in the US between 2011 and 2017 were perpetrated by returnees, and the involvement of a returnee in a plot in the US decreased its chances of success as they were more likely to be detected.


The study considers what could occur in the event of al Baghdadi’s death and whilst it is acknowledged that he was charismatic, it was also mentioned that IS has replaced other charismatic leaders. It also suggests that if al Baghdadi was captured alive, it might be humiliate the group, but in the actual event al Baghdadi blew himself up and we are yet to see whether his successor achieves his legendary status.

The Virtual Caliphate

IS are very successful in the online space with a massive volume of propaganda, the use of Social Media to recruit FTFs, encourage domestic attackers and maintain a global network of sympathisers. This has not been effected as badly as the Physical Caliphate. The author suggests that key personnel from the Caliphate could set up elsewhere.

The Failure of the Prophecy

IS should be understood as an apocalyptic group and that its appeal for FTFs stems from that. It is suggested that the group will survive this prosthetic failure and at the current time this appears to be the case. The author uses the theory of Cognitive Dissonance to explain that experiences will be reinterpreted so they conform better to expectations and therefore rationalise the failure of the prophecy. 

Recognising IS as a Global Social Movement. 

The study points out the failure of Westerners to grasp the wider cultural and historical context sustaining jihadism as a social phenomenon. There is a tradition of radical thought in the Muslim World and suggests that we need to think of Jihadism as a “form of insurgency” or “subaltern thought and activism.” The author states that social movements of this kind are fostered by 3 factors:  

  1. A profound sense of injustice and moral outrage
  2. A strong sense of collective identity
  3. A strong sense of agency – believing there are actions to be taken which will make a difference

Key Recommendations  

The author concludes that IS is not just a group, which can be countered by traditional counter terrorism measures, it is a global movement, which requires a different approach.  

Reviewer's Comments

Leadership is clearly significant. Jihadi Fighters pledge allegiance to their leaders and therefore must have complete confidence in them. Since this article was published the leader of the caliphate, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has been killed and the ability of his replacement to maintain cohesion and direct the group and its franchises remains to be seen

Since the study was published captured IS FTFs have escaped from custody, particularly after the Turkish invasion of Northern Iraq. They are likely to re-join the IS Insurgency if they can and some may make it back to the West.  

In regard to the Virtual Caliphate, many of the ‘Media Hubs’ existed outside Caliphate territory and have been untouched by operations against the physical Caliphate.

You might also like: