After the fall of the ISIS caliphate

The fate of Russian jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

SYRIANS EXCAVATE a mass grave in Syria in the wake of the ISIS war (photo credit: REUTERS)
SYRIANS EXCAVATE a mass grave in Syria in the wake of the ISIS war
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Since the beginning of Syrian civil war Russia has been an important player in Syria. The country has been a big supporter of the Bashar Assad regime and has played a major role in changing the course of the conflict as well as contributing to the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria. However, according to different sources, the number of Russians who joined ISIS is estimated to be around 5,000, making Russia the biggest source of foreign fighters of the so-called “Islamic State” (a number that was officially acknowledged by the Russian government).
The defeats of ISIS in Rawa, Iraq, in November 2017 and in Baghouz in March 2019 led to its total territorial eradication from the Levant. It also raised a question of what happened to those who were and are part of that once powerful and influential terrorist organization.
In general, since the territorial defeat of ISIS in the Levant, Russians who travelled to Syrian and Iraq with the aim of joining ISIS can be divided into three categories.
The first and probably largest were those who completely accepted its ideology and were loyal to ISIS until the end.
Second were those who followed their family members or were born during the conflict (wives and children of ISIS fighters).
The third group were those who became disappointed in ISIS for different reasons and eventually decided to seek a way out.
There have been different estimates of how many fighters ISIS actually had and the number of its casualties throughout the conflict. The Russian government claimed that around 5,000 of its nationals (most of whom were from the regions of Chechnya and Dagestan) travelled to Syria or Iraq in order to join the Islamic state. It also claimed that around 10% of those who joined have already returned to Russia.
Excluding the number of those who have returned and those who have been detained, it becomes clear that the majority of Russian fighters (as majority of ISIS fighters in general) were killed during the course of the conflict. ISIS brigades – which were fully or largely compromised of Russian nationals like Katiba Badr, Katiba Sabri, Jammat abu Khanifa, Katiba Yarmouk, Katiba Al Aqsa, and Katiba Khaybar – were completely exterminated during the conflict. When the SDF launched operation against ISIS remnants in Baghouz, there were practically no Russian fighters left. There were, however, thousands of their family members.
Many of ISIS’s foreign fighters travelled to Iraq and Syria with their families, and some foreigners married locals and had children. Therefore, Iraqi and Syrian governments now face a new problem, which is how to deal with relatives of ISIS fighters, especially the foreign ones. Russia does not have a unified policy toward relatives of ISIS fighters. Although the Russian government officially announced its willingness to accept the children of Russian ISIS fighters, it wasn’t ready to accept the wives of ISIS fighters.
That said, the attitude toward returned families of ISIS fighters is highly dependent on the regions. In Dagestan (Russia’s biggest and most populous North Caucasian region), families of fighters are under constant surveillance and in some cases are subjected to trial. In neighboring Chechnya, the government has been more welcoming, and tens of ISIS fighters’ family members have returned.
AMONG THE Russians who joined ISIS, the most interesting one are those who eventually rejected the terrorist organization. This category itself can be divided into two subgroups: those who left ISIS after realizing its impending defeat, and those who left due to ideological disagreements or who became disappointed in ISIS’s handling of its matters.
Each subgroup had its own reasons. From the summer of 2016, ISIS started losing territory, and by the end of 2017 it was clear that ISIS would not be able to achieve its goals. A famous case of leaving ISIS is the story of an ethnic Russian from Saratov, Yuri Balakshin, who joined ISIS in May 2015, but became quickly disappointed. He decided to leave ISIS only in 2018, after he was seriously injured in an American airstrike. After he escaped ISIS-controlled territory and returned to Russia, he voluntarily surrendered himself to authorities, and took a plea deal, which allowed him to serve only three months in prison.
As the conflict progressed, desertion rates increased. After Turkey and the Free Syrian Arm took Al Bab in November 2016, the flow of foreign fighters was stopped. Moreover, the ISIS losses also negatively affected its ideological plan because it presented itself as al-dawlatu al-muntasira, a victorious state. Although it could have some defeats, the name meant it would succeed in the long run. However, growing international reaction to ISIS, as well as military successes of its opponents in Syria and Iraq started to prove that this was not the case.
That said, the debate on how “victorious” ISIS was, was not the only issue concerning ideology. ISIS’s ideology was so radical that it was rejected not only by mainstream Muslim communities worldwide and many Salafist groups in Syria, but eventually by some of its more hard-core followers. The most famous case of going against ISIS for ideological reasons involves well-known Russian Sharia (Islamic law) judges who tried to leave.
Abu Hanifa (real name Shamil Izmaylov); Abu Jihad (Islam Atabiyev); Abu Mukhammad al-Rusi (who also went by nom de guerre Abu Anisa ad-Dagestani and whose real name is unknown); and Abu Nuseiba (real name unknown) disagreed with ISIS on the issue of takfir (apostasy). The men were imprisoned by the amniyat (ISIS special services) and eventually died in prison.
Although Islamic State was territorially eradicated from the Levant, that does not mean it was defeated. The organization switched to an insurgency phase in that region. However, Russia’s main concern now is not the threat of ISIS itself, but the returnees who account for 10% of fighters. Another challenge that it will – and especially the regional government of Chechnya and Dagestan – will face, is the fate of the returned wives and children of ISIS fighters who are just beginning their long reintegration into society.
The writer is a master’s level student of world politics at Lomonosov Moscow State University who specializes in the Middle East. He has written multiple articles on Turkey, the Syrian civil war, ISIS and political Islam in the Balkans for Russian student journals and the Yale Review of International Studies.