July 6, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: The Borderless Fight Against the Islamic State
• The reported death of British foreign fighter Abu Abdullah al-Britanni by a U.S. airstrike in Syria highlights how the nationalities and borders that once limited military action are fading in light of the true borderless nature of the threat
• At the counter-terrorism level, nationalities matter less than professed terror affiliations, allowing the U.S. to kill a national of its closest ally in the expected course of ongoing military operations
• Just as the Islamic State benefits from its borderless call to action and inclusion, the nations fighting the terrorist group are increasingly tolerant of the targeting of citizens who have renounced the protection of citizenship.
The Islamic State celebrates its dismissal of what it deems illegitimate international borders, such as the Sykes-Picot borders dividing Iraq and Syria. As a self-declared ‘caliphate’, the group professes to transcend modern demarcations. Such a stance has been a propaganda boon for the group as it fights dysfunctional opponents tied to what it denounces as an artificial construct. This refusal to act within current constructs has enabled the Islamic State to move between Iraq and Syria faster than the international coalition assembled to fight it has been able to adjust.
While denouncing the artificial divide between Iraq and Syria, the group exploited it by playing off of geopolitical hesitations among its erstwhile opponents. It could hide in Syria while striking in Iraq and vice versa, depending on the restrictions of its coalition enemy.
This weekend’s multiple airstrikes in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State, suggest that the coalition is adjusting to the borderless warfare of its opponent. A hallmark of the Islamic State is that many of its most committed fighters are foreign fighters, from Europe and elsewhere. These foreign fighters, particularly those from the UK, have provided needed fuel and motivation for the group over the last year. From hostage executor ‘Jihadi John’ to social media recruiter Abu al-Britanni, British recruits have played an outsized role in the group’s murderous social media campaigns.
This week’s announcement that Abu al-Britanni aka Abu Rahin Aziz (better known through his defunct Twitter account @dugamtimes, as reported in the Boston Globe) was killed in a U.S. airstrike highlights the borderless nature of this ongoing fight. The U.S. and the United Kingdom are as close as two allies can be, yet the targeting of each other’s citizens remains a sensitive issue. The issue of open Islamic State affiliation, as professed by al-Britanni and many others, supersedes national hesitations. In years past, this would be a serious impediment to complicated investigations and prosecutions of terror cases involving citizens of allied nations. But when these citizens renounce their homeland in favor of the Islamic State, they become fair game for coalition strikes.
Those that openly claim to fight for the borderless Islamic State are increasingly opening themselves up to a borderless counter-attack. Abu al-Britanni was killed in an airstrike against enemy combatants who, by embracing the Islamic State, had forfeited the protection of any state but the Islamic State. The hundreds of Europeans that have traveled to the Islamic State have given up the protections of their former nations, and will be increasingly targeted by coalition forces both in Iraq and more so in Syria.
The larger fight against the Islamic State will be fitful but ultimately successful, meaning that hundreds of foreign fighters will have to be dealt with as the group’s fortunes wax and wane. Treating these fighters as stateless terrorists loyal to a transnational terrorist group, and therefore legitimate targets whenever vulnerable, will help the international fight against the Islamic State. Targeting those fighters with the kunya ‘al-Britanni’, 'al-Amriki’, or 'al-Tunisi', wherever they are, will help erase the borders of a fight that does not recognize any.
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