February 26, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Families Bound to the Islamic State

• As the pressure builds on the Islamic State in Iraq, there are reports the group is sending families out of Mosul in anticipation of an assault by the Iraqi government 

• The outflow of families would mirror that of senior leaders who have left Mosul and Raqqa and traveled to Libya and the Sinai 

• Dealing with the thousands of people who have chosen to live and fight for the contracting caliphate will be an inescapable challenge in the years to come

• When the Islamic State eventually collapses, it will leave behind not just destruction and death, but a sizable population with varying degrees of culpability and disillusionment.


The military pressure on the so-called Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria has understandably focused on eliminating its combat capabilities and reducing its numbers of fighters. While progress has been slow and not without setbacks, the attrition on the Islamic State's fighting force has inflicted considerable damage on the group as a whole. A broad array of forces across expansive territory threaten—though not imminently—the group’s hold on its two proclaimed capitals of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. Yet the Islamic State is more than just its fighters; it also encompasses families, both native to the region and foreign. Their situation is not as clear as those of the group's fighters.

Recent reports that the Islamic State has been evacuating the families of some of its fighters from Mosul, and even from Iraq entirely, to Libya and the Sinai reveal a pattern. Last year, the group began sending senior leaders to Libya to bolster its growing presence in the country and perhaps to establish a fallback position with which to continue the self-proclaimed caliphate should Raqqa and Mosul fall. While the number of evacuated families remains unknown, it likely is a small percentage of the total who live under the group’s dominion. When the Islamic State no longer exists in cities like Mosul, the fate of those who chose to live under it will become an uncomfortable question.

A host of countries—especially in the West—have struggled with how to deal with the relatively small number of people who have gone to Iraq and Syria and then returned disillusioned or dismayed. When the group’s territorial holdings collapse, these numbers will likely jump. Determining the nature of a person’s actions in the service of the Islamic State is difficult on a case-by-case basis; it will be much more so with any sizable increase in the number of people hoping to return to the homes they once renounced. Many will choose not to come home, and many, especially those from countries that have taken steps to revoke the citizenships of anyone who has traveled to the Islamic State, will be unable to return. 

The Islamic State prides itself in the number and the savagery of its foreign recruits. These foreign fighters will be the ones most likely to flee to Libya, Sinai, or elsewhere. Those with families will attempt to bring them along or send for them later, having worn out their welcome among the locals.

Those families that stay in Iraq or Syria after the fighters have retreated or been killed—the majority of families being Iraqi and Syrian—will face an uncertain future; foreign families even more so. The group has left a trail of misery wherever it has ruled, and there will likely be reprisals against the families of fighters and the officials that brutalized the majority population for several years. Even if these areas manage to achieve high levels of stability following the group's eviction,  tensions between the terrorists and the terrorized will be high. Iraqi and Syrian families that occupied prominent positions in the group will be subject to legal and extralegal punishment.

It remains to be seen if the trickle of families from Mosul and elsewhere will become a river of people trying to flee from the so-called caliphate. Given the group’s large numbers of supporters and fighters—both foreign and local—as well as their wives and children, the issue will be one for the region to contend with for years to come.


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