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A Backgrounder

by Antonino Occhiuto

BY ANTONINO OCCHIUTO - In 2014, the swarming advance of jihadi fighters, across most of Northern Iraq, capturing Mosul, (Iraq’s second largest city), shocked the world.  It would be too simple to suggest that Daesh’s advance was the result of underestimating the potential spill-over from the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Rather, the 2014 events were largely the result of considering the Jihadi threat as a problem overcome or under control. This mistake should not be repeated.  


Despite that Daesh constituted a completely new phenomena compared to previous jihadi groups, the 2014 birth of the self-described caliphate went as far as threatening the state system in the entire Arab Levant, the group originates from organisations which where already well known to both policymakers and experts of the region.  The bulk of Daesh’s fighters were recruited by the network of Jordanian terrorist, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death (2006), which later morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The Islamic Front of Iraqi Resistance (JAMI), composed of officers of the dissolved Iraqi Army, also merged into Daesh, providing the jihadi organisation with battle experience and military skills.


Intense efforts to contain the terrorist organisation in 2014 are still on-going. Such efforts can be categorised into three main spheres: First, is the military response, the where US after promoting the formation of a coalition which included more than 68 countries, has led airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq (from 8 August 2014) and extended its operations into Syria toward the end of September 2014.

Western and Gulf countries have both been at the forefront of assisting local allied forces in their fight against Daesh. In particular, Western and Gulf military action in Iraq and Syria has focused largely on air operations in support of those local forces, providing intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance and attack capabilities.

The other military element of the campaign has been the training of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces as a means of enabling them to take responsibility for operations against ISIS on the ground.


Police enforcement in the countries of origins of Daesh’s foreign fighters has also been crucial.  The prosecution of returnees from Iraq and Syria has been particularly problematic. Criminal justice systems of most Western democracies are meticulous and reliable forensic evidence is required to take cases to court. While Western countries are investigating many alleged crimes committed by their citizens in Syria and Iraq, few are being charged. Given the complexity and challenge of dealing with terrorist criminal acts committed on foreign soil, countries such as Canada are adopting approaches to managing those labelled as High-Risk Returnees. International police agencies such as Interpol and Europol have also been actively coordinating states for an international and comprehensive police response. However, such measures and the increasing intelligence sharing among countries has not always prevented foreign fighters from striking at home, as evidenced by the attacks in Paris and Brussels, among others.


Daesh’s ability to strike in Europe increased public awareness of the risks related to radicalisation.  Jihadi recruiters have heavily targeted Europe’s prisons and illegal religious centres to recruit young, disenfranchised, Muslims to commit atrocities in both Europe and the Middle East. A French government audit of the prison system described radical Islamists as constituting the prison’s aristocracy, governing fellow inmates and being in regular contact with fellow Islamists both in Europe and in the Middle East.  In order to address such issues, the EU responded in a number of ways. First, the EU Commission launched a platform by which member states can increase information sharing and operational cooperation with regard to the monitoring and investigation of foreign terrorist fighters and the trafficking of illegal firearms and terrorist financing. Europol was mandated to create a dedicated unit to tackle terrorist propaganda on the Internet. The EU Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU) now aims to identify terrorist and violet extremist content online and to advise member states on the matter. The Commission also decided to step-up external action to counter terrorism, in particular in the Mediterranean, Middle East, North Africa, the Gulf and the Sahel.


Despite these efforts, policymakers should not conclude that the fight against Daesh is over. The Jihadi organisation has certainly lost most of its control over territory and its capacity to attract fighters towards Iraq and Syria has weakened but the main motives to join the Jihadi cause, such as a frustrated and marginalised Sunni community in Syria and Iraq and a disenfranchised Muslim youth in Western Europe, remain strong. As such, efforts should continue to combat and monitor the organisation’s capabilities in order not to be faced by another shock comparable to Daesh’s advance in 2014.

This article is part of a series of publications related to our upcoming event "Once and For All! Strategies to End the Scourge of Isis", that will be held on 02 November 2018, in Prague.

A special EGIC collection of articles and analyses will be distributed during the event.
Click on the image below to sign up to the event and find out more about it. 

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