The disintegration of the caliphate is increasing the threat of Isis fighters returning to their countries and carrying out “lone-wolf style attacks” in Europe and the West. At the same time, inspired by Islamic lectures in social media and having no contact with Isis members directly, isolated individuals seek to take revenge against real or imagined wrongs. 

Woman Shot in a Terror Raid in London

A 20-year-old woman was shot during a raid in Willesden, north-west London. She remains at the hospital under police guard in a stable condition.

The police raid took place after 7pm (BST), and just five hours after a 27-year-old man was arrested carrying a backpack full of knives in Whitehall. A 16-year-old boy, a 20-year-old woman and man were arrested inside the house and the nearby area, while a 43-year-old woman was also detained in Kent. According to the Standard, they are all questioned on suspicion “of the commission, preparation and instigation of terrorist acts under section 41 of the terrorism act 2000.” The suspects and the address have been under investigation by counter terrorism officers.

A neighbour said: “They’re a nice family, a Muslim family. You never hear anything from them – just good morning, good evening, no more than that.”

The raid was part of a series of ongoing intelligence operations that are taking place at addresses across London and Kent.

UK security and Isis militants

Britain is facing an increasingly significant level of threat from Isis militants and officials have warned that the Islamist extremists are planning “indiscriminate attacks on civilians.” Earlier this year, Max Hill, a UK leading terrorist prosecutor, warned that militants are targeting cities and pose “an enormous on going risk.” Most importantly, Hill expressed fears about the return of British jihadis who have been fighting in Syria for the Islamic State. He said: “It’s an enormous concern that large numbers – we know this means at least hundreds of British extremists who have left this country in order to fight – are now returning or may be about to return.”

The future of Isis

It is exactly, this concern that Hill expressed, that is now becoming a very realistic possibility. As the Islamic State is in crisis and the “caliphate” is crumbling, large numbers of foreign fighters and supporters of Isis are abandoning the extremist camp attempting to enter Turkey, in what has been described by the Guardian as “an exodus that is depleting the ranks of the terror group.”

It has been three years since Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi founded the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and since then Isis is starting to lose its control over Mosul, while its de-facto capital Raqqa is surrounded. Not only is its territory under threat, but also, in the last six months, Isis “has seen its finances slashed, media operations crippled and several high0ranking leaders killed or captured.”

Since the extremist group is losing control over cities and villages that once were part of its self-proclaimed caliphate, “ISIS is evolving from territorial to ideological threat.”

What does this mean? It means that Isis fighters won’t give up this easily and territorial control would not deter them from continuing their fight. As Isis spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said, losing control of Mosul and Raqqa is not the end: "No: defeat is losing the will and the desire to fight." Martyrdom might be the only sacred path for them, but such acts are becoming more difficult in Iraq and Syria, so for many of Isis’ foreign fighters, returning home to carry out “lone-wolf style attacks” or recruit new members has become a more “attractive” possibility. Foreign fighters use migrant routes, travelling alone through Turkey, crossing the Mediterranean or travelling through the Balkans in order to reach European cities.

Lone Wolves

US president Donald Trump might have promised to “bomb the s***” out of ISIS, but such a strategy isn’t possible when Isis fighters are dispersed around the world, with many alienated Muslims in western societies who seek to take revenge against what they perceive as evil or unjust. According to CNN, recent attacks in Brussels and Istanbul were carried out from Raqqa. For others, communicating through the encrypted chat app Telegram with Isis commanders is another way to contact Isis leaders or organise an attack. But, “lone wolves” who initially might seem to pose a small threat, are actually the most dangerous, both in the US and the UK.

Radicalised online, these “virtual adherents” can carry out attacks without having any contact with, or fully understanding Isis’ ideology, but simply motivated by personal resentments. 

Taking inspiration from social media sermons and lectures like those of the American and Yemeni imam and Islamic lecturer, Anwar al-Awlaki (1971-2011), these lone fighters find purpose in an otherwise alienating western culture. 

Isis: Foreign fighters and sympathisers surrendering

Stefan Aristidou from Enfield in north London, his British wife and Kary Paul Kleman from Florida surrendered to Turkish border police at the Killis crossing in southern Turkey. Aristidou claimed that he wasn’t an Isis fighter but that he travelled to Syria to settle. He was based in Raqqa, at the heart of the caliphate.

According to officials in Turkey and Europe, a large number of Isis fighters who joined the group since 2013, are contacting their embassies seeking to return. Other members are using the exodus to infiltrate Turkey and then travel to Europe to seek revenge for the disintegrating caliphate. The Guardian reported that “at least 250 ideologically driven foreigners are thought to have been smuggled to Europe from late 2014 until mid-2016, with nearly all travelling through Turkey after crossing a now rigidly enforced border.”

For many, the threat foreign fighters can pose when returning to their countries should not be ignored. Deputy director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, Shiraz Maher said that “Europe has to keep its guard up,” and warned that “[t]he threat will likely become more acute in the coming months and years as the pressures on Islamic State intensify.”