In an interview with Fox News conducted from a prison run by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition, former Islamic State (ISIS) fighter Hamza Nmeie warned that the Islamic State’s ideology will survive the collapse of the “caliphate” and inspire new groups obsessed with defeating the United States.
Hamza has a long resume in jihad, having been radicalized by a Salafist group in 2011 when he would have been about 20 years old. The child of Moroccan immigrants to Belgium, he arrived in Syria in 2013 as a recruit for al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front. He then became an early convert to the Islamic State in Syria and fought for them until he was captured by the SDF during the battle for Raqqa last year.
Transitioning from gainfully employed resident of Belgium to ISIS jihadi in just two years is a breathtakingly rapid process of militant radicalization. Fox News relates that Hamza would not admit to killing anyone in the name of the Islamic State, but his SDF captors said he was indeed a battlefield operative. He now says he’s renounced the Islamic State and considers its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to be an “evil guy.”
Hamza’s central point was that ISIS is driven by a powerful anti-Western ideology that will survive the defeat of the Islamic State caliphate. He predicted splinter groups would form, much as ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda, animated by a virulent strain of Salafist Muslim ideology that views America as the primary obstacle to establishing a “true” sharia state.
Salafists in general, and militants like ISIS in particular, tend to view other strains of Islam as impure or see them as instruments devised by colonial Western powers to subjugate Muslims. The ISIS strain of this ideology is “obsessed” with America as the “big enemy,” according to Hamza. Atrocities such as the murder of American reporter James Foley were portrayed as inspiring victories over the enemy, while battlefield allies against the Syrian regime who worked with the United States instantly became hated enemies to be shot in the back.
Another danger of the Islamic State pinpointed by the recalcitrant jihadi is its long memory. “ISIS is like the Mafia. Once you get in, you never come out,” he said. This is an attribute that could help the broken Islamic State reassemble itself by pulling in old assets and absorbing more splinter groups, the way it took in Hamza’s Nusra Front cell, or that could keep ISIS ideology alive as it spreads through splinter groups and looks for another opportunity to establish a caliphate.
From Hamza’s account, it sounds like the quest for a caliphate will continue, since one of the core promises employed to lure recruits is the notion of establishing the only true sharia state on Earth.
ISIS is rebuilding its strength in Afghanistan, in part by establishing an empire of sexual slavery, much as recruits in Syria and Iraq were tempted with offers of “jihad brides.” The Russians reported on Friday the arrest of an ISIS cell that was preparing to launch a wave of gun and bomb attacks. A 17-year-old in Dallas was charged on Wednesday with planning a mass shooting at a shopping mall in the name of ISIS, and he was trying to recruit others to help him.
The Islamic State is flexing its terror muscles in Libya, Iraq, and Tunisia by using terrorism to disrupt elections, in line with Hamza’s point about how ISIS ideology portrays other Muslim governments as illegitimate and unwilling to embrace pure sharia law. ISIS still poses such a danger on its old home turf that the Iraqi air force just carried out air strikes on two militant hideouts.
Despite repeated assurances of defeat by the Nigerian government, ISIS affiliate Boko Haram is still carrying out kidnappings, bombings, and paramilitary assaults intended to capture territory. ISIS fighters displaced from Iraq and Syria are moving to the Philippines, where one attempt has already been made to capture and hold territory.
The return of ISIS recruits to Western countries where they hold citizenship still poses a looming security threat. It looms so large over Belgium that Hamza Nmeie seems permanently stuck in his SDF prison because his nominal home government is not eager to take him back. The Islamic State is down but not out, defeated but not destroyed, discredited but not erased.