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Getting under the skin of ISIS

After a global rise in terrorist attacks in recent years, the suspected fall of The Islamic State ofIraq and Syria (ISIS) may be in sight.   

This has promoted international citizens affiliated with the terrorist organisation to express a desire to return to their native countries. Such is the case of Shamima Begum, the British teenager who joined ISIS in 2015. Having recently given birth, Begum hit the headlines when she was stripped of her UK citizenship having requested to return to the country to raise her child.   

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR)  in the Department of War Studies at King’s carries out research on radicalisation and their expertise in the area has seen them at the forefront in providing expert comment in the media and also in advising governments, law enforcement, and intelligence services. Here’s a taste of some of their influential work: 

Women and Minors of ISIS   

‘From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic,  a report from Dr Joana Cook, Senior Research Fellow, and Gina Vale, Research Fellow, is the first to map out in detail the diverse trajectories of IS foreign affiliates after the fall of the ‘caliphate’ and highlights specific concerns regarding women and minors.   

The report provided a global dataset for the number of foreign women and minors who traveled to Syria and Iraq and became affiliated with IS. The research was discussed at the United Nations Security Council briefing in August 2018, and also presented at a joint meeting hosted by the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (UNCTED) and the UK Mission to the United Nations (New York).  

With initial estimates suggesting that women and minors make up to 25 per cent of all foreign IS-affiliates, the researchers urged the Council to give urgent and immediate attention to understanding and rehabilitating these groups to prevent them becoming displaced or significant international security threats.   

Dr Cook provided an overview of the current situation for women who traveled to join ISIS from the west on BBC’s  Newsnight.  

The Returnee Threat   

The Syrian conflict has been the most socially mediated war in history. In response, ICSR have developed some of the most sophisticated open-source methods used by academics today to better understand the origins, role and involvement of the foreign fighters participating in it.  

This research culminated in the creation of a database containing information on more than 700 Western volunteers, providing a way to quantify the experiences of these fighters. These rich empirical sources provide the basis of the ICSR’s ongoing work to quantify, contextualise, and explain the role of foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict, their potential menace to the West, and the likelihood of a so-called ‘returnee threat.’  

Commenting on the issue in an  article  for the New Statesman, Dr Shiraz Maher, Director of the ICSR, outlined the complexity and intractability of cases of detained ISIS fighters and non-combatants like Shamima Begum. He illustrated the huge challenges of both prosecution and reintegration in the wake of the effective collapse of IS in Syria.  

“It’s not possible to deradicalise everyone.” Professor Peter Neumann, Former Director and Senior Fellow, stated in an interview with  CNN. “The experience of Syria typically caused one of two reactions. Some people have become more radicalised, whereas other people have been turned off by the experience of ISIS and are ready to leave that behind, making them more capable of opening up.”.  

More media coverage from ICSR   

BBC Newshour  Shiraz Maher gives us an assessment of whether Shamima Begum could be de-radicalised based on what she told The Times newspaper: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p070x2lg  

BBC News  Gina Vale comments on Shamima Begum’s right to repatriation: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47237051  

The Telegraph  Gina Vale comments on life for women in the caliphate: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/inside-minds-teenage-jihadi-brides-fled-britain-join-isil/   

New York Times  Charlie Winter, a Senior Research Fellow, comments on Islamist propaganda: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/17/world/middleeast/isis-islamic-state-narrator.html