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Broken ISIS Recruits Return Home

Now that ISIS has been all but destroyed in Syria and Iraq, thousands of surviving foreign fighters are returning home. Their home countries are bracing themselves, but the United States, it turns out, might have less to worry about than we feared.  

As many as 300 Americans traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight and possibly die for ISIS. None so far have returned as terrorists. Most never saw combat and wanted out more than anything once they go there. That’s according to a new book-length report called “The Travelers” published by George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Apparently, ISIS dispatched only one of its members, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud from Ohio via Somalia, to the United States with a plan of attack. Federal agents rolled him up before he could do anything, and a judge sentenced him to 22 years in prison.

National security professionals from one end of the Western world to the other have been fretting that suicide-bombings and mass shootings would follow the demise of the Middle East’s “caliphate” when the battle-hardened survivors finally made their way back. I count myself among those who are a little surprised, but it’s obvious, at least to me and in hindsight, why so many of them turned out to be duds as Robin Wright called them in The New Yorker. As disgruntled and disaffected as these recruits undoubtedly were with the United States when they signed up, they ended up disillusioned. After all, they spent most of their lives in a highly developed and more-or-less properly functioning country before finding themselves in a brutal and tyrannical hell.

ISIS promised a utopian society and paradise for its warriors. The reality was something else, a one-way ticket to a Hobbesian world of cruelty, violence and drudgery.

“The propaganda,” concludes the report, “while enthralling, presented an idealized version of reality, meaning that their real-world experience upon arrival was often jarring. Living conditions were much harsher than they saw in the online magazines and videos, and the promises of companionship and camaraderie were rarely fulfilled. Instead, cultural clashes, bitter infighting, and suspicion among recruits and leaders abounded.”

Hard as it is for those of us accustomed to the affluence and comforts of the West to relate to, living in a bunker or a safehouse alongside hardened jihadists can be be a step up for those used to the grinding poverty, severe state repression, indiscriminate violence and abject hopelessness that have characterized the shattered remains of Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. But that’s just not the case—it can’t be—for someone arriving from New York or Miami even if they’ve so far lived a marginal existence in a relatively tough neighborhood far from Manhattan or South Beach.

To be sure, young men who suddenly find themselves rising from anonymous nobodies to exalted fighters in the vanguard of a rising new movement can find their status and ego inflated, even by gigantic proportions, but most American recruits ended up washing dishes and cleaning latrines, jobs that at least paid something back home.

As a Lebanese friend once told me, "when political theories fail in the Middle East they fail hard."

The ISIS dupes are a bit like the sad South Koreans lured to North Korea by communist propaganda in the mid-20th century. They encountered one horrific shock after another once they arrived in Kim Il Sung’s mythical worker’s paradise, but by then it was too late. They couldn’t go home.

ISIS barely even exists anymore except as an idea and an abstraction. Its Islamic “state,” such as it was, has been dismantled. The real threat doesn’t come from those who return from the losing side on the pitiable battlefield but from those like Omar Mateen, who murdered 49 people and wounded 58 more at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando two years ago, persuaded to do so by jihadist propaganda online. Unlike the 300 or so who defected from the United States to the caliphate, he never saw the nightmare Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi created up close and in person. Those like him who choose to stay and fight at home are the ones we most need to worry about.

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