Over the last few years, one aspect of the Islamic State (ISIS) has loomed large in the public’s imagination: the group’s ability to attract foreign fighters. The attention makes sense; there is something particularly terrifying about the idea of merciless terrorists mobilizing from all corners of the world to decimate civilian populations in Iraq and Syria to help ISIS rapidly gain territory. Foreign fighters also preoccupied Western governments, which were faced with the prospect of battle-hardened jihadists returning home. But now, three years into ISIS’ war, its once mighty weapon is now threatening to cut off the hand that feeds it; foreign fighters are quickly becoming one of ISIS’ biggest liabilities.
It should have been obvious from the start that local and foreign fighters would have different goals. ISIS’ official position has been that all fighters are equal, but tensions among groups did not go unnoticed. Still, the group’s internal dynamics remained relatively stable because it was successful on the battlefield and in oil production. But now that ISIS is not as rich and powerful as it once was, it can no longer afford to buy everyone’s loyalty. Already, a major internal split is hurting the group’s combat performance. In Iraq alone, since last month, ISIS lost all three battles it fought along with control of two towns and more than 30 villages.
According to local ISIS fighters, foreign fighters are more trouble than they’re in fact worth. Foreign fighters’ inability or unwillingness to cooperate with local fighters has culminated in deadly races for money and power. In July 2015, for example, Albanian and Russian ISIS militants killed three local fighters and wounded several others in the Alace Oil fields south of Kirkuk, a transit-point for ISIS’ oil smuggling operations. Local ISIS militants reported that the groups fought over differences in proposed military strategies on the frontline near Alam and that local fighters refused to follow a foreign officer’s orders. But the civilian population of the
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