ISIS drew attention to the threat of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs), which preceded the emergence of ISIS; however, ISIS made it a threat to international peace and security. At the very peak of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and by 2015, about 40,000 individuals from more than 120 countries traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. The INTERPOL database of ISIS includes 53,000 names, collected from the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. As estimated by the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, there were less than 1000 terrorists of ISIS in the area of the said coalition operations by the end of 2017. If the demise of ISIS has come into play, the matter is different for ISIS, which is still active in several countries, such as Yemen, Egypt, Libya, the countries of the Sahel in Africa and elsewhere.
Threats and Risks
Research indicates that about 14,900 FTFs have left Iraq and Syria; some have escaped in disguise during evacuations. Some evacuees might be unwilling to do so because of fear of executive action by law enforcement agencies. Others may instead be prevented from doing so because of removal of citizenship or other sanctions. They may look for refuge in other countries, where they could strengthen the capabilities of local violent groups
How do the MENA countries address such an imminent threat? The UNODC report provides the MENA countries with a reference guide to judicial training institutes to optimally address Returning Terrorist Fighters (RTF). It analyzes FTFs, the legal framework to address such a phenomenon at the regional and international levels and presented best practices for the successful online investigation of FTF crimes.
One key threat facing jurisdictions in the MENA region is the return of FTF to their home countries. Some research studies estimate that about 15,000 individuals from the MENA countries traveled to Iraq and Syria between 2012 and 2017; the number of women and children made up about 35%. The MENA countries are also exposed to the threats of RTFs, as they have suffered greatly as a result of their terrorist attacks.
When ISIS lost control of the territory it had once seized in Syria and Iraq, there were caveats that the FTFs of the MENA countries should gear up for an influx of RTFs, but the number of RTFs, albeit worrying, was much lower than expected. An estimated 30% of FTFs have returned home or have moved to a third country. In November 2017, a United Nations team estimated, according to figures from seventy-nine countries, that about seven thousand foreign fighters had died on the battlefields, while 14,900 fighters had left the conflict areas, of whom 5395 fighters are currently imprisoned, i.e., only 36%. Of them, 6,837 fighters, or 46%, are not subject to the criminal justice system.
FTFs are undoubtedly a glaringly notorious risk across the region; FTFs have combat expertise, aided by exercises to use weapons and explosives. More importantly, many FTFs are still unknown, there is a significant disparity between the total number of FTFs and those considered deaths, detainees, returnees or those relocated.
The motives of FTFs to return to their countries vary; some are disappointed by violent extremism, or life in territory controlled by terrorist organizations, and others may be satisfied with their families, or improve social and economic conditions; others may return to seek refuge with their families, improve social and economic conditions. It is critically important to distinguish between foreign fighters who traveled to Iraq and Syria for terrorist purposes and those who traveled for other purposes. Many returnees left Syria before ISIS announced the alleged caliphate in 2014, and most of such returning fighters (first wave) have different motives to travel abroad, such as fighting off the tyrannical Syrian regime or providing humanitarian aid to the anguished and disadvantaged Syrian people.
In any case, it is not easy predict any reaction of any of FTFs over time towards their abroad, or to receive them in their home countries; even if they undergo a strong psychosocial and security assessment, the conditions may prompt them again to search for violent solutions to their problems, especially if they return to the same circumstances.
The political discourse of returning FTFs has focused on the security risks that they may cause. In several cases, ISIS has called on returnees to attack targets in their home countries to preserve the global brand of ISIS. Returning FTFs are believed to be a significant threat for several reasons: returning FTFs may maintain the network of relationships that they have established with other terrorists while operating abroad, and such networks allow terrorists to pool resources for large-scale attacks and provide opportunities for ISIS fighters to direct operatives abroad.
The empirical examination seems to confirm such fears; one of the well-known indicators of terrorist operations carried out in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the real contact between ISIS and the perpetrators. A research study conducted on about 510 attacks launched by ISIS outside Syria and Iraq, up to October 31, 2017, concluded that FTFs were involved in more than 25% of such attacks, of which 87 attacks were carried out outside their home countries.
In addition to the direct involvement of FTFs in terrorist attacks, they have contributed to the creation of a new type of terrorist method of action; directed attacks by virtual planners who use secure communications to direct attackers remotely.
However, the security threat to returning foreign fighters should not be overestimated. According to Europol, the attacks on the EU were committed by domestic terrorists who did not travel abroad to join terrorist groups. A research study by the European Parliamentary Research Service concluded that the majority of returning FTFs may not intend to plan terrorist attacks upon their return; very few real cases of FTFs were observed returning with the intention of launching attacks in Europe.
Hence, it can be argued that returning FTFs do not share the same characteristics, as not all of returning FTFs traveled to conflict areas with the intention of engaging in terrorist violence. Some returnees, particularly women and youth, may not have received training in violent combat, or may have committed violent crimes. Upon returning, some of returning FTFs withdrew completely from any extremist activity. Some reports state that the participation of former FTFs has been instrumental to efforts to prevent violent extremism. As such, it is not appropriate to treat all returning FTFs as potential terrorist attackers.
The threat of attacks by FTFs can be classified as high-impact and low-probability. Research reveals that only 18% of the attacks carried out in the West, between June 2014 and June 2017, were by known FTFs. Yet, the attacks they carried out were almost among the deadliest. One attack killed about
In the MENA, homegrown terrorist attacks support the UN team’s assessment of the threat of FTFs in the MENA as a severe threat. The main challenge for the MENA authorities still detects and follows up on the intentions of returning FTFs.
You can read more about this topic in Issue 35 of International Reports.