Ahmed Sami Abdel Fattah
Although defeating ISIS was a strategic goal for Europe, the threat posed by the terrorist organization did not end with the loss of its territory and the decline of its military capabilities in the face of the US-led international coalition. The defeat of the militant organization and the collapse of its so-called state have caused its fighters to leave Syria for other countries. The organization tried to find other alternatives to shelter its fighters, who were directed to go to Afghanistan and Libya on the basis that the mountainous terrains in these countries would give them protection from air raids by international forces fighting terrorism.
Despite the extremist organization’s attempts to direct its fighters to other places of conflict in order to create terrorist concentrations, large numbers of European fighters decided to return to their countries of origin after discovering the falsity of the organization’s claims and objectives, creating a threat to the national security of Europe. This study examines the nature of that threat, as well as the mechanisms to confront it.
Surely, there are no confirmed figures on those returning to Europe, but most European intelligence estimates indicate that the number of Europeans who joined ISIS exceeded 5,000 people, both male and female, including those killed during the battles in Iraq and Syria. They believe that about 1,750 people have returned to their countries of origin again.
Almost no one differs regarding the danger of those returning from conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, especially as some of them have obtained a high level of military training. However, the European community also takes into account that many of them had been deceived during their recruitment by ISIS, but found that the circumstances of the war had not been favorable for their return, which means that the defeat ISIS has now provided a secure climate for many to return home once again.
Meanwhile, a study conducted by the German authorities and published by the German website Die Welt indicated that 10 percent of Germans who joined ISIS said they were misled, while 48 percent of those who have returned continue to hold their extremist ideologies and are still in contact with extremist elements in other parts of the world. This reveals that the only reason for their return was the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq by the US-led coalition forces, confirming that they represent a great threat to the security of Europe.
According to a study by the Soufan Center published by the Washington Post on February 22, about 1,200 people returned to Europe, including 400 to Britain, 271 to France, and 300 to Germany. The center also reported that the number of those returning to Turkey reached 900, while Russia saw 400 militants return after having joined the terrorist organization. The total amount of foreign ISIS members returning home reached 3,400, according to the study.
A different study issued by the European Parliament in May revealed that foreign fighters returned to Europe in two waves. The first wave took place in 2014, before ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of his alleged caliphate, while the second wave happened after the international coalition launched attacks on the organization. The flow of return had increased following the organization’s defeat and its loss of land, the report noted.
According to the study, 125 people returned to Belgium out of a total of 413 who had joined ISIS, with a 30-percent return rate. In Denmark, that rate reached 46 percent, as 67 people returned out of 145. The return rate in France was very low compared to the rest of the European countries, at only 12 percent, where 225 of the 1,910 foreign fighters returned. In Germany, the return rate was 31 percent, with 300 people returning out of the total of 960, while the UK had the highest return rate, reaching 50 percent of the total number of those who had previously left for Iraq and Syria.
There is no doubt that the ISIS elements returning to Europe pose a serious threat to internal security and peace within European societies, especially since many of them continue to adopt extremist ideologies and returned to Europe only after they realized the severity of the conflict zones in the Middle East. Western intelligence services face the challenge of controlling and neutralizing the threat to Europe in a manner that does not conflict with Western human rights principles, especially since a large number of these extremists did not commit any terrorist crimes on European soil.
Perhaps the biggest fear within Europe is that extremists will launch terrorist attacks directly on vital targets, especially since many of them have high levels of combat training, which enhances their ability to form terrorist cells operating in isolation from the mother organization or from other extremists within European countries. The Paris attacks of 2015 are an example of this type of attack.
In the same context, extremists may turn to spreading their extremist ideology and recruiting as many European Muslims who are dissatisfied with the state of secularism in Europe, as well as those who believe they face discrimination or oppression. It should be noted here that the tendency of European countries to impose restrictions on the wearing of the niqab may contribute to the promotion of extremist thought. Although such a measure was taken with the aim of burying extremist ideology and increasing the integration of conservative Muslims into European societies, European countries must realize that religious clothing is only a means to satisfy the religious self of the individual, which means that preventing an individual from wearing religious clothing could push him or her more towards radicalism, which serves the interests of extremist organizations.
This means that the ISIS elements returning to Europe will cause a disruption to the continent’s social fabric by trying to exaggerate all the problems experienced by Muslims in Europe and then work to widen this gap, making it difficult for European societies to absorb citizens inclined towards extremism.
The idea of forming clustered groups of extremist cells geographically dispersed in more than one European country is aimed at disrupting the European security forces. However, these cells do coordinate with each other to carry out terrorist attacks and to recruit elements to benefit ISIS in the various areas of conflict around the world. While it is true that the ability of these elements to persuade individuals to go to conflict zones will be limited due to the successive defeats of the organization, they are now more likely to recruit elements to work for them in Europe to maximize their risk.
The idea of attacks being carried out individually is very existent, especially as an extremist element could be sufficiently trained to carry out a single operation and have the necessary tools available. For example, if an extremist is experienced in manufacturing explosives, it means that he can build a handmade bomb and use it to inflict a great number of casualties. The work of individuals is also more difficult for security agencies to investigate, because the extremist element acts alone and does not communicate with other elements, limiting the ability to be tracked.
In the most vulnerable cases, the extremist element may carry out an attack on large concentrations of people during any national occasion, with the aim of causing the greatest amount of damage. This is difficult for the European security services to predict, because such actions are not preceded by careful planning that may be brought to their attention. Meanwhile, female elements of ISIS can also be active players in threatening Europe’s security, especially since women are generally less suspect when it comes to terrorist operations.
The idea of extremist elements attempting to integrate themselves into the European community structure in order to avoid detection by security services is still very likely, and these elements will then act to threaten Europe’s security, posing a fundamental threat to the European security services, who are often restricted by local laws. This is especially true as many laws within European countries do not criminalize citizens fighting with extremist organizations or outside the country’s territory, which means that the ability to impose security control over these elements requires new legislation, which could take a long time. Also, the retroactive application of these laws may pose another problem.
There is no doubt that the European security services are aware of the danger posed by the extremist elements coming to their territory, which means that these elements will be under constant surveillance. In addition, each country will deal with its citizens returning from conflict zones individually, in accordance with a national strategy that conforms to its domestic laws.
In other words, some countries may resort to new legislation to codify surveillance in Europe, so as to avoid criticism from human rights defenders who fear the idea of a state monitoring an individual outside the law. Other countries may also adopt new legislation to criminalize membership in armed groups outside the borders of the state.
In parallel with the legal actions that European countries may take, integration policies will be pursued in some countries with the aim of rehabilitating extremists. European governments could also use the experiences of these citizens as counter-propaganda. In order to achieve this, European countries must establish special centers of intellectual rehabilitation for extremists.
Finally, we must point out that the final position on how to deal with those returning from ISIS has not yet been determined, as European countries are still engaged in bilateral consultations to reach optimal solutions. In this regard, many European politicians have called for the detention of ISIS elements, as they pose a grave threat to European societies. The issue of Europe’s ISIS children born in the conflict zones of the Middle East also continues to exist, with some opinions stating that they should be hosted as European citizens, while others see that they were born outside of Europe to extremist elements, which means that their return could pose a threat to Europe.