End of IS means its fighters' return to Europe

The Iraqi Prime Minister announced the end of the Islamic State on 29 June after the Iraqi forces captured the Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. There are thousands of Europeans fighting for the Islamic State, and due to the organisation's territorial losses and military failures, there is a danger of a return of its fighters to Europe. It can be assumed that at least a minority of returnees will be motivated to further collaborate with the IS, recruit new members, act as sleeping cells or plan terrorist attacks. Such attacks are unlikely to be like the attacks of recent lone actors – the attacks will be more sophisticated, carefully planned, and their prevention will place high demands on capabilities of secret services.

The reasons for the return of jihadists to Europe increasing amid territorial losses of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The decrease of the organisation's prestige and the fighters' illusions about the holy war creates demotivation. Falling financial income of the organisation prevents the organisation from rewarding its fighters as their total incomes reduced by more than half since 2014. Due to changes in its tactics – a dispersion into smaller cells and a larger focus on foreign terror – a portion of the fighters also return to Europe, where they can recruit new members, plan attacks, or act as sleeper cells.

Around 5,000 Europeans currently fight abroad in the name of the IS. They are mostly younger people coming from Muslim communities. They often may be individuals of the so-called second-generation immigrants, whose socio-economic conditions, or difficult labour market situations and subsequent frustration, lead to them being easily manipulated and falling prey to Islamic radicalisation.

Although the majority of the returning fighters likely plan to resume their previous "normal" lives, they still pose a security threat. Even then it must be assumed that the motivation for the return of at least a small portion of the fighters is to plan terror in Europe. Furthermore, there is a danger of radicalisation of those who again became motivated to wage war against the West after returning and being harshly persecuted by their country.

"It must be assumed that the motivation for the return of at least a small portion of the fighters is to plan terror in Europe."

The risks associated with former IS fighters are high because of the training they have undergone and the real battle experience they have. A wide network of their contacts also plays a large role. Returning fighters who cooperate with the IS will however likely serve as attack planners and the attacks themselves will be carried on by newly recruited radicals. The recruitment of new jihadists, therefore, poses another risk of returning fighters to their Muslim communities. Terrorist attacks being targeted on so-called soft targets is also a problem because the attackers try to hit as many people as possible. The terrorist attacks from Nice and Manchester show that terrorists are not concentrating exclusively on large cities, which further increases the impossibility of protecting all potential targets effectively.

Prevention

Preventing attacks is considerably difficult, especially in the cases of returnees who have returned to Europe unnoticed. The key issue then is the question of their country's approach to their return and the measures taken. These may include reintegration programs or tougher measures such as detainment or loss of citizenship. However, a common problem is a lack of evidence of terrorist activities abroad.

"However, a common problem is a lack of evidence of terrorist activities abroad."

The capacities of secret services are not high enough to constantly monitor the high number of possible radicals, they can only focus on selected targets where the risk of attacks is the highest. In the case of these people, it is also necessary to monitor their contacts, which puts additional demands on capacities of secret services. However, experience shows that predicting the real level of risk is extremely difficult and even a person low on the priority list can conduct an attack. However, constant monitoring of all suspects is not realistically possible. For instance, last year, 15,000 people were suspected of terrorism in France. Assuming that 20 people are needed to monitor the suspect for a 24-hour watch, 300,000 police officers would be needed to monitor everyone. This number exceeds the current number of French police units. In Great Britain, where about 3,000 suspects currently live, 60,000 police officers would be needed, which is almost half of the current capacity. In Belgium, where the current number of potential terrorists is nearly 19,000, the number of police forces needed would be many times higher than the current numbers. Britain leaving the EU could also weaken the interdependence of British intelligence services with the European ones, which could further reduce capacities.

"Britain's leaving the EU could also weaken the interdependence of British intelligence services with the European ones, which could further reduce capacities."

Although the European Union countries adopted appropriate measures, such as increasing the presence of armed forces in high-risk places or building vehicle barriers, they cannot solely rely on this type of measures. Although changes in these measures are also being discussed at the legislative level, their real effect is not completely certain. Considering that similar measures interfere more with the privacy of the population, they could face opposition and eventually be altered into a form in which they lose efficiency. From the perspective of possible prevention, the fight against online extremism is crucial as well. The European states attempt to limit the spread of Islamist propaganda that leads to the radicalisation of new Islamists after last year's terrorist attacks in Europe, that have been, with the exception of the March attack at Brussels airport, the work of radicalised lone actors. Big companies like Facebook or YouTube should also help and they voluntarily committed to removing at least 50% of the posts flagged as inappropriate within 24 hours from notification. However, the UK and France go even further and want the Internet companies to bear legal responsibility for inappropriate content.

"However, the effective process of reintegration of returning fighters back into European society remains essential."

Noting the aforementioned points, it is apparent that there is no ideal precaution against the returning jihadists, whose number will increase. It is necessary to focus on a wide range of steps, starting with the proper approach to detained returnees, expanding the capabilities of secret services, monitoring suspects, enforcing protection of soft targets, fighting against radicalisation and against further recruiting, both physical and online. However, the effective process of reintegration of returning fighters back into European society remains essential.

About author: Jonáš Vlk

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