Small Wars Journal

The Terrorist Diaspora, its Returnees, and Disrupting the Rise of Homegrown Violent Extremists

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 8:30am

The Terrorist Diaspora, its Returnees, and Disrupting the Rise of Homegrown Violent Extremists

Conrad E. Orr

Returning Fighters and Emerging Local Threats

As the so-called caliphate (Daesh) collapses and looses ground throughout Iraq and Syria, a problem that has been on the mind of experts for some time is brought to the fore: the return of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) who set out from western nations to join Daesh or al Qa’ida-linked Hay’at Tharir al-Sham (HTS). In what is being referred to by some experts as the ‘terrorist diaspora’[i], fighters are already fleeing to other conflict zones to continue jihad, but two recent reports, one by the Radicalisation Awareness Network[ii] (RAN) and the other by EUROPOL[iii], bring stark attention to the sheer numbers and risks of those that will become returnees to their western home nations. It is important to discern the nuances of the threat posed by these FTFs that will return home, and in particular, the connection between FTFs and homegrown violent extremists terrorists (HVEs) who strike targets where they live. As the latter becomes the face of attacks across Europe it is important to note, as Thomas Renard of the Edgemont Institute has, that both western FTFs and HVEs are ‘homegrown’ in the sense that they are Europeans radicalized, to varying degrees, in Europe[iv]. Planning for the return of FTFs, as well as mitigating against influences from afar that inspire HVEs, must be done as complimentary actions. If not, the risk of increased attacks within the west will continue to grow as the so-called caliphate cedes its physical territory in the Levant, and digs in online and within western communities.

Facts and Figures

By the count of the RAN report, titled ‘Responses to returnees: Foreign terrorist fighters and their families’, the rate of return by FTFs from Iraq and Syria is placed at roughly 30%, with approximately 5,000 of the total 42,000 FTFs originating from European nations[v]. However, for the countries of Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom the rate of return is placed at about 50%, creating a much more substantial risk within these countries specifically. While the 5000-individual figure is already quite significant, it is difficult to account for the entire picture, especially the ‘dark’ numbers of departures; those not accounted for or outright identified as departures to become FTFs.  For example, the Turkish government reports that as of November 2016 they maintain a no-entry list of 7670 individuals from within the European Union (EU) who pose a significant risk of working towards becoming FTFs[vi]. It is likely, however, that the conservative figure of 1/3 of 5000 fighters being likely to return is a workable number due to several key factors: the significant casualties Daesh is suffering on the battlefield; the often-lesser quality of FTFs as combatants; and the auto-extermination of those FTFs who are deemed useless to Daesh or try to leave without permission[vii]. Using this more conservative estimate, the number of FTFs who have or can be expected to return to EU states is around 3000 individuals, but these figures ought not represent a reason to panic. As the 2017 EUROPOL Terrorism Situation and Trend Report identifies, the amount of failed, foiled, or completed attacks within European Union member states has decreased year over year since 2014; with 2016 seeing 142 plots, down from 193 in 2015 and 226 in 2014[viii]. Additionally, both the ability for jihadist organizations to secure significant financing and the volume of departures from EU nations to conflict zones have also decreased in recent years[ix]. These latter two downward trends likely developing as the result of successful military pressure, the targeting of terrorist financing mechanisms, and increased difficulties faced by potential FTFs in getting to conflict zones. Further, the largest portion of terrorism related arrests within the EU remain associated with jihadism, with arrests of jihadism associated terrorists increasing year over year since 2012[x].

Given the downward trends in terrorist plot attempts within Europe and the upward trend in successful arrests, it is tempting to assert that a potential increase in the rate of returnees as fighters disperse does not present a significantly increased level of risk. However, there is more to the picture. The current generation of returnees, those leaving as the caliphate is defeated or routed, is explicitly identified by the RAN report as the most worrisome[xi]. While FTFs who returned previously have been responsible for planning, assisting with, or perpetrating attacks within Europe, the majority “with some notable exceptions — [were] more prone to disillusionment [and] arguably less violent”[xii]; many having only taken up arms to fight the Assad regime. Even still, this initial section of returnees contained six of the 2015 Paris attack perpetrators as well as three of the perpetrators of the 2014 and 2015 Brussels attackers. In contrast to this first generation of returnees, the current generation is understood to be much more complex, and the individuals are often “more battle-hardened and ideologically committed”[xiii]. The report goes on to state that a higher proportion of this current generation “may have come back with violent motives: to harm EU citizens”[xiv]. No wonder then that the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis “recently announced an ‘annihilation campaign’ to eliminate the foreign fighters”[xv] while they remain in Iraq and Syria.

Recent Developments and Looking Ahead

In examining the attacks across Europe since the start of 2017, none of them appear to have direct links to, or to have been perpetrated by FTF returnees. The notable somewhat-exception is the Manchester bomber who is reported to have fought against Ghadafi at age 16 in 2011, as well as to have returned to Libya just prior to carrying out his attack in 2017[xvi]. Much more common of the recent attacks is self radicalization or radicalization that otherwise takes place within western Europe, with attackers declaring allegiance just prior to or during the attack itself. As Renard succinctly put it, previously radicalized “youngsters wanted to be part of a jihadi group which ordered them to kill; now, they seek to kill in order to be part of the jihad, even if posthumously”[xvii]. This shift reflects the change in strategy of Daesh itself, which now prioritizes the message that jihadists should attack targets where they are, using propaganda and outreach that “targets malcontents, misfits, those with mental disorders, the most suggestible, those desperate to belong to something”[xviii], not committed fighters. What this means is that the FTFs who return, evade capture, and continue to perpetuate jihad, will likely have a more potent ‘veteran effect’[xix]; these returnees being much more ideologically committed and experienced with weapons/explosives. The ‘operational’ as well as “disengaged but not disillusioned” amongst these individuals will likely fill the roles of plotters, facilitators, and recruiters, both locally and, crucially, online. As mounting academic evidence suggests that participation in online political activity, particularly in online hate groups, is likely to motivate one to act politically offline[xx], and as more and more western youth participate in politics primarily in the digital realm, the advent of a FTF diaspora and shift in jihadist recruiting to the cyber realm is potently timely. Israel, a country with its fair share of local experienced FTFs, has already experienced the impacts of jihadists combining traditional local-network recruitment methods with the mass production of online materials aimed at encouraging self radicalization. The result in Israel being what is now referred to as the ‘Wave of Terror’, a near constant stream of ‘lone wolf’ attacks with knives, cars, and small arms carried out mainly by young urban dwelling individuals[xxi]. These young attackers are, more often than not, not part of any formal cell, organization, or cause; rather, they commonly declare their alignment with one just prior to, during, or following the attacks.

Making Ready

The RAN report itself is intended as a guide for practitioners dealing with future returnees, and is subsequently full of excellent practical guidance for addressing how to handle FTFs upon return and arrest. Additionally, in a testimony before the United States House of Representative Committee on Homeland Security Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry into the United States, Colin Clark of the RAND corporation has touched on some excellent points as well[xxii]. Distilling these suggestions down, the most central pillar of mitigating against the risks of FTF returnees is increasing inter-organizational communication; a central but elusive objective of most intelligence and law enforcement agencies since the 9/11 attacks. In addition to increasing information sharing in order to better identify, track, and arrest returnees, a crucial element in mitigating against the effects of the terrorist diaspora will be increasing our ability to discern between those FTFs returning disillusioned, who are able to be reintegrated following psychological assistance in detention, those who are “disengaged but not disillusioned”[xxiii], and “operational returnees”[xxiv]; the latter posing the most significant threat and requiring the most attention and detention. A final key pillar will be disrupting the online activities of dispersed and returned ‘veteran’ FTFs, whether in captivity or still eluding capture, as well as mitigating the reach/spread of extremist generated propaganda. This must be done in tandem with efforts to engage with Islamic and youth communities online and offline if the best results are to be achieved. Current research into online political engagement has demonstrated that one of the strongest mitigatory forces against developing extremist political ideologies from online sources is contact with close family members or friends with opposing positions[xxv]. This means that real-world community outreach to youth and Islamic communities, working to create counter narratives online, and disrupting jihadist’s digital activities may be tools as important in mitigating terrorist diaspora associated risks as working to kill, prevent the return, or arrest FTF returnees in the physical one. Taken all together, the information available allows us to see that the task of mitigating against the significant risks of FTF returnees and HVEs as the post-Daesh terrorist diaspora unfolds is an enormous but not insurmountable one. Resources are already being marshalled in order to ensure returnees are identified and arrested, and efforts already being made to understand those we detain, as well as how best to mitigate against the influence of those who are not.

End Notes

[i]Clarke, Colin. The Terrorist Diaspora: After the Fall of the Caliphate, Testimony before the Committee on Homeland Security Task Force on Denying Terrorists Entry into the United States Cong. (2017). Accessed August 29, 2017.

[ii] Meines, Marije, Merel Molenkamp, Omar Ramadan, and Magnus Ranstorp. Responses to returnees: Foreign terrorist fighters and their families. European Commission's Radicalization Awareness Network, 2017.

[iii] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017. Report. The Hague: EUROPOL, 2017.

[iv] Renard, Thomas. Europe’s “new” jihad: Homegrown, leaderless, virtual. Security Policy Brief no. 89. EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations, 2017

[v] Meines, Marije, Merel Molenkamp, Responses to returnees. 2017. 15

[vi] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017. 2017. 12

[vii] Jenkins, Brian Michael. "The Islamic State's Disposable Army." RAND Corporation. June 20, 2017. Accessed August 29, 2017.

[viii] European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2017. 2017. 10

[ix] IBID 12

[x] IBID 22-24

[xi] Meines, Marije, Merel Molenkamp, Responses to returnees. 2017. 20

[xii] IBID

[xiii] IBID

[xiv] IBID

[xv] Jenkins. "The Islamic State's Disposable Army." 2017.

[xvi] "Manchester attack: Who was Salman Abedi?" BBC News. June 12, 2017. Accessed September 01, 2017.

[xvii] Renard. Europe’s “new” jihad. 2017. 2

[xviii] Jenkins. "The Islamic State's Disposable Army." 2017.

[xix] Nesser, Petter, Anne Stenerson, and Emilie Oftedal. "Jihadi Terrorism in Europe: The IS-Effect." Perspectives on Terrorism 10, no. 6 (December 10, 2016). December 10, 2016. Accessed September 01, 2017.

[xx] Wojcieszak, Magdalena. “’Carrying Online Participation Offline’-Mobilization by Radical Online Groups and Politically Dissimilar Offline Ties." Journal of Communication 59, no. 3 (2009): 564-86. Accessed August 28, 2017. doi:10.1111/j.1460-2466.2009.01436.x.

[xxi] Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Wave of terror 2015-2017." August 06, 2017. Accessed August 20, 2017.

[xxii] Clarke. The Terrorist Diaspora. 2017 Testimony.

[xxiii] IBID 5

[xxiv] IBID

[xxv] Wojcieszak. “Carrying Online Participation Offline". 2009. 567


About the Author(s)

Conrad Orr is a recent Masters graduate of the Royal Military College of Canada's War Studies program, focusing on emerging trends in military technology and policy formation. Conrad also holds a bachelors degree in Law from Carleton University in Ottawa.