For some years following the unleash of internal wars in Mali and Syria, particularly between 2013 and 2016, a considerable amount of the jihadists residing in Spain were more inclined to go and become foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) in a conflict zone, or settle there with no operational aims, than to stay inside the country and engage in terrorism-related activities domestically. This remarkable inclination was neither yet evidenced on 2012 nor observed any longer on 2017.
Putting off the decision of what to do with returnees has, so far, been the most conspicuous attitude of the Portuguese government and of national security authorities when questioned about the plan to deal with the repatriation and return of relatives of Portuguese jihadists detained in Syria, in the wake of the collapse of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Lisbon, just like most other European countries, has delayed for much too long the issue of dealing with its citizens who joined the Islamic State group.
The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters, who have travelled to these countries to join the ranks of the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other armed groups.
On December 10, 2019, the southwestern region of Tillabéri, in Niger, was shocked by an act of armed violence against Nigerien military forces. Around 500 heavily-armed men stormed a military camp in In-Atès, about 180 km from the capital Niamey and 20 km from the border with Mali. More than 70 soldiers were killed, dozens injured and many weapons and pieces of equipment stolen.
Now that the “caliphate” has been decapitated, global jihad is ebbing. But from Nigeria to the Philippines, other developments deserve our attention.
The challenge of returning foreign fighters affects the whole of Europe. France adopted a clear-cut unofficial policy of outsourcing, asking Iraq to prosecute French fighters to keep them away from Europe. In fact, the issue of returnees cannot be swept under the carpet and needs a proper strategy that combines prosecution and de-radicalization.
“Would you like some nice ISIS fighters?”, US president Donald Trump asked French president Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the NATO leaders meeting in London this month. “I can give them to you”. Macron didn´t think it was funny. “Come on, let’s be serious”, he replied. The awkward exchange between the two leaders was emblematic of the wider question at hand; should countries take back their foreign terrorist fighters? And if so, what would that mean for their national security?
For a few years, the return of experienced jihadi fighters from the Levant was perceived as the main threat to Belgium. With hindsight, the 2016 Brussels attacks were the last operation prepared and staged by the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Europe, involving returnees. With the disintegration of IS’s caliphate, the threat posed by the group has evolved significantly. Returnees are no longer the sole – or even main – concern of security services.
The conflict in Syria and Iraq has left a strong mark on jihadist milieus throughout Europe. This impact has been particularly striking in Finland. The Finnish Security Intelligence Service (Supo) has estimated that over 80 adults and about 30 minors have left from Finland to the conflict zone. While the size of the Finnish mobilisation is relatively small compared to many countries in the region, this is a high number for a country of 5.5 million inhabitants which has a small muslim population and no significant history of jihadist activism.
The internet offers tremendous opportunities for violent extremists across the ideological spectrum and at a global level. In addition to propaganda, digital technologies have transformed the dynamics of radical mobilisation, recruitment and participation. Even though the jihadist threat has seemingly declined in the West, the danger exists of the internet being an environment where radical messages can survive and even prosper.
The North Caucasus has a notorious reputation of being Russia's volatile frontier and what security experts have come to call an “arc of instability”. The region’s rich conflict potential and troubled socio-economic dynamics constantly keep Moscow on its toes.
Foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) associated with the unrest in Syria and Iraq, comprise over 40,000 individuals from 110 countries, spurring the international community to call upon these countries of origin to act. All Central Asian (CA) states are affected by problems related to their FTFs.