Foreign Fighters

Could Repatriating Foreign Fighters Make Europe Safer?

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This was originally published on 25 November 2016 by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, a counter-terrorism think tank based in the Hague.

Earlier this month, ICCT Visiting Fellow Phil Gurski examined whether governments should consider offering ‘amnesty’ for foreign fighters fleeing the Middle East. He concluded that the arguments in favour of such a strategy – such as getting ‘formers’ to denounce so-called Islamic State (IS) – were not strong enough to outweigh the need to punish those who joined a barbaric terrorist group. As this assessment was in-part inspired by an article in which I’d made the case for an amnesty or plea bargain, I thought I’d re-visit my proposal and clarify how it could work in light of his comments.

There are three elements of the returning foreign fighter problem that make it so challenging, and the scale of the problem so uncertain.

Firstly – and particularly for signatories of the Schengen Agreement – the risk that fighters return home undetected. Secondly, when returnees are identified, their reason for returning is unclear. And finally, for those detected and arrested, the difficulties of securing meaningful convictions for terrorist offences committed in a war zone thousands of miles away.

Ongoing military operations in the Middle East are targeting the foreign fighter contingent. These air strikes, and the continued use of foreign fighters as suicide attackers, means the size of the potential returnee problem is likely to slowly reduce over time.

However, there are practical limitations to relying on a solely military response, not least the sheer scale of the foreign fighter problem. For countries targeting their own citizens, human rights concerns and questions regarding the rule of law limit how broadly a military option can be used. This means that despite military progress in Iraq and Syria, a significant outflow of foreign fighters remains likely.

Which is why now might be the time for governments to consider an alternative approach; one that reduces the number of foreign fighters for whom current location or future intentions are unknown. Read the rest of this entry »

Why Europe should consider a foreign fighter amnesty scheme

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This was originally published on 24 October by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank.

In counter-terrorism, it sometimes feels like every silver lining has a cloud. While the Mosul offensive is making steady progress into the Islamic State-controlled city, this success risks triggering the movement of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Europe and beyond.

Even if an immediate mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe is very unlikely, those that do leave Iraq and Syria over the coming months will pose a serious threat, particularly in Europe where the returning foreign fighter problem has been described as the biggest current security issue.

Beyond the obvious threat posed by individuals with experience fighting for a terrorist organisation, there are three elements that make their return so challenging.

First, foreign fighters may potentially return home undetected; the Paris and Brussels attacks made it clear what consequences this could have. Second, even when their arrival is identified, their motivations for returning are unclear. And finally, even when arrests are made, securing a conviction for terrorist offences might prove difficult, partially due to a lack of admissible evidence and partially because many of the terrorist offences introduced since 2012 remain untested in court.

It is still unclear how many fighters will return home. As Islamic State crumbles, fighters are unlikely to behave as a homogenous group. This splintering of the threat into multiple locations and/or groups might make it even less predictable and more difficult to track.

For national governments, knowing which of their foreign fighter contingent will choose which route will be difficult. Attempting to address this uncertainty by monitoring groups and individuals in multiple locations will require intelligence and security agencies to expend a large amount resources.

Which is why now might be the time for governments to consider a more proactive approach to shaping the foreign fighter outflow – specifically through a foreign fighter ‘amnesty’ or plea bargain scheme. Read the rest of this entry »

How Islamic State controls ‘lone wolves’ in Europe

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This was originally published on 9th August by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .

The New York Times revealed more details last week about the activities of Islamic State’s external operations unit, the Amn al-Kharji. Central to the report was an extensive interview with returned German foreign fighter Harry Sarfo.

This isn’t the first time Sarfo has spoken to the media. Since his return from Syria in July 2015 and arrest by German authorities, he has given interviews to Der Spiegel and The Independent. And aside from including a (very worthwhile) video interview, little of what Sarfo said in the article was new.

What makes the story most noteworthy is that the events of the past few months are starting to make Sarfo’s testimony look worryingly accurate.

His claim that ‘hundreds’ of operatives have been actively sent back to Europe by Islamic State (rather than simply returning), seems less outlandish after a summer dominated by a series of terrorist attacks inspired or directed by Islamic State.

Sarfo’s claims are given further credence by unnamed US intelligence sources and other returnees. And Islamic State spokespeople (in contact with undercover journalists) have similarly referenced large numbers of trained and capable operatives in Europe.

I’d previously hoped that these figures were inflated. After all, consistency does not always equal accuracy. Terrorist groups seek to influence as well as inform those under their command.

But the more we learn about the importance of external operations within the Islamic State operational structure, the more feasible these figures appear. read more

Be warned ‘Jihadi Jack’, white Brits in Syria are valuable to Isis whatever side they’re on

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This was originally published on 28th January by the Independent.

Is ‘Jihadi Jack’ fighting for ISIS on the frontlines in Iraq or carrying out humanitarian work in Syria? Despite claim and counter-claim being light on detail at this stage, Jack Letts is already on trial in the court of public opinion.

His story so far has similarities with that of Australian teenager Oliver Bridgeman. Initial reports in May 2015 – also based on social media activity and comments from school friends – identified Bridgeman as a radicalised, ‘blonde jihadi’, fighting with the al-Nusra Front in Syria.

By August however, footage had emerged of Bridgeman distributing aid for the ‘Live Updates from Syria’ organisation. Bridgeman has subsequently played an active and visible role in their online campaign, removing many of the doubts surrounding his presence in Syria.

Yet some of the details provided by Letts and his parents point to potentially concerning differences between the two, particularly Letts’ time in Isis-controlled areas and the de-facto capital Raqqa. read more

Could the Paris attacks happen in Australia? Looking at the ‘Island fortress’

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As a companion piece to my initial analysis of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, I assessed the likelihood of similar attacks occurring here in Australia for the Lowy InstituteI discussed the article, and counter-terrorism challenges more generally on ABC Radio National’s ‘Counterpoint’. My interview is available here.

As the world slowly absorbs the full implications of the terrorist attacks in Paris, thoughts inevitably turn to whether events will be repeated elsewhere.

That ISIS or ISIS-affiliated groups and networks would seek to emulate the impact of the Paris attacks is almost certain. If an opportunity arises to attempt an attack on a similar scale, it is unlikely that ISIS would reject it. Its intent will persist.

The media has understandably highlighted repeated references to Australia and Australian fighters in ISIS propaganda, including in the most recent edition of Dabiq, its online magazine. But we should be clear about the role of ISIS propaganda. It aims to radicalise, recruit and inspire attacks in the West, not communicate ISIS operational priorities.

We don’t know where Australia features in the thoughts and strategies of ISIS senior leadership. read more

Making sense of the Beirut and Paris attacks

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Like most people, I’ve spent the last few days trying to make sense of the tragic events in Beirut and Paris. There is still a lot we don’t know. And individuals involved in the Paris attack are still on the run.

But there are some key strategic questions that we can attempt to answer. Why did ISIS launch these attacks? Why now? Why Paris and Beirut? Could more have been done to prevent the attacks? And most importantly, what next?

These questions aren’t going away. I’m sure I’ll be re-visiting them again in future. But in the meantime, I’ve included the different pieces I’ve contributed to below:

David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.

ISIS, the media and the propaganda war

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With journalists on the front line of the ISIS propaganda war, how should they balance the need to inform with the risk of spreading disinformation?

As an intelligence analyst, I realised very quickly that when you compare private words with public actions, people lie, a lot.

This is not an insurmountable problem however. Over time, it becomes easier to identify when this is happening and more importantly why. Intelligence is more than just what people say. It’s also the how, the why and the who.

Using all of this information, you try to convey a source’s reliability and access to the subject at hand. Fail to do so and your reader can be faced with multiple and often contradictory pieces of information. Unable to separate the wheat from the chaff, decision makers can use the chaff (knowingly or otherwise) to inform government policy.

From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that similar rules apply to journalists. As do the similarly disastrous consequences for using unreliable sources. So how should they (and we) approach ISIS in this context? read more