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 »


al-Adnani’s death: A significant but not crippling loss for IS

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This was originally published on 1st September by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .

The death of Islamic State’s Abu Mohammed al-Adnani in a US (or possibly Russian) air strike has been described by some as the ‘biggest ever blow to Islamic State.’

Although often identified as the group’s spokesman and chief propagandist, Adnani’s role was much more significant than that. Adnani was one of the group’s first foreign fighters and longest-serving members, having joined the nascent group in 2000. If reports are to be believed, he was even being groomed as a successor to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This is not to underestimate the importance of his role as spokesman. While his messages are unlikely to have the radicalising resonance of Anwar al-Awlaki, Adnani’s blunt missives against the West made an impact.

Take, for example, Adnani’s call in 2014 for Islamic State supporters to ‘smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car…’ and the wave of unsophisticated but deadly attacks over the past two years, culminating in July’s truck attack in Nice.

Yet Adnani’s significance goes beyond his ability to recruit and legitimise the violence of disparate individuals and groups across the world. read more

European counter-terrorism after Brussels: What next?

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Like most terrorism analysts, I have spent the last 6-7 weeks re-evaluating the terrorist threat to Europe following the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22nd March:

  • Firstly, I analysed European and French preparedness ahead of Euro 2016 for the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Despite my initially positive response to Saleh Abdeslam’s arrest, my concerns about Belgian intelligence and law enforcement capacity were tragically realised within a matter of hours of my article going live.
  • Two days later, in a piece for The Age newspaper in Melbourne, I looked at the flaws in the Belgian counter-terrorism approach. And looked at what next – both from a tactical, operational approach, but just as importantly, from a messaging perspective.
  • Finally, I’ve written on the need for greater collaboration between European intelligence agencies. Not just ‘better intelligence sharing’ but a fundamental re-appraisal of how Europe approaches the terrorist threat over the next 3-5 years. The first piece was published by the Lowy Institute, with a shorter piece appearing in the re-launched i newspaper in the UK.

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




Terrorism in Jakarta: As pressure on ISIS grows, more attacks outside Iraq and Syria likely

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This was originally published on 15th January by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .

ISIS has issued a claim of responsibility for yesterday’s terrorist attack in Jakarta, which left at least seven dead, including five of the attackers.

While the specifics of the attack caught everyone by surprise, a series of anti-terror raids during 2015, and Julie Bishop’s statement this morning suggest that an attack has been coming for some time. But the broad nature of the official warnings in place over the Christmas and New Year period suggests that while authorities were aware of intent to launch an attack, they were blind to the specifics of a plot.

Authorities were quick to draw an understandable comparison with November’s attacks in Paris. But if yesterday’s attack was an ‘imitation’, an initial analysis suggests that it was a poor one.

Because where the Paris attacks were coordinated and largely succeeded in maximising destruction, the Jakarta team of at least seven attackers inflicted an initial death toll of two. To what extent this was due to incompetence, lack of access to heavy weaponry and high grade explosives, or the swift actions of Indonesian authorities, will be a key focus of the investigation. 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

Jihadi rivalries: ISIS, Al-Qaeda and moving the Overton Window

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It seems only logical that for a group struggling for funding, to communicate, and to keep its leaders alive, the emergence of a bigger and more successful rival is bad news. And certainly, the conventional view is that the emergence (or re-emergence) of ISIS has been bad news for Al-Qaeda (AQ). But what if instead, the rise of ISIS benefits AQ in the long-term?

The Overton Window

The Overton window refers to the policies or opinions that are acceptable to the general public at a particular time. The window – which can be applied to everything from gay marriage to gun reform – shifts over time. And as it shifts, views previously outside the range of socially acceptable positions can become main-stream.

What does this have to do with AQ? Well in terrorist terms, ISIS appears to have shifted public expectations of how terrorist groups behave and the threat that they pose. As a consequence, AQ are no longer at the extreme end of the terrorist spectrum. Have they moved into the Overton window by sheer virtue of ‘not being ISIS’?
Read the rest of this entry »

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.