By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – As ISIS slowly disintegrates, a new danger is appearing: what will become of its surviving fighters who do not remain in the region, but return to their countries of origin, including the nations of Europe?
On 18 May, Jean-Paul Laborde, head of the United Nations Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, briefed journalists on the challenges of returning foreign fights.
The good news? “The flow of foreign fighters to the area [ISIS territory] has decreased, and decreased enormously. We estimate that the number has decreased by 90 percent” over the past 18 months, he said. But the down side of the subject is that while fewer people are going to fight for ISIS, more and more are leaving to return home. “In Europe and the Maghreb, the rates of return have increased by a third over the past year,” he said.
By way of background, Laborde described two waves of people who became foreign fighters in Syria. The first wave included high numbers of young people “who went for the T-shirt and the pictures.” Many of them quickly returned disillusioned and terrified, in part because ISIS sometimes killed those it deemed unfit for combat.
By contrast, the second wave of fighters was more committed, skilled, and experienced, and they stayed in Syria for longer periods. As returnees, Laborde said, they will likely prove more dangerous than members of the first wave, in part because they had more time to form networks with similarly minded extremists. They also made contacts with organised crime groups, often participating as criminals within them.
The relationship between ISIS and organised crime, Laborde explained, is particularly worrisome. Between five and seven percent of ISIS’s income comes from drug trafficking, and another 10 percent from human trafficking. As ISIS continues to lose territory, the lines between it and organised crime may blur further, and help it maintain its coherence, even if it is driven completely underground.
According to Laborde, some confusion still exists about where the returning fights are going, and how many of them are returning to Europe. “We estimate that 40 to 50 percent of fighters have already returned…but where? Some return to their countries of origin, some return to their travel origin [i.e., where they live or work but not their birth country]. Some go to other conflict zones, like Afghanistan,” he said. Also, the wives and children of returning fighters represent a special sub-category of the problem. “We have children who have been educated [in ISIS}, and grown up there.”
Laborde said Europe has be prepared because its borders remain porous. “In spite of the travel restrictions, you’ll still have a number of foreign fighters who will probably slip through the borders and come back to their countries, especially through smuggling networks,” he observed.
The UN official proffered two broad ways of confronting the problem.
First, “we need very strong cooperation not only among EU countries, but with countries in the conflict zones, and countries around the conflict zones. This effort should be EU-centric. We need to look at the problem from a larger perspective,” he said.
Second, the international instruments for such cooperation are often already in place, but they are not being used, or they have not been incorporated into local laws. “We have 19 international instruments against terrorism. Of these, countries [in the ME region] have ratified 14. But none of these conventions was incorporated into national legislation, and that’s a big problem,” said Laborde.
Among the 19 instruments is United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178, which calls upon UN member states to stop foreign fighters from crossing their borders, and to bar organisations from funding their activities. Despite its widespread support, many countries have yet to transpose 2178 into national law.
Finally, Laborde stressed the importance of prevention.
“Many Middle Eastern countries, and others, have full programs for rehabilitation [of foreign fighters]. We have to learn from that. Prevention means that we find the drivers that are comparable to the drivers for organised crime, or urban crime. We also have to define the measures we use to prevent people from becoming foreign fighters. The grown-up terrorists are really the problem now.”
He ended his remarks on a positive note, stating that private-sector companies like Microsoft, Google and Twitter are now more active in policing their social media networks for radicalising terrorist content.
“It should be voluntary,” Laborde said. “I don’t feel that we need more legislation on this issue; you’d probably have issues with freedom of speech.”
Nor would a more regulatory approach work very well. “The technology goes so fast, you’re always two to three years behind,” he said.
Fortunately the EU recently adopted, in March, its regulation to reinforce border checks for EU citizens against a variety of databases, including the Schengen Information System.
But border control is just the beginning of the problem. As it shrinks, ISIS may well re-organise itself into an underground movement that’s part of, or even indistinguishable from, organised crime. This would create an entity that knows how to operate both without territory, and deep within Europe’s. Combine that with Bitcoin and the anonymity of the “dark” internet and ISIS’s reign of terror may have only begun.