There and back again: A Jihadist's Tale

I recently had the privilege of attending a conference workshop regarding the terrorist threat to North America and Europe with a special focus on ISIS. The panel included experts from the U.S., Israel, and Germany. Unfortunately, the general consensus was that although ISIS is experiencing strategic losses on the battlefield, the threat is far from over. The Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria will cause a ripple effect as foreign fighters return to their countries of origin. If Ned Stark (before he lost his head obviously) was a panelist, he might say “Brace yourselves, Jihad is coming.”

The conclusions of this panel were not intended to stir fear nor were they unrealistically pessimistic but rather painfully sober reminders of the dangers to come. The Islamic State’s popularity and masterful use of recruitment and marketing has drawn extremists from all over the world. Once the ‘Caliphate’ has been brought to its knees, its warriors will not simply shrug their shoulders and say, “We gave it a good effort. Let’s get back to normal life in Europe.” More likely, they will say something like, “Let’s wage Jihad across Europe killing every man, woman, and child who does not submit to the will of Allah.” This past year has seen an unprecedented wave of attacks throughout Europe, but in many ways, the worst is yet to come.

The International Centre for Counter Terrorism at The Hague estimates that 4300 Europeans have joined the ranks of ISIS. The ICCTs report notes that the top three contributors are France (900), the United Kingdom (700-760), and Germany (720-760). Belgium comes in with an alarming fourth place finish with 420-516 Jihadists joining the fray in Syria. The report also estimates that 30% of these foreign fighters have returned to Europe. Whatever the actual number is, we can be sure that individuals have without a doubt traveled to Syria, fought for the Islamic State, and returned back to their home country. One need look no further than the Paris attack in November 2015 to see the return of foreign fighters to Europe in order to carry out attacks. These numbers do not paint the full picture though.

Clint Watts, a current Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that a more telling statistic is the rates of recruitment measured in the raw count of fighters per Sunni population in a given country. With this in mind, Belgium comes out on top with the highest rate of recruitment. Watts notes that this is especially troubling since Belgium and other small European countries with high recruitment rates, do not have the same counter-terrorism capabilities that the UK or France has. Again, the Paris attack comes to mind since several perpetrators were from Belgium, specifically the suburb of Molenbeek which has a large Muslim population.

The foreign fighters who have returned and will continue to return as the Islamic State loses ground pose the greatest terrorist threat to Europe. These jihadists are dangerous for three key reasons. Firstly, many will be seasoned fighters who are not afraid to kill. These individuals will no longer be troubled young men with petty criminal backgrounds as are many new recruits, but battle hardened soldiers who stand firm in their extremist Islam. Secondly, these fighters can use their experience in Syria and Iraq to excite and galvanize new recruits to join the cause at home. Veteran jihadists will be able to grow new networks and use their experience to limit their visibility. Lastly, returning fighters are not only familiar with European territory, they are locals to it. They speak the language and understand the environment they operate in. The ICCT reported that 90-100% of foreign fighters from Europe to Syria came from metropolitan areas. Europe cannot afford to ignore Ned Stark’s cold advice, because it is going to be a long, long winter.