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Bracing communities for returning foreign fighters

By Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman - posted Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The ongoing offensive by the Iraqi-led coalition forces to liberate Mosul from ISIS's reign is meeting intense resistance from ISIS fighters. Driven by its depraved objectives that are intrinsically rooted in distorted interpretations of a perpetual cosmic war between good and evil as prophesised in Islamic eschatology and the strategic imperative to maintain its currency in the global jihadist arena, ISIS will not be easily vanquished.

ISIS – an enduring threat

Even as military setbacks in the Middle East chip away at its sacrosanct image as a functioning pseudo-state, its likely shift to an insurgency model as a response to territorial loses, the global reach of its sophisticated propaganda, and the flow of its foreign fighters are among the factors that will make it an enduring threat actor in the Middle East and the global jihadist arena. A commentary titled 'After the Battle for Mosul, Get Ready for the Islamic State to Go Underground' on the RAND blog dated 18 Oct 2016 essentially forewarned that ISIS could mirror Al-Qaeda in maintaining its resilience by morphing into a truly covert terrorist organisation.


While coalition forces look forward to the liberation of Mosul as a strategic and near term victory, countries in the non-conflict zones who are members of the US-led global coalition to counter ISIL – another important theatre in countering violent extremism – have expressed concerns over the increasingly imminent and long term threats from returning foreign fighters whose outflow from the Syria/Iraq might be hastened by the impending collapse of ISIS's caliphate.

A Wall Street Journal article titled 'Mosul Offensive Highlights Risk of Fighters Fleeing to Europe' on 18 October 2016 noted that the Europol had urged European states to be ready to face the long struggle against returning fighters as they flee from the Mosul offensive. In East Asia, some Southeast Asian countries have expressed similar concerns over the returning fighters. The Australian foreign minister also said that steps are being taken to detect Australian fighters who may seek to return home.

Returning foreign fighters – perpetuating the terrorist threat.

Indeed, Southeast Asia had seen how fighters returning from the Soviet-Afghan War (1980s) were instrumental in the formation of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI); and Al-Qaeda linked jihadist movement with goals to establish Mantiqis (i.e. branches) across the region (i.e. Mantiqis I – III) and as far as Australia (i.e. Mantiqi IV). The arduous challenges that law enforcement and security agencies will face from returning fighters will be complicated by the simultaneous threats from ISIS-inspired Lone-Wolf/Low-Tech Terrorism which could engulf the intelligence and frontline resources of the agencies.

For example, the knife attack by a suspected ISIS supporter on 20 October 2016 on Indonesian police officers in Tangerang, Jakarta in which the perpetrator had pasted an ISIS sticker near the scene appears to have taken a leaf from the chapter "Just Terror Tactics" in the second edition of the ISIS's magazine Rumiyah. Furthermore, Al-Qaeda might take advantage of ISIS's misfortunes to revive and reassert its influence in the global jihadist arena; as could be surmised from a speech by Osama Bin Laden's son (i.e. Hamza) which was released by Al-Qaeda's As-Sahab Media in July 2016. The speech titled 'We are all Osama' could be a harbinger of Al-Qaeda's attempts to renew its ageing leadership and revive its stature which was eclipsed by ISIS's rise.

It is important to note that the threats from returning fighters are not limited to their respective home countries. As agencies beef up border security and international cooperation such as the database of suspected foreign fighters maintained by INTERPOL's Counter-terrorism Fusion Centre, foreign fighters might find their movements increasingly hampered. They could resort to linking up with criminal groups to travel across borders using illegal means while concurrently evading the radar of the agencies. In doing so, they could also pose a threat to the countries and cities that they travel through and the communities that they mingle with before they reach their home countries. Their surreptitious movements might be obscured by horrific actions of ISIS-inspired lone wolf or homegrown terrorists.


Therefore, countries, cities and communities should bear in mind that the best efforts by agencies would not be able prevent all terrorist plots; and that the foreign fighters who staged these plots might not necessarily are their own citizens. After all, jihadi terrorism by definition of it being international terrorism respects no national borders. Territories outside the caliphate, in particular those of countries that are members of the US-led global coalition to counter ISIL are regarded as Dar Al-Harb or the house of war (and infidels).

This feared outcome of returning foreign fighters is existential and thus agencies, as well as communities need to gird for it by studying past attacks for useful insights and thereafter devise new or enhance existing strategies to respond and recover from attacks.

Security challenges – insights from past attacks

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About the Author

Muhammad Faizal bin Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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