It is impossible to overlook the fierce fighters left behind by extremist organizations. These fighters now seek to return to to their homelands, while still retaining their need to eliminate the other. This predicament forces us to address how to tackle the returning fighters and whether they can be rehabilitated.
Each case is different from the other and depends on the psychological condition of the fighter and the extent to which he has been corrupted by extremist thought and how far he made it up the organization’s ranks. For example, it is rare for a leading member of a group to yield to international law and he would rather die for his cause.
Foreign fighters are a thorny issue for several security and terror experts. They would rather see these fighters eliminated, along with their ideology, than have to tolerate them at home should they choose to return. This stance was declared by US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk, who said that the alliance was keen on getting rid of the remaining terrorists in Syria and killing them there.
Ever since Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced that Iraq was liberated from ISIS, there has been rising international concern over the great number of foreign fighters, who fled the region towards the desert, bringing with them their extremist thought and determination to spread destruction to other areas.
The concern over the foreign fighters’ return to their homeland is whether they want to reintegrate into society or if they will act as sleeper cells that are ready to attack should they be ordered to do so.
The absence of an ISIS stronghold made it inevitable that it move its battlefield from politically turbulent areas to safer parts of the world. It also forced it to shift its means of control from imposing territorial control over Iraq and Syria to imposing control over its followers and sympathizers through electronic means. The organization can change the electronic portals whenever authorities impose restrictions on them. So even though the restrictions have been set by international powers, the statements issued by extremists over the media have not dwindled.
Europe in particular has been growing increasingly concerned over the infiltration of fighters into its soil. This has burdened security agencies there, especially given that the waves of refugees and minorities in those countries include people who feel marginalized and discriminated against by others. This leaves them susceptible to extremists, who can lure them into their terror organizations. This is especially the case with former ISIS members, who dreamed of establishing the “caliphate.” They are drawn to hate speech, the idea of joining combat training camps and killing innocent people.
Away from speculation, the facts on the ground reveal ISIS’ relentless efforts to restore its former glory. It has intensified its plans and relayed its disruptive orders to Europe. According to the Conflict Armament Research center, a third of ISIS’ weapons arsenal of rifles and rocket-propelled grenades were manufactured in the European Union, in countries such as Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria. Terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman echoed these concerns, adding that thousands of foreign fighters have fled conflict zones and many of them are now residing in the Balkan states in wait for the right opportunity to infiltrate into the rest of Europe.
ISIS has its sights set on Europe after it lost its strongholds and after the international coalition left it homeless in conflict zones and left scores of its members dead. It also however seeks to exploit Europe’s demographics that are rich in minorities that can be manipulated or persuaded into joining its terrorist ranks.
Moreover, dormant cells in society are difficult to detect, especially since several returning fighters are disappointed in ISIS for being too extreme in its violence or not living up to its national and religious slogans in its campaign to liberate Iraq or Syria.
This disappointment grows even bigger when the members realize the reality of the organization and its delving into extreme violence and overlooking the slogans that had attracted followers in the first place.
These members make up the segment that wants to reintegrate into society and they can be rehabilitated even though it is difficult to determine the exact number of these “repentant” extremists. Some security experts prefer to solve the problem by getting rid of foreign fighters all together.
Terrorism expert David Otto said “jihadists” do not necessarily leave “jihad” behind because their “caliphate” has collapsed. These fighters cannot disappear because they have a need to find a substitute environment for themselves. This is demonstrated in how Britons head to Turkey and Africans head to Libya. This includes fighters who have a psychological tendency to murder. They have taken advantage of terrorist groups to receive training and logistic support in order to commit terror attacks.
Sleeper cells have been exploited in Europe in order to spark terror there. Attacks have varied from lone wolf stabbing attacks or car rammings. Such operations, which have taken place in Nice, Barcelona, Berlin, Hamburg, Dusseldorf and other cities, do not need extensive planning. The perpetrators all had direct or indirect connections to ISIS.
These attacks also however reflect ISIS’ weakness in carrying out a major well-planned attack given that Europe has upped its security measures in anticipation of such potential threats. This is countered however with the ease in which lone wolf attacks can be sprung and the relative ease in which perpetrators can be incited to commit them. The attackers are usually psychologically unstable, who use social and religious excuses to carry out their crimes even if they cost them their life.
ISIS has realized the value of these attacks and it has dedicated intense campaigns to incite lone wolves to target Europeans, especially around the holidays. This has not however deterred it from searching for the right opportunity to carry out major terror crimes that need more than just lone wolves. The possibility of this happening is bolstered by the some 1,200 European fighters returning home.
This has prompted European security authorities to find the best way to detect extremists on their soil. German security recently adopted a new system to assess extremists. The “radar” includes terror and crime experts, as well as sociologists and psychologists, who are tasked with uncovering terrorists.
Even though these precautions will improve security in Europe, they may lead to racial and religious profiling, which would fuel Islamophobia and consequently treat each Arab or Muslim as a potential terrorist. This plays into the hands of terrorists who seek through their attacks to widen the gap between cultures and weaken the opportunity for extremists to reintegrate into society.