The Islamic State’s Foreign Fighters Are Coming Home
And Western countries need a plan to defuse the threat they pose.
Once again, terrorism has struck the United States — this time close to Ground Zero in Manhattan, where our current era of terrorism was inaugurated. Tuesday’s attack, of course, was nowhere on the scale of 9/11. But by showcasing the wide array of everyday objects, like trucks, that can be weaponized, and the infinite availability of targets, it highlighted just how easy it can be to commit an act of terrorism.
The more consequential question is how many potential attackers are out there eager to exploit such opportunities. And finding an answer has never been more complex or difficult than right now, as the so-called Islamic State continues to melt away and many of the thousands of foreigners who flocked to join it over the last five years begin to go home.
Based on my research of official figures from 48 countries published in October, at least 2,000 former Islamic State members have returned to Western countries. Many others remain unaccounted for. So far, only seven are known to have returned to the United States — and the Manhattan attacker was not one of them — but around 400 have gone back to Britain and around 300 each to both France and Germany. The flow has slowed since last year, but with the disappearance of the last territorial possessions of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq, a growing number of Islamic State supporters are wondering where to go and what to do next.
For Western officials, Islamic State returnees pose an enormous challenge with no easy solution. A tempting response, and certainly the easiest, would be to throw all returnees into prison, or even do what can be done to stop them coming home at all. But this will only postpone or divert the problem, rather than offer a solution. Under many jurisdictions, returnees will have committed a crime merely by becoming a member of the Islamic State, but the collection of evidence will be hard and time-consuming, and even if prosecutions succeed, prisons are already crowded and contain many people on the margins of society who may be vulnerable to radicalization. Allowing committed members of the Islamic State the chance to recruit them could prove to be a mistake — but so too could separating the returnees from the rest of the prison population, thus allowing them to forge closer bonds and harden their resolve to fight on.
Authorities therefore face the difficult job of weighing the multiple factors that determine the threat posed by each returnee and devising solutions that extend beyond law enforcement. They should start by considering the precise reasons why a given person decided to undertake the uncertain journey to join the Islamic State. There are several possibilities: Some members were driven by a sense of helplessness at home, where the prospects for self-betterment may have seemed remote at best; others were committed to the idea that the Islamic State was truly on the path to creating a new world order in which humiliation and discrimination would be eliminated and society would finally be organized along religious lines in accordance with prophecy.
In every case, the motivation will be mixed and probably confused. It is unlikely that anyone who sought their future in the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” saw themselves — at least initially — as a domestic terrorist in the making. They were far more likely to be motivated to join something new than to destroy something that already existed. But their attitudes on return will inevitably reflect their experiences while abroad, which may have changed them in ways unknown even to themselves.
If authorities hope to catch potential terrorists before they strike, they must also understand why returnees came back. Broadly speaking, returnees can be divided into five categories: those who left soon after they arrived, those who left later but became disillusioned with the leadership, those who left having had enough of conflict but without regrets, those who left because there was no place to stay as a result of loss of territory, and those who left because they were told by the leadership to go home and mount attacks there. The level of threat will be different for each category, and for each individual within each category.
Law enforcement and security agencies don’t only have to take into account the immediate threat returnees pose — they also have to assess how their attitudes may change in the future. Even those returnees who showed the least interest in pursuing the apocalyptic objectives of the Islamic State may yet be tempted back as nostalgia clouds their memory and their circumstances at home continue to frustrate them. The more time people spent with the Islamic State, especially during its precipitous descent into the dystopian nightmare of the last two years, the more susceptible they may be to approaches from previous comrades in arms who ask for help with terrorist attacks.
The other partners in the long and complex task of mitigating the threat from returnees must be the communities they left and to which they return. Their range of required action will vary from merely keeping an eye on the returnee to trying to ensure that any residual sympathies for the Islamic State are not expressed through violence. In most communities, someone will be aware of who went to Syria or talked of doing so, and there should be a range of interventions available to identify and address the underlying causes of individual radicalization. But families and community leaders may need guidance and support in figuring out the best course of action. In this respect, success will depend on the levels of dialogue and trust that exist between the authorities and local community leaders and within the community itself.
The women and children who are returning from the Islamic State pose a new and daunting security challenge. Their numbers will be less than for men, but nonetheless significant, with hundreds coming back to Western countries. Some of these women will have done little while in the caliphate other than fulfill the Islamic State’s archaic and restrictive conception of the role of wife and mother. But even so, they will have absorbed some of the horror, and perhaps some of the ideology surrounding them. Even if most did not join the Islamic State to commit acts of violence, they nonetheless knew what they were getting into.
Many of the children who return from the Islamic State will have little memory of any other sort of life; some will have been born there. The Islamic State begins its indoctrination of children from the age of five, and military training from the age of nine, but even those who were too young for any direct contact with the organization may suffer psychological problems and experience difficulties with integration and acceptance by their communities at home.
The collapse of the Islamic State will present a range of challenges that are no less difficult to address than those created by its rise. In both cases, however, success in undermining its appeal will require engaging all of society. Law enforcement and security agencies can only get on top of the problem with the help and support of the broader community.