While millions of people were busy shopping for New Year’s, counterterrorism officers all around the world had quite different concerns. With Islamic State losing its foothold in Syria and Iraq, the “war on terror” is not on the wane. Conversely, it is expanding into other parts of the world.
In late December, ISIS released a propaganda video calling on its supporters, so-called lone wolves, to carry out attacks on New Year’s Eve celebrations in Western countries. This threat was confirmed by numerous intelligence reports, resulting in tightened security.
Police stand guard on New Year’s Eve at Cologne Cathedral.
In London, armed police officers and covert agents were tasked with patrolling the streets of this tourist hub that has seen four major terror attacks recently. In December, a group of men were arrested in the UK on suspicion of preparing acts of terror.
French security services boosted arrests of ISIS supporters, with two suspected terrorists arrested in late December.
In Australia, police in November arrested a man for allegedly plotting a mass shooting on New Year’s Eve in a Melbourne square.
These are only a few examples but quite illustrative ones. What is actually going on?
We are witnessing two phenomena generated by a shift in ISIS strategy. The first is the rise of lone terrorists acting on their own but being inspired by the group’s propaganda. The second phenomenon is the return of foreign fighters to their home countries and posing challenges to national security in all regions, be it in Europe or Central and South Asia.
Claudia Carvalho, a PhD researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who is an expert on terrorism in Spain, outlined the key threats posed by ISIS returnees.
“Returning foreign fighters, once they infiltrate without being detected by the security forces, are [very] able to resuscitate dormant networks which already exist in Europe, [and] to recruit new members, as [noted] by Colin Clarke,” Carvalho said, referring to a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
“All these people that return bring with them war stories that will give them charisma, authority to engage and recruit others. As we can see in Spain, small, tight-knit, homegrown cells associated with the phenomenon of the ‘lone wolves’ may become an inspiring terrorist model of operations for those returning to Europe.This is, of course, a direct consequence of the ending of their physical territory in Syria and Iraq. New territories will come forward and the ones with symbolic value, [such] as Spain, [which] represents ‘al-Andalus,’ will be the preferred ones.”
Carvalho said terrorist networks typically included people who know one another, having social and family ties. Returning foreign fighters with their war narratives will only reinforce such networks.
She also indicated the challenges faced by security services: “It is hard to disrupt [these networks] because there is a question of absolute trust between them. There is also a danger of how to correctly identify these individuals. For example, if they come together with a [flow of migrants], as may have happened with the leader of the Paris attacks [in November 2015], Abdelhamid Abaaoud, how can authorities correctly identify and interview these people?”
However, combating terrorism is not just a matter of professionalism of the police or intelligence staff. Sometimes, politics impede rather than contribute to counterterrorism efforts.
“In Spain, we have a community of more than 2 million Muslims, at least that was officially registered, and the majority of them live in Catalonia,” Carvalho said. “The majority of Salafi and jihadi-connected mosques or preachers are there.”
In the aftermath of the terror attack in Barcelona last August, she said, it was recognized that the most important question was how to coordinate communication and authority among different intelligence agencies.
“Most important, who gets the privilege of acting if there is information that comes from other European agencies or from North Africa – for example, from the counterterrorism forces in Morocco, which is highly important as the majority of Muslims living in Catalonia came from that country. If we speak about the [Catalan] independence claim, and the subsequent political developments, we can understand how it further complicates the definition of best practices when it comes to prevention of radicalization and counterterrorism.”
Islamism in Central Asia
In Central Asia, the situation is no better. Early last month the president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, announced that the defeat of ISIS in Syria did not solve the problem of terrorist groups, which were likely to emerge anywhere and at any time.
“Where will they move to? We do not know,” Mirziyoyev said at the event marking the 20th anniversary of the adoption of Uzbekistan’s constitution.
His worries were well-grounded, since Central Asia is a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalists. Despite the differing methods and strategies employed by extremist groups in the region, most of them share the common goal of toppling the secular authorities with the subsequent establishment of Islamic states there. Their agitators capitalize on the authorities’ weaknesses such as corruption and, on the other hand, glorify old traditions. This fits well with ISIS propaganda in the region that addresses such issues as justice, equality and the fight against corruption.
The fact that Islamic State has gained support in Central Asia is pretty well reflected in the data showing the number of ISIS foreign fighters originating from this region. In October, The Soufan Group, which provides strategic security intelligence services to governments and multinational organizations, presented a report that more than 5,000 citizens had left the Central Asian states to join ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq. Most of them came from Uzbekistan (35.71%) and Tajikistan (30.95%).
Five hundred of these foreign fighters have already returned, armed with their war narratives and experiences. And this is what we have to face in the new year.