Bracing Communities For Returning Foreign Fighters – Analysis

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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

Two useful insights that could be gleaned from the high signature terrorist attacks that had occurred in recent months could presage the scenarios in which a returning foreign fighter(s) successfully stage an attack or series of coordinated attacks.

First, preventive measures can have its limitations with regard to highly-motivated foreign fighters who undoubtedly do not fear death; and in a threat landscape where Jihadist organisations encourage returning foreign fighters and lone wolf terrorists to conduct attacks in their home countries using any possible means available – for example: ramming vehicles and knife attacks.

Terrorist plots are often the function of intent, opportunity and capability. In the past, terrorist plots were often stymied as individuals were unable to gain easy access to resources needed to develop the capability; be it chemicals for improvised explosive devices or radiological materials for dirty bombs. The improvisation of ordinary vehicles and rudimentary objects, with online guidance from Jihadist organisations, demonstrates the challenge in impeding terrorists’ capability when it involves soft targets in urban settings. Terrorists have demonstrated that they are capable of learning from past attacks, adapting their tactics to the targeted environment, and exploit discernible vulnerabilities. For example, in the July 2016 Bastille Day attack in Nice, France; the perpetrator had used a delivery truck to ram through crowds.

Second, the Orlando massacre in June 2016 demonstrates how terrorism could propagate fear and distrust among people; accentuate racial, religious and other cultural divides; and resulting in the breakdown of social cohesion in multicultural societies.

The Orlando massacre had far-reaching consequences and multicultural societies had seen polemical debates between conservative religionists, pro-family lobby and the LGBT community, with each side making accusations of hateful behaviour and encouraging violence. While this is a disturbing development, it could be a litmus test of how well people come together and preserve social cohesion in the wake of a terrorist attack. Attitudes may need to be re-examined while acknowledging how vitriolic statements over differences in values and morality, instead of respectful discourse, threaten to rattle the peace in any society’s common space.

Community vigilance and preparedness is key

Law enforcement and security agencies are beefing up their domestic counter-terrorism capabilities and deepening international cooperation to try staying ahead of terrorists. For example, the international conference on Counterterrorism held in Bali, Indonesia in August 2016 which was jointly organised with Australia had seen countries discussing specific areas where they can deepen international cooperation against the burgeoning concern of cross border movement of terrorists. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia acknowledged that they need to systematically exchange biometric information of known terrorist fighters and persons convicted for terrorism, and institutionalise the regular sharing of best practices.

However, it is equally critical for communities to collaborate with the agencies in exercising vigilance and preparedness to prevent and mitigate the impact of terrorist attacks given that past incidences had shown that it would not be possible for the agencies prevent all terrorist plots. The role of the communities in complementing the agencies’ counter-terrorism strategies exists on two fronts: grassroots or general public, and the private security industry.

On the grassroots or general public, the community’s support is critical as more eyes and ears on the ground can help to detect possible surveillance and reconnaissance activities by terrorists during the planning phase and at the onset of the attack phase. The community’s vigilance at the onset or during an attack can help augment the situational awareness of homeland security forces; in a united and resolute front by the community and security forces to contain the situation and neutralise the terrorist threat. For example, Singapore has launched the nationwide SG Secure initiative which calls for the communities to be vigilant before and during an attack, to keep a lookout for potential security threats and knowing how to respond including alerting the authorities. This initiative also advocates strong ties, understanding, respect and harmony within the context of a multicultural society.

On the private security industry, private security officers are the responders who may be the first line of defence and in being closest to the community, their vigilance and actions could make a difference in countering terrorism. They are partners in community preparedness as they watch over soft targets in urban settings such as nightclubs and schools.

An example is the Orlando massacre when Adam Gruler who works at the Pulse nightclub as its private security officer was the first responder to engage the attacker and called for police assistance when the attack occurred. This demonstrates the indispensable role of private security officers in the protection of soft targets. Another good case in point is Salim Toorabally, dubbed the hero of the Stade De France, who was the security officer who stopped a terrorist from entering the stadium during the November Paris attacks and saved the lives of football fans who were watching a soccer match.

Post 9/11, the United Kingdom sought to enhance London’s resilience by rolling out several counter-terrorism initiatives including ‘Project Griffin’ to train private security officers to be of assistance to the police during major incidents. In Singapore, the police had rolled out ‘Project Guardian’ to similarly equip private security officers with the necessary skills in support of counter-terrorism. Skills aside, the efficacy of private security officers also hinges on the community (business and general public) according the appropriate level of respect, resources and cooperation to the officers as they execute their duties.


Countries especially those in the US-led global coalition to counter ISIL now face a terrorist threat level that is higher than it was post 9/11, as foreshadowed by the anticipated outflow of returning foreign fighters from the Syria/Iraq as a result of the impending collapse of ISIS’s caliphate.

The fact that not all terrorist plots could be thwarted underscores the need for the community vigilance and preparedness. The communities, while partnering law enforcement and security agencies, must also better recognise the key role of private security officers in counter-terrorism. The Orlando massacre also demonstrates that it is incumbent upon the communities to safeguard its cohesion, and not fall into the vicious trap of sociocultural divide which is a vulnerability that terrorists could exploit to spread distrust and buttress their propaganda.

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.

This article appeared at Online Opinion

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