While estimating the number of foreign fighters joining ISIS remains difficult, we continue to see a steady increase in volunteers heading to battlegrounds in the Middle East.
Foreign fighters from Western Europe had more than doubled since June 2014, according to a December 2015 report by intelligence consult Soufan Group, and as many fighters return home, obstacles to evidence gathering have made prosecution attempts increasingly problematic.
Recent reports note that ISIS is actively searching and vetting new recruits that hold European passports, with the goal of training them for one-to-two weeks before sending them back to Europe to plan and launch attacks. This graphic from the Soufan Group is one of many showing the breadth of the group’s recruitment efforts.
Even more troubling are reports that European citizens of non-Arabic descent are rising to senior positions within ISIS. As Paris and Brussels have shown, operatives with passports from an EU nation are a much sought-after commodity for the group – and a difficult security issue for western intelligence and law enforcement agencies to combat. Identifying and tracking every returning combatant is a herculean effort and, as the above article shows, even these efforts can fall short of a successful prosecution.
One thing remains clear: the current approach to security – focusing almost exclusively on “gates, guns and guards” to harden targets – will no longer succeed against this kind of determined threat. The discovery of detailed maps, photographs and casing reports shows that ISIS had been planning multiple attacks against a host of different targets. The fact that almost 15 years after 9/11 and ten years after 7/7, terrorist groups are still able to “hide in plain sight” and run surveillance and intelligence collection operations against high-profile targets in the West should be a wake-up call. To overcome this, we must increase our focus on pre-attack preparations — and ensure timely sharing of information between the public and private sectors. The Army’s mantra of “every soldier is a sensor” is an approach that should be adopted by everyone interested in protecting the homeland. TRAPWIRE’s support to suspicious activity reporting programs across the country has shown us that private citizens, law enforcement officers, and security professionals are seeing (and reporting) timely and actionable leads on a daily basis, without collecting or disclosing personally identifiable information or resorting to ethnic profiling. Paying attention to these leads is step one in this effort.