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Richard Barrett, Senior Vice-President at The Soufan Group

Updated: Oct 15, 2018

Richard Barrett discusses about foreign fighters in Europe and explains how the EU is acting in the fight against terrorism besides its own limitations.

International terrorism is now a common threat in Europe. We have seen the evolution of terrorism, including the radicalization on European soil, without necessarily travelling to war zones and the effect of social media in terrorism. Of a total estimated 3,922 to 4,294 foreign fighters from EU Member States, around 30% have returned to their home countries. What is the real threat of those returnees to commit a terrorist attack back in Europe?

It is important to note that the reasons for going to join a violent extremist group in a foreign country are unlikely to be identical to the reasons for joining a violent extremist group at home. Foreign fighters go to join a cause abroad, not to train as domestic terrorists, and those that come back appear most often to do so for reasons that have nothing to do with launching attacks in their own countries. So far as one can tell on a limited amount of clear evidence, the reason for return is primarily disillusion with the foreign group because it does not live up to its ideals and attacks fellow Muslims (in the case of violent Islamist groups) rather than the stated enemy. Other foreign fighters return because they find the environment too brutal or because they have had enough. Although this does not mean that returnees necessarily believe that they were wrong to go, it does mean that they are more inclined to settle back into society than pursue violent protest in their home communities. Nonetheless, although this has not been the case in the last two years or so, some returnees may become domestic terrorists in the future. The evidence of a study that looked at returnees from Afghanistan (by Thomas Hegghammer) found that about 1 in 9 became involved in a terrorist plot. But although such a proportion of returnees from Iraq and Syria would represent a considerable threat, I think it unlikely that so many of the current returnees would fall into that category. For one, Afghanistan attracted fewer and more committed fighters. A danger remains however that even if a returnee had no intention of committing a terrorist crime at the point of return, he might have absorbed a level of radicalization that made him vulnerable to an appeal from a former comrade in arms, whether made directly or remotely, to reengage. He might also suffer from PTSD or have some other reason to be unpredictable. So, in answer to your question, the risk/threat is there, but is easy to exaggerate.

France and Belgium suffered heavy terrorist attacks due to their social structure, the number of foreign fighters, among other factors. According to your knowledge, which other countries would be at risk of suffering terrorist attacks in the short term and why?

The European countries with the largest number of foreign fighters in addition to France and Belgium are the UK, Germany, Russia and Turkey, but Scandinavian countries also have significant numbers per capita, as do Austria, and some Balkan countries. Other countries at risk include Spain, The Netherlands and the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, especially Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have higher numbers of foreign fighters and levels of radicalization than their regional partners. Iraq and Syria are of course in a special category. South Asia has suffered consistently from high levels of terrorism for many years, and is likely to continue to do so. South East Asia will also see a resurgence of terrorism as violent extremists complete their prison terms and a new generation of extremists becomes more proficient in attack planning and execution. Many European States may see an upsurge in right wing terrorism as well, particularly if the numbers of refugees and other immigrants grow.

At this moment, intelligence services in charge of anti-terror tasks in Europe are not cooperating and sharing information with Europol's anti-terror department. How decisive this cooperation would be on Europe's security? What other measures should be taken? Would the creation of a European CIA be a solution? Is it realistic?

The INTERPOL database is fairly new and it has managed to attract data, though you are right in suggesting that it is a long way short of being a significant resource for pan-European cooperation on terrorism. Many European countries prefer to deal with partners bilaterally or in small groups. This is in part because they are concerned at the use of information shared too broadly, partly to do with legal issues surrounding the sharing and use of personal data, and partly to do with the protection of sources. INTERPOL is in any case primarily a police organisation and much of the data on individual suspects is developed and held by security services that have different standards of investigation and different methods of collaboration. It is not necessarily the completeness of the INTERPOL database that will prevent terrorist attacks so much as the level of contact between agencies across many platforms. This will entail a sharing of threat assessments, piecemeal intelligence, information on trends and attack planning outside Europe as well as the names of possible suspects. The closer the dialogue the more efficient the protection and it is important that opportunities and channels for dialogue are not attenuated as a result, for example, of the UK decision to leave the EU. However closely some or all European countries cooperate. there will never be a European CIA. European countries continually and consistently assert the importance of national responsibility for national security and a European CIA would be anathema to almost everyone in the security world.

How can ISIS be stopped and the threat of terrorism reduced given the tools at the disposal of the West?

The main concern of Western governments is to protect the security of their citizens. This means that resources are provided more liberally to domestic efforts to counter terrorism than to the conditions that may give rise to terrorism in the first place. It is only slowly that Western countries are attempting to look at the drivers of violent extremism in their own countries, and as these generally have to do with issues of integration, culture, economic and social factors, they are extremely hard to identify, let alone to address. It becomes even harder to address these factors when they originate abroad. For example, the best way to reduce the influence of groups such as the so-called Islamic State and Jabhat al Nusra would be to bring the war in Syria to an end, but that is increasingly difficult given regional and international politics that put other considerations ahead of stopping the fighting. The best means to prevent or mitigate the threat of terrorism originating from overseas is not necessarily a military one, but in the absence of any better policies, military action, including for example drone strikes, is appealing. It also serves to satisfy public demand for visible action sparked by a general understanding of terrorists being a distinct and quantifiable group of people outside the rest of society. In truth however, one less may lead to two more. The most effective way to reduce terrorism might be to reduce its impact. If terrorism were not so successful it might be less popular, but given the media and security response even to minor terrorist attacks, terrorism is likely to remain the asymmetric tactic of choice for groups that have few other ways to advertise their presence or attract recruits. The more public resilience there is to terrorism, the quicker it will again die down.

And what about the Middle East? What would be the steps to be taken and where?

The Middle East faces considerable problems that will take a long time to resolve. The largest among them are poor governance and authoritarian rule that leave a large number of people believing that they have reduced opportunity as a result of birth, belief or discrimination. People in the Middle East are no different from people elsewhere in wanting security, predictable justice based on the rule of law, and opportunity for their children to survive and prosper. Social media shines a brighter light on the deficiencies of government than it does on its achievements, and helps protesters link up and organize. The lack of widespread understanding and experience of participatory politics in the Middle East means that protest is usually wrongly expressed and met with repression, which in turn encourages violence. In addition, as political factions attempt to boost their popularity by blaming other identifiable groups as the cause of all problems, the opportunities for coexistence become narrower. This is particularly true in the Shia-Sunni divide and the way that an absolutist Islam is used to legitimize both protest and the suppression of protest.

ISIS poses the biggest threat in Syria. But how real is the threat posed by Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) and how effective are their approach and strategy towards the Syrian population?

As ISIS declines, JaN (Jabhat al-Nusra) is growing. Whereas the ISIS approach is to take over territory and impose its will, the JaN approach is more to weave its way into local communities and only gradually impose its will as its power and support increases. It is more sensitive to local issues and conditions than ISIS. All told, the AQ/JaN approach encourages the growth of deeper roots than the ISIS approach. ISIS also compounds its problems of popularity by relying too much on outsiders to run its administration, especially in Syria. For all that ISIS claims to be a world movement, at its core it remains an Iraqi movement, and even so, relies considerably on Arab recruits from elsewhere. The big question is what are JaN’s intentions in the long term? Although it is solely focused on Syria for the present, it remains an AQ affiliate and Aiman al Zawahiri regards it as the most successful part of AQ. It still has senior AQ people alongside the local leadership and appears to be in close contact with the AQ leadership in Pakistan/Afghanistan. In the event that AQ begins to suffer in the same way as ISIS, it may well revert to more classic AQ behavior and refocus its efforts on the ‘far’ enemy, this would lead to external operations. One unknown however is how JaN’s Syrian members would react to this change. It is important to remember that almost all the rebel groups in Syria are Islamist to a certain extent and so there are alternatives. Overall, AQ as an organization poses certainly as great a threat as all of the IS wilayat together, and possibly a larger one.

How are the regional branches of Al Qaeda connected to Al Qaeda central and which are the differences in their real and operative capabilities? What has been the impact of ISIS on Al Qaeda and their affiliates?

AQ and ISIS originate from the same root. They differ in leadership and tactics but their objectives are the same. AQ has affiliates, which means that they have a degree of autonomy under a central umbrella, while all ISIS branches are part of the central organization. The connection between AQ leadership and its affiliates is closer in some areas, eg Yemen and Syria, than in others, eg Somalia. But after a decline following the death of bin Laden, the organization appears to have recovered. With bin Laden’s son Hamza taking a more prominent role, the deficiencies of leadership exhibited by Zawahiri may have less of an impact. AQ also has senior leaders like Saif al Adel who are highly experienced and capable. ISIS is a fighting machine, AQ is more obviously a terrorist organization. The one thing that remains a puzzle is that there is little evidence of AQ attack planning in Western countries. This probably means that it is not attracting Western recruits. This could change as ISIS declines. There is no doubt that ISIS has appealed to the younger and more impatient Islamist violent extremists from abroad, but AQ has competed by constantly criticizing ISIS rather than imitating its extreme sectarianism and violent takfirism. I think AQ is waiting for ISIS to implode and will then aim to pick up the pieces.

Let's turn now to Boko Haram, the deadliest terrorist group in the world according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index. What is the real scope of the organization in its region covered? How real are the possible links between Boko Haram and MLF (Macina Liberation Front) based in central Mali?

BH is a large and violent movement that has attracted many disaffected young people from communities in NE Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger that have felt neglected and disadvantaged because of their faith and tribal origins. These communities are now less sympathetic, and BH has declined as a result. Its leader Shekau is erratic and although BH received a boost and looked slicker after its alignment with IS, this seems to have been a short-term effect. Before that, BH was closer to groups in Mali and perhaps still has links. But I have not seen anything to suggest the degree of cooperation (arms supply and training) that appeared to exist before. As for the MLF, I doubt there is any organizational link, especially as I think of MLF as predominantly Fulani and BH as predominantly Kanuni.

Finally, could you share with us your overview on the security in the West and in the Middle East? How do you evaluate the future of terrorism? And what would be, in your opinion, the next big change of the threat to become even more lethal and adaptable?

Prediction is always so vulnerable to changes in the politics of the region and the world. Terrorism is not a big threat to the West compared to other political, economic and environmental threats. Terrorism is having a disproportionate impact at the moment, but it is cyclical and we can expect the wheel to turn. If terrorism moves to cyber attacks, this would have a big impact, but terrorists like the noisy and the visual. Cyber attacks will therefore more likely be state inspired or caused by other malign or unthinking non-state actors. Migration is a huge threat to stability, and water of course will be a commodity in increasing demand and reducing supply.

Richard Barrett is a former British diplomat and intelligence officer involved in countering violent extremism. As a recognized global expert worked at the Monitoring Team that supports the United Nations Security Council Committee, and he is the current Senior Vice President at the Soufan Group


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