The threat from ISIS is closer to home than ever

Elena Pokalova
College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University

Islamic State announced it was responsible for the recent knife attack in London, claiming Usman Khan was acting on the group’s behalf. The 28-year-old Khan had a long history of involvement with terrorism and was serving a prison sentence for his participation in terrorist plots before he was released on license in December 2018.

While Khan was in prison, many of his former associates left to fight in Syria. Khan missed out on such an opportunity and he could not travel upon his release. This, however, did not stop him from launching a successful terrorist attack at home in the heart of London.

Khan’s deadly stabbing spree demonstrates that Western countries are extremely vulnerable to ISIS-inspired attacks. In fact, today the threats from ISIS are closer to home than ever.

If previously ISIS supporters were motivated to leave their own countries for the group’s self-declared caliphate, after the defeat at Baghuz there no longer is a territory for ISIS activists to migrate to and fight for. Instead, they are staying at home and consuming ISIS propaganda that directs supporters to strike against domestic targets.

ISIS has long promised to bring terrorism to the West and its commitment to terrorist attacks has only increased following the collapse of the territorial caliphate. Further, the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October has served as a catalyst for ISIS loyalists. ISIS supporters around the world have vowed revenge for the death of their leader.

As the stabbing in London demonstrates, the promises of attacks are not just empty threats. More attacks in the name of ISIS are highly likely. Today ISIS has several important advantages when it comes to its capacity to incite and stage terrorist attacks in the West.

First of all, some foreign fighters who have returned to their home countries remain loyal to ISIS. Some of them were deliberately instructed by ISIS to plan attacks and some might be inspired enough by the ideology to take matters into their own hands.

According to the U.S.-based Soufan Group, at least 5,600 foreign fighters have already returned to 33 countries of origin. Based on Europol estimates, some European countries including Austria, Belgium, Finland, France and Italy have seen between 20 and 30% of their foreign fighters return. For the Netherlands and Spain this number has been lower at 18%, but Germany and the United Kingdom have received the largest proportions (33 to 45%) of their foreign fighters back. At least a dozen American fighters came back to the U.S. from Iraq and Syria, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

Not all returnees have been flagged by security services. Some came back before many countries criminalized foreign fighting and thus evaded prosecution. For others, security services lacked enough forensic evidence to mount successful trials. And some such returnees have already demonstrated the associated dangers. Among them was Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who came back to Europe to plot and stage the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. There may be others like Abaaoud among the returnees who might be waiting for an opportune moment to stage future terrorist attacks.

Secondly, as the London attack demonstrated, big challenges are associated even with those jihadists who have been successfully prosecuted.

Hundreds of foreign fighter returnees have been convicted for fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. However, the vast majority of associated sentences in the West have been short. Most returnees have received sentences ranging from several years to 10-11 years in prison. This means that many convicted extremists are already out or will be leaving prison soon.

As the case of Usman Khan shows, the success of deradicalization initiatives while in prison remains highly questionable. Parole terms after prison do not seem to be highly effective either. When Khan committed his attack, he was out of prison on license, was wearing an electronic tag, and was under low-level surveillance. Such measures did not prevent him from mounting a successful terrorist operation. We might see many more cases similar to Khan, where ISIS supporters will be leaving prison only to reengage in violent activities.

Finally, ISIS still has significant reach among international networks of supporters that have remained virtually undisrupted. This refers to those ISIS sympathizers who never made it to Syria and Iraq and therefore remain virtually unknown to security services. It is such sympathizers who have been behind a large number of ISIS-related terrorist attacks in the West.

For instance, recently it was revealed that one such ISIS sympathizer, Mickael Harpon, was working in intelligence at the Paris police headquarters and had access to sensitive information about his colleagues. Harpon was a long-term ISIS sympathizer before, on On October 3, he launched a successful terrorist attack , stabbing to death four of his colleagues in the police headquarters.

While ISIS has been weakened on the ground in Syria and Iraq, its capacity to launch terrorist attacks in the West is stronger than ever. ISIS still has much resonance among some undetected foreign fighter returnees, convicted extremists leaving prisons, and undisrupted ISIS loyalists. More attention is needed in addressing local roots of radicalization and tackling issues such as deradicalization in prison. Without addressing the local root causes of ISIS’s popularity, the world simply risks facing more terrorist attacks in the group’s name.

Foreign fighter returnees in prison: Meting out justice or building up ISIS cadres?

Elena Pokalova, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Department Chair at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Returning Islamist Foreign Fighters: Threats and Challenges to the West. The views expressed in the article are her own.

Read more of her work on Google Scholar.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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