The Platform


Europe still has to contend with returning ISIS fighters from abroad and thus far, it has failed to adequately plan for their integration.

The jihadist threat has been evolving for some time and plots against Western targets have continued. The main threat to Western interests stems from an increased instability in the Middle East region. The continuing turmoil in Syria and Iraq has created social and political vacuums that have enabled jihadi groups to prosper. The most important in this regard was the emergence of the Islamic State, previously ISIS, or ISIL.

In March 2019, the last ISIS stronghold fell in the Syrian town of Al-Baghuz Fawqani, and as a result of this defeat, many foreign fighters sought to return to their countries of origin. According to a study published by the International Center for Extremism Studies of Kings College in London, the number of foreigners in the ranks of ISIS reached 41,490, 75% of them were men, 13% were women, and 12% were children, and they belonged to 80 countries, and 7,366 fighters have returned to their countries of origin.

Correspondingly, foreign ISIS fighters can be classified as returnees who believe in most of the organization’s ideas, and maintain their ties with it, thus representing a moderate to extreme danger. These returnees constitute a threat and pose three types of risks: security, economic, and social.

Despite the defeat of ISIS on the battlefield, it still represents a threat to Western Europe through sleeper cells spread across the continent. Investigations about a terrorist cell formed by a group of fighters from Syria and Tajikistan living in Germany revealed a dangerous scenario for ISIS’ plans. The organization planned to organize sleeper cells in Europe and launch attacks using drones and chemical agents.

Another threat was from a former ISIS fighter who is currently imprisoned in Syria. According to what was reported by German media, citing unnamed sources, “Daniel” was interrogated by U.S. authorities in a Syrian detention camp run by Kurdish militants in the summer of 2019. Daniel, known by his nom de guerre “Abu Maryam,” was on a U.S. terrorism watch list. According to a report issued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Abu Maryam” listed the names of ISIS leaders in detail and described operations that the organization was planning and that its members traveled to Germany four years ago to meet a bomb maker.

At the moment there are no accurate details of the returnees. Authorities face a lack of accurate information regarding their names, travel histories, and information regarding familial connections to Europe. A country like Turkey has deliberately failed to notify other countries of the names and data of the returnees passing through its territory into Europe. In addition, it has been difficult to prosecute many returnees, as many countries have not passed the necessary laws to punish returnees, and they also refuse to accept ISIS members detained in Syria or Iraq, given that they will not be able to put them on trial.

It is important to emphasize that the success of the societal integration processes of returning ISIS fighters and their families, returnees, and their children does not depend on rehabilitation and social and psychological treatment programs only but must be accompanied by other plans and programs to settle the living conditions of the returnees in the long run. Despite the fall of the last stronghold of the organization and the killing of its leaders, the ISIS ideology still poses an existential threat.

Antoine Andary is a political communication and international affairs, counter-terrorism research fellow and intelligence analyst. Currently, he is a research fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute. He is the Vice-Chairman of the International Association for Political Science Students – IAPSS’s Research Committee on Conflict, Security and Crime. Formerly, he served as a counter-terrorism intelligence analyst at the Counter-Terrorism Group – CTG within the crime unit. Antoine is a research fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), where he researches crime-terror nexus in the context of both militant Jihadi, terrorist groups and violent extremist in the EU.