ISIS returnees pose major terror threat

At least 5,600 fighters have gone home or fled as the terror group loses territory in Iraq and Syria: Think-tank

•More than 40,000 foreigners from about 110 nations, including hundreds from countries in South-east Asia, left home to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after it declared a caliphate back in 2014.

Today, as the terror group loses the last vestiges of territory it had seized in Iraq and Syria to United States-backed coalition forces, at least 5,600 of these foreigners have returned home or fled to safe havens elsewhere.

These returnees may pose security threats that governments around the world have yet to adequately address, according to a report released yesterday by the New York-based security think-tank The Soufan Centre (TSC).

"While the numbers of foreign fighters and those believed to have wanted to become foreign fighters illustrate the scale of the problem, they do little to help address the next challenge: to uncover the identities of those who have left the so-called caliphate, find out where they have gone, assess what risk they pose, and take whatever action is possible to protect the public from harm," said the report's authors.

They identified five categories of returnees, including those who failed to integrate with ISIS, hardened terrorists sent to fight for the caliphate in other countries, and ISIS supporters who never travelled to the battlefront in the Middle East.

Women and children, who joined ISIS but later returned home or were captured and are awaiting deportation, were also listed as a threat.

"Without further research, it will be hard to judge the degree of their commitment to ISIS and their interest in becoming active rather than passive supporters," said the authors of the report.

THE NEXT CHALLENGE

While the numbers of foreign fighters and those believed to have wanted to become foreign fighters illustrate the scale of the problem, they do little to help address the next challenge: to uncover the identities of those who have left the so-called caliphate, find out where they have gone, assess what risk they pose, and take whatever action is possible to protect the public from harm.

THE SOUFAN CENTRE, a New York-based security think-tank, in a report released yesterday.

They added that while some female recruits may be "the meek and submissive wives" promised to young male ISIS fighters, most of them could also be seeking empowerment and a chance to break away from tradition and servitude.

"It is likely that at least some of the returnees will present a terrorist risk," said the report. "Some women have also shown themselves to be successful recruiters, and as with men, female returnees may encourage others to commit terrorist crimes."

Counterterrorism agencies in South-east Asia have already encountered several cases involving women who are non-returnees.

On Oct 11, Philippine security forces arrested Karen Aizha Hamidon, a 36-year-old Filipina suspected of using social media to recruit fighters from around the world for ISIS.

In Indonesia, at least three local women have been nabbed for plotting terror attacks in the past year.

Children are also similarly involved in the ISIS story, said TSC analysts, whose study showed that there were 12 women and 17 children among the 91 Malaysians in ISIS ranks. Similarly, there were 113 women among the 600 Indonesians who left home to join ISIS. The Indonesian authorities also recently said there were more than 100 children in the group.

ISIS propaganda videos and photos have often featured teenagers and children with weapons, with one post showing boys from Indonesia and Malaysia training at a paramilitary camp in Syria.

"The caliphate has regarded anyone over 15 as an adult, but children as young as nine have been trained to use weapons and taught to kill," said TSC. "From 2014 to 2016, ISIS is believed to have recruited and trained more than 2,000 boys between the ages of nine and 15 as cubs of the caliphate."

Senior analyst Jasminder Singh from Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research said there has been chatter about the training of next-generation "mujahideen" in South-east Asia, against the backdrop of the recent battle between Philippine government troops and pro-ISIS militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

"As a pro-ISIS post warned, 'Marawi is just the beginning' and 'new cubs and soldiers' will be trained to fight the 'crusader forces'," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'ISIS returnees pose major terror threat'. Print Edition | Subscribe