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What Happened to the Islamic State Foreign Fighters That Had Returned to Europe?

05 Nov 2018

John Mueller

The media tend to be poor on covering things that don’t
happen. There is, for example, a puzzle over whatever happened to
all those members of Islamic State, or ISIS, who, trained in the
Middle East, had returned to Europe and were poised to commit
terrorist mayhem there. None, it appears, have shown up.

Alarm about the danger was raised in many quarters, but taking
pride of place may well be an article by Rukmini
Callimachi in the New York Times on August 3, 2016, about
“a global network of killers” that ISIS had created and
empowered.

It featured a huge picture on its front page of a German petty
criminal who had joined Islamic State in Syria and then defected
because, he said, he was put off by all the violence. The
accompanying story covered most of the top half of the front page
and then bled over to fill up two pages in the interior.

In a jailhouse interview, our thug eagerly and with seeming
authority asserted that many ISIS fighters had returned to Europe
and were poised to commit terrorist mayhem: “They have loads
of people…hundreds definitely…living in European countries and
waiting for commands to attack the European people.” The
article also included confirmation of this claim by intelligence
and defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

After all the alarm that
Europe had been infiltrated by ISIS-supporters that were hell-bent
on violence, where are they?

Since then, as far as I can see, none of those hundreds of
European “foot soldiers” (as the article calls them)
have sprung into action. There had been attacks in Paris and
Brussels by such returnees in the year previous to the article. And
there have been some ISIS-related attacks in Europe since the
article was published, but these have mostly been carried out by
people who have simply been inspired by the group, and none has
been by a returnee. Could there be an explanation for this
remarkable non-event?

Last August, on the second anniversary of the article, I posed
that query to a guy I know at the Times and suggested that
perhaps a follow-up story might be appropriate. He thought it was a
good idea, and sent it over to the foreign desk for
consideration.

On September 12, the Times published an
article, once again by Rukmini Callimachi, that may have been in
response to my suggestion. It is entitled, “Why a
‘Dramatic Dip’ in ISIS Attacks in the West Is Scant
Comfort.”

However, it entirely ignores the issue of the returnees. Instead
there is a catalog, from sources exclusively deep within the
estimable terrorism industry, about “Islamic State
attacks” overwhelmingly perpetrated or planned by people who
had no connection to ISIS except maybe an inspirational one. There
is, for example, a lot of ink about a Canadian teen who is not only
a nutcase, but suicidal and a long-time drug addict, and, according
to his mother, was not on “antipsychotic medication”
(as the article says), but refusing to take it.

The article does acknowledge that the number of terrorist
attacks in Europe is down, but it alarmingly adds that the number
of terrorism arrests (which it calls “attempted
attacks”) in Europe was up. It concludes this means that
“while the Islamic State’s capacity may have been
diminished, its effort has not.” And it argues that the
difference “is that law enforcement is increasingly foiling
the plots.”

The number of terrorism arrests has gone up or stayed high,
then, not because the terrorist or proto-terrorist pool is so deep
or has expanded, but because the police in Europe have put far more
effort into the quest. In particular, they are getting particularly
good at trolling the internet where many hapless ISIS inspirees,
like the Canadian teen, and other proto-terrorists bloviate,
foolishly advertising their intentions on social media and in chat
rooms inhabited by the police from the comfort of their cubicles.
As the article notes, “Law enforcement agencies have
increasingly been able to infiltrate this online universe, analysts
say, sometimes lurking in the Islamic State’s chat rooms on
Telegram, the encrypted messaging platform that is the
group’s preferred medium.”

That is, the police are therefore probably not so much
“getting better at stopping” plots as getting better at
finding (and facilitating) embryonic plots to stop-ones that,
earlier, would likely have never led to much but that would not
have been uncovered.

Meanwhile, the mystery about the returnee non-event remains. Is
it possible that returnees, or at least returnees bent on violence,
don’t exist?

John Mueller
is a political scientist at Ohio State University and a senior
fellow at the Cato Institute.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal

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