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Maritime Border Operation Detects Returning Foreign Terrorist Fighters

A maritime border operation coordinated by INTERPOL has detected more than a dozen suspected foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) travelling across the Mediterranean.

It is estimated that between 24,000 and 30,000 FTFs who pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State have survived, and world leaders are still considering how best to handle these returnees. Various studies have been published illustrating how these individuals can be re-integrated into society and the myriad challenges that face law enforcement, government and communities as well as the FTFs themselves.

Operation Neptune II which ran during July, August and September, focused on the threats posed by suspected FTFs potentially using the maritime routes between North Africa and Southern Europe during the busy summer tourist season. The intelligence-led operation also targeted criminal networks involved in human trafficking, people smuggling, firearms trafficking and the drugs trade.

During the operation, officials at seven seaports in the six participating countries – Algeria, France, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Tunisia – carried out more than 1.2 million searches across INTERPOL’s databases for stolen and lost travel documents, nominal data and stolen vehicles via its I-24/7 secure global police communications network. The databases hold details of more than 50,000 foreign terrorist fighters (alive and deceased) and some 400,000 pieces of terrorist-related information.

The searches resulted in 31 active investigative leads, with more than 12 of these linked to the movement of terror suspects.

The operation also highlighted the role of international, regional and national inter-agency cooperation in enhancing security, with experts from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex and the World Customs Organization also participating in the initiative.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, authorities have been using the Passenger Name Record (PNR) system since January 2018, and as of September 2019 this method has tracked down 94 suspected terrorists and suspects.

The Belgian government’s crisis center says 54 of the men and women flagged on PNR after being named in a case of terrorism or radicalization were otherwise unable to be traced by police.

PNR in Belgium now involves the 29 most major airlines, covering 70% of all passengers arriving in or departing from the country. The remaining 30% were travelling with one of 50 smaller airlines.

Foreign fighters can gain combat experience, access to training and a network of overseas extremist contacts. The skills, contacts and status acquired overseas can make these individuals a much greater threat when they return to their home countries, making their detection during transit a vital tool in counterterrorism efforts.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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