Addressing an INTERPOL working group meeting on foreign terrorist fighters in Barcelona, Secretary General Jürgen Stock applauded the progress made in recent months in exchanging data on foreign fighters, but said more information still needs to be shared via INTERPOL.
“While information is increasingly crossing borders, it is still doing so at a much slower pace than foreign terrorist fighters. A gap still exists between the number [of foreign fighters] we have identified, and those estimated to have reached conflict zones,” Stock said.
The Head of INTERPOL pointed to a case from 2014 when a suspect was apprehended on his way to Syria, due to the decision of Belgium to issue an international alert through INTERPOL, and the actions taken by Lebanese officials on the ground based on this shared intelligence.
The three-day meeting in Spain which concluded on June 5 brought together approximately 150 counter-terrorism experts from 42 countries and three international organizations. The gathering enabled investigators to directly exchange best practices and information in relation to the global threat posed by travel to and from conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and, increasingly, Libya.
Attendants discussed gathering intelligence on foreign fighters from social media, identifying and disrupting travel facilitation networks, the involvement of returning foreign fighters in further criminal activity.
Foreign fighters returning to their own countries often play a role in the radicalization and recruitment of additional foreign fighters, or carry out further attacks on home soil.
Stock has addressed the United Nations several times on the issue of foreign fighters and the urgent need for a wider exchange of data, most recently during a high-level UN Security Council ministerial briefing on foreign terrorist fighters at the end of May.
While it is obviously good news that information sharing is helping to counter this threat, the question – as with any other crime reporting statistic – is whether the numbers of foreign fighters recorded is increasing solely as a result of increased awareness and data sharing, or whether there are simply more foreign fighters. The truth likely rests somewhere in between.
During the ministerial briefing in May, the United Nations Security Council warned of growing recruitment by extremist groups, from more than 100 countries. The 15-member body expressed its grave concern at the increase of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant/Sham (ISIL/ISIS), Al Qaeda and other groups, estimating that over 25,000 individuals have become foreign fighters.
Laws that criminalize recruiting, organizing, transporting or equipping foreign terrorist fighters are lacking in many countries and vital to stopping the flow of foreign fighters.
The UN Security Council has noted with concern that only 51 member states were reportedly using advance passenger information to address the scourge, and it urged all to support “evidence-based traveler risk assessment and screen procedures” without resorting to “profiling based on stereotypes founded on grounds of discrimination prohibited by international law." The council also underscored a critical need for member states to strengthen border management.
There is also an overwhelming need for all countries to more effectively identify and work with relevant local community leaders to address radicalization. A great deal more must be done to prevent terrorists from exploiting communications technology to incite support for violence. The continued operation of “facilitation networks” requires countries to prosecute those who finance and enable terrorist acts.
The council has therefore recommended that the Counterterrorism Implementation Task Force Office, in close consultations with the Counterterrorism Directorate and other United Nations units, develop a priority plan for capacity-building and technical-assistance needs of most-affected countries.
On June 8, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outlined elements of an action plan he will present later this year to reinforce good governance, which he sees as terrorism’s true deterrent.
“Missiles may kill terrorists. But I am convinced that good governance is what will kill terrorism,” Ban said in his remarks to a meeting on terrorism held during the Summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations (G7) in Munich, Germany.
“During the last 15 years, most counter-terrorism efforts have been reactive, focusing largely on military and security measures. This approach has often generated negative unintended consequences, further radicalizing disenfranchised communities,” he stated.
The UN Global Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, to be presented to the General Assembly later this year, will propose ways to address the causes of violent extremism, including intolerance, governance failures and political, economic and social marginalization. It will provide member states with concrete recommendations for action at the local, national, regional and global levels.
“Addressing violent extremism demands a proactive, ‘all-of-society’ approach that includes minorities, women and youth as partners,” said Ban, noting that the targeting of women bears special mention. “With every attack and encroachment by violent extremists, the first targets are the rights of women and girls.”
Governments also have a particular responsibility to address the aspirations of youth, especially in countries where youth represent an increasing majority of the population, he added.
“Youth are the group most prone to radicalization and violent extremism. Most foreign terrorist fighters are young males aged between 15 and 35,” the Secretary-General pointed out. “But young people are also part of the solution to preventing violent extremism. We all need to do a better job of engaging them.”
Acknowledging that security measures and “even military action” may be necessary at times, Ban insisted on the fact that counter-terrorism efforts that ignore the rule of law and violate fundamental rights “not only betray the values they seek to uphold, but can also end up further fueling violent extremism.”