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Saturday, May 18, 2024

PERSPECTIVE: A Holistic Approach to Countering Foreign Fighter Terrorist Threats in the Long Run

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has lost the costly fight in the field as most of its territories in Syria and Iraq have been recovered. Historically, Salafist jihadi terrorist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, have proved to be resilient when it comes to surviving major defeats.

However, this historical trend does not necessarily mean that terrorists are winning. The most important step after this point should be translating success on the battlefield to a long-term victory, which will require short and long-term security policies and rigorous, bitter diplomacy in collaboration with the international community. Keys to gaining the upper hand will include reaching out to vulnerable populations to prevent future terrorist recruitment, unraveling ongoing propaganda and recruitment structures, better counterterrorism intelligence, and vigorous public engagement with Salafist jihadi ideology.

ISIS continues to resurface as an insurgency after its defeat (Sly & Salim, 2018). For example, on July 25 ISIS terrorists carried out a series of simultaneous attacks in southern Syria in the city of Sweida and several surrounding villages, killing more than 250 people, mostly bystanders and civilians. The massacre in the homeland of the Druze people in Southern Syria included four suicide attacks and ISIS terrorists knocking on doors, then slaughtering families (Shaheen, 2018). Additionally, a recent Pentagon report published on Aug. 7 estimated that “ISIS had retained significant capabilities in Iraq and Syria; 15,500 -17,100 terrorists remaining in Iraq and approximately 14,000 in Syria,” (Fine, 2018, p. 42) and may be “well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge.” (Seldin, 2018a)

Al-Qaeda, too, is the cat with nine lives. Even after a major defeat following the 9/11 attacks and the loss of its charismatic founder and leader, al-Qaeda today functions as a Salafist-jihadist umbrella with almost 20 direct or indirect active affiliates.

ISIS-controlled real estate in September has shrunk more than 98 percent since its peak in 2015, according to U.S. Central Command, and its online activities are very much alive though considerably less than what they were at its peak (Dodwell, Milton and al-Ubaydi, 2018). Today’s “Virtual Caliphate” is less centralized, yet its dispersed members around the world may be hovering like an invisible death ship promising the return of the “State.”

ISIS is here to stay, its members insist. They are blending into societies from West to East and exerting influence without control of land. From this perspective, ISIS asked its members through its flagship magazine Rumiyah in the 13th issue, “as the soldiers of the [caliphate] continue waging war on the forces of kufr [nonbelievers], we take a glimpse at a number of recent operations conducted by the mujahideen of the Islamic State that has succeeded in expanding the territory of the [caliphate] or terrorizing, massacring and humiliating the enemies of Allah,” ignoring their losses but prioritizing their only power – terrorizing (Schmitt, 2018).

Finally, self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi resurfaced via a 54-minute speech titled “Give Glad Tidings to the Patient” on Aug. 22 to address the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha after almost a year of silence causing doubts about his life (Seldin, 2018b). Baghdadi urged his followers to be patient, projected a successful regroup of his terrorist organization and called for lone-actor attacks in the West (Hassan, 2018).

Foreign Fighters and Returnees

Almost from its inception, ISIS has functioned as a global entity, and its far-reaching magnetism is illustrated by the fact that foreign terrorist fighters constituted the backbone of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. According to the “Radicalization Awareness Network” report, more than 42,000 terrorists traveled to join ISIS from 120 different countries (RAN Centre of Excellence, 2017). Confirming the previous studies, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) established a global dataset revealing the fact that 41,490 international citizens became affiliated with ISIS and up to 13 percent of those were women and 12 percent children (Cook & Vale, 2018).

Though significant numbers of foreign fighters have either been killed by the coalition forces or killed themselves as suicide bombers, a large number of terrorists managed to make their way out of the conflict zones or have been trying to hide either by blending into the civilian populations in Syria and Iraq or remaining active in ISIS-controlled areas (Seldin, 2018c). By some estimates up to 30,000 former fighters are in Syria and Iraq alone, according to the UN (BBC, 2018).

Around 30 percent of the 7,000 European foreign fighters are believed to have returned to their home countries outside the Middle East or are en route (Hoffman, 2018). Likewise, the EU Anti-Terror Chief reported that ISIS had still 2,500 active European fighters (VOA, 2017), many who also will try to return.

Evidence of ISIS migration abounds. The German authorities reported that ISIS stole 11,000 blank Syrian passports (Middle East Monitor, 2017). The lengthy Turkish-Syrian border is one of the main routes of running ISIS fighters to their freedom through smugglers who charge around $2,000 per person for safe passages from Idlib or $7,500 from Deir Azzor, as the Guardian reported (Chulov, 2017). It is not a secret that Turkey almost has become a safe-haven for the Salafist jihadi terrorists (Yayla, 2017a). Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the U.S.-led Coalition, stated at the Middle East Institute on July 29, 2017, that Ankara has been turning a blind eye to the Salafist jihadist terrorist organizations and added “there was a direct link between the heavy presence of terrorists in Idlib, Syria, and Turkey.” (McGurk, 2017).

Returnees, along with their families, may pose great threats to their native societies (Mironova, 2018). The initial objective of the Islamic State was to relocate its fighters to other locations it holds around the world, including Libya, Afghanistan and South Asia, to reinforce established bases. Similarly, ISIS tried to send back some of its foreign fighters to their hometowns to burrow in as sleeper cells. Reportedly, almost half of the foreign fighters from Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have returned home (Ginkel & Entenmann, 2016).

Upon return, foreign fighters tend to conceal their roles in ISIS, but persistent reporters often find them out. A German ISIS defector who spoke to The New York Times from prison claimed that he had never been part of the atrocities. He claimed his innocence until ISIS published a video proving just the opposite (Calimachi, 2016).

During our interviews with 63 ISIS defectors (Speckhard & Yayla, 2015), we learned that many ISIS fighters were forced to behead prisoners as part of their graduation certifications. Clearly, the world will have to learn how to deal with the foreign fighters who were part of the ISIS carnages along with their traumatized wives and children regardless of the reasons for their returns. Recent research on returnee foreign fighters found that “for returnees who do become or attempt to become domestic terrorists, the median lag time between return and plot or arrest is less than six months for most, the majority of attacks occur within one year, and nearly all attempts take place within three years” (Malet & Hayes, 2018).

The returnees are not monolithic, however. Three types of returnees will give different challenges to the authorities of European countries. The first are the hardcore and true believers who are basically assigned back to their hometowns or other parts of the world (Speckhard & Yayla, 2017). Second are the defectors who left ISIS for various reasons but who remained faithful believers of the Salafist jihadi ideology. The third are the true defectors, who are in the process of dropping their former ideologies. While the first category comprises the most dangerous terrorists, the latter two might be dangerous as well. More importantly, these people may remain as threats for years.

As the Afghan war ended in 1989, several of the mujahideen returned home with no intentions of harming their countrymen. However, as al-Qaeda started to evolve into a terror network following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Osama bin Laden successfully and easily re-recruited former mujahideen. For example, bin Laden reached out to some of his Turkish friends for a series of attacks against Western interests in Istanbul in 2002. While the police were evidently aware of the former mujahideen and their activities in Turkey, none of them had been involved in terrorism up till then. However, that changed in 2003 when bin Laden sent $160,000 to one of his trustees, who collected a group of former mujahideen who had fought with bin Laden in Afghanistan. The Turkish al-Qaeda members successfully formed four cells in a network of 20 terrorists to carry out Istanbul bombings in 2003 with four truck bomb attacks, killing 57 and wounding more than 700.

Even though some members of this network were newly recruited, they promptly accepted bin Laden’s call and were clever during the preparations, too. They opened an authentic detergent factory in which they prepared four large trucks with tons of explosives without arousing any suspicion. They only used cell phones registered with the names of police, military, and other officers and created their own cell phone shop solely for fake registrations, thereby slipping under the radar of Turkish intelligence.

The Istanbul al-Qaeda bombings taught the counterterrorism community several valuable lessons. Among them, how fast and easily former terrorists could be activated by way of previous relationships, how historical ties were never forgotten amongst the people who had fought together, and how word of mouth alone was enough to reactivate those people after several years, regardless of the risk. In fact, at least four of the conspirators gave up their lives as suicide bombers.

In addition to these motivating factors, I have also experienced during my 20-year career in counterterrorism that some terrorist organizations tend to instill fear of prosecution among their cadres, as they know their members’ crimes first-hand and hold their members hostages to their pasts. Or, they may ensure loyalty by threatening them or their families’ lives. Therefore, even if a foreign-fighter returnee is a true defector, regardless of whether he or she stayed loyal to the ideology, there is always the risk of “volunteer” participation or forced reactivations. Police may never really know which agents are out of the organization.

Additionally, even when returnees personally do not carry out attacks back home, they make great tools for recruitment and for guiding public opinion. Terrorist organizations usually recruit new members from their established connections – often close friends or family. For example, when I asked the question of “through which mediums terrorists established their initial contacts with their terrorist organizations” during a survey I carried out for my Ph.D. dissertation data in 2002, 35 percent of the terrorists indicated it was through their friends, 26 percent reported that it was through their family members, and only 3 percent claimed it was only because of their ideologies (Yayla, 2005); some returnees could enlarge a base for ISIS slowly and carefully for generations.

One more concern should be the professional sleeper cells. Members of the sleeper cells are usually experienced and trained. In the Istanbul Reina Club attack (Yayla, 2017b) on Jan. 1, 2017, a battle-hardened Central Asian ISIS fighter was kept as a sleeper cell in Turkey for a year before being activated. ISIS will establish sleeper cells where possible through its intelligence structure Emni (Speckhard & Yayla, 2017) and will take its time to carry out professional, deadly attacks.

An uptick in horrific media can be understood as a recruitment tool. Counter-terror experts generally agree that among the main goals of attacks in Spain and the United Kingdom was to portray an image of a powerful caliphate so as to recruit worldwide in a bid to counterbalance losses on the battlefield. From its inception, ISIS waged an online war through its propaganda machine of Dabiq and Rumiyah journals, the use of slick, horrific videos and memes, online communications and messages aiming to radicalize and desensitize its audience. With lurid snuff media, ISIS grabbed market share from al-Qaeda, providing “its audiences with a powerful ‘competitive system of meaning’ designed to shape its readership’s perceptions, polarise their support and drive their radicalization” (Ingram, 2016).

Unless authorities take proactive steps such as those suggested below, the return of so many foreign fighters foreshadows a spike in attacks. The Caliphate decision-makers will attempt to bounce back through widespread, seemingly spontaneous attacks in order to stay in the media limelight. ISIS has been calling for simple attacks in Europe from mid-2016 to dominate the news and social media, boosting the morale of its members, assisting recruitment and gathering free propaganda. The September 2017 issue of Rumiyah magazine, for example, promotes how the Spain attacks were successful and why the West should feel threatened.

How Can We Counter Future Threats?

An International Information Sharing System

Terrorism has become a global phenomenon particularly after the emergence of Salafist jihadist terrorist groups; al-Qaeda pioneered the role of umbrella organization, and the Virtual ISIS Caliphate is competing. The world can no longer deal with the immense threats coming from terrorism without thorough international cooperation. A simple attack in a distant part of the world or a short video published in a Telegram-application chat room could easily spark the next attack, which makes fast and reliable information and intelligence sharing essential.

While there are established mediums to share information and intelligence, including national intelligence agencies cooperating such as the Europol or Interpol, there is not a unique, established international information-sharing system for this purpose.

The first step is to establish a system wherein counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement agencies share information regarding various terrorist threats immediately without the delay of bureaucracies or political concerns.

After all, terrorist organizations are using cyberspace and encrypted cell-phone applications to communicate attacks, quickly adopt new technologies or make vital decisions in minutes whereas agencies struggle for days with bureaucratic challenges and basically stay behind the terrorists instead of getting a step ahead of them. Today, a minor can easily travel to a conflict zone in hours and before respective agencies can pass the appropriate information to affected countries in time for action. This is particularly true when it comes to the movement of foreign fighters, and this scenario happened scores of times when the passed information fell short a few hours allowing the targets to arrive at their destinations (Hall, 2016).

Counter Salafist Jihadi Ideology and Its Funding

The second critical step in countering terrorism, in the long run, lies in engaging the ideological impulse behind ISIS and al-Qaeda, namely Salafist jihadism. Salafism is an ultra-conservative branch within Sunni Islam introduced by puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahab in the Arabia Peninsula during the mid-18th Century. Wahab advocated a return to the traditions of the first generations of Muslims (the salaf). Not only do ISIS and al-Qaeda claim Ibn Abd al-Wahab as their own legacy and ideological leader (Olidort, 2016), they also appropriate foundational texts of al-Wahab, including Kitab at-Tawhid (the Book of Monotheism) and others in their curriculum (Speckhard & Yayla, 2016 & Kirkpatrick, 2014). This is the reason Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, the former Imam of Kaaba, the Grand Mosque of the Prophet Mohamad in Mecca, and a Salafi himself, openly admitted (MEMRI TV, 2016) by stating that “ISIS is a true product of Salafism, and we must deal with it with full transparency” (MEMRI, 2014).

In discussing the root causes of terrorism, however, it would be naïve to leave the power of Gulf petro-dollars unremarked. Many Gulf countries have been pouring out billions of dollars to promote Salafism around the world (Butt, 2015) including in the West, fundamentally fast-forwarding ISIS and al-Qaeda recruitment efforts by doing the indoctrination process on their behalf. Youth indoctrinated with Salafi understanding of Islam become easy prey for the terrorists compared to non-Salafi Muslims. The difference between socialism and communism in Marxist literature may be compared to the difference between Wahhabism and Salafi jihadism. As socialism is considered a phase to ease the pathway toward communism, Wahhabism may be one step ahead of Salafi jihadism.

Terrorists, both Marxist and jihadist, have one thing in common: they tend to approach people who share similar ideologies. Historically, leftist terrorist organizations chiefly recruited among Marxist crowd followers. In my experience, more than 90 percent of the leftist terrorists were recruited out of families who were leaning toward the left, or who had Marxist literature at their homes or who defined themselves as socialists or leftists. In fact, I have seen parents advising their children at the time of their arrests to be patient during the police interviews and not to reveal anything about their terrorist organizations. The world should understand that regardless of the political costs and outcomes, there is no true dealing of jihadi terrorism without countering the Salafist jihadi ideology. Moreover, the Islamic world must immediately produce practical and creative common-sense critiques of Salafism (Yayla, 2018).

By comparison, Marxism’s ideological legitimacy eroded for decades prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union (Byman, 2016). True, the success of intelligence and counter-terrorism operations had a great role in diminishing leftist terrorism around the globe; however, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ideology of terrorist groups shattered in practice, and the Soviet Union could not bankroll those organizations financially or tactically. As a result, those leftist terrorist organizations were obliged to reconsider their future as they started to lose members. Thus ended the third era, the New Left Wave, in David Rappaport’s (Parker & Sitter, 2015) classification of four waves of terrorism (Rasler & Thompson, 2009). Similarly, as funding sources for the fourth wave of terrorism – the Religious Wave starting after 1979 with the Iranian Islamic revolution – were ascending, funding from Moscow ebbed after its disastrous war in Afghanistan. From this perspective, as long as the oil-rich Salafist countries (Mouline, 2018) continue to spread their ideologies and help Salafist jihadi terrorist organizations directly or indirectly and intentionally or unintentionally, the world may not see the end of Salafist jihadi terrorism soon. The fact is, the preaching of Wahhabism and Salafism broadens the base of these terrorist organizations, enabling them to speed recruitment.

Engage the Kinship Network of the Terrorist Recruit

The third essential step in countering the immediate and long-term threats of terrorism is to understand and to interdict the terrorist culture of indoctrination. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda teach their cadres during their sharia indoctrination and military training two important rules that are to be considered both religious and organizational (Speckhard & Yayla, 2016).

The first rule is to “hear and obey” regardless of any circumstances. The first lesson ensures that the terrorist orders will be carried out without any discussion regardless of any circumstances and as religious duties. Followers who underestimate this rule or refuse to obey are harshly disciplined. The second rule is “not to involve themselves with the teachings and literature of other Islamic traditions and not to communicate or discuss their ideologies with others even if they are family members” (Yayla, 2017c), particularly true for the new members. The second rule isolates the cadres from the outside world (al-Qaeda recruitment manual) and may be likened to cult indoctrination to reduce the risk of defection to competing groups.

This mindset and rules to control new recruits pose a high barrier to authorities seeking to counter terrorist recruitment. Our team of police investigators and social workers encountered this first-hand in 2012 when I was the Chief of Counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey, at the Southern border of Turkey. I established a program named “Dealing with terrorism and radicalization before it’s too late” through family visits of the young people who were being approached by terrorist organizations for recruitment purposes.

This was a prevention program aimed to intervene at the very early stages of the recruitment process when terrorists attempted to establish contacts for recruitment. The program intended to engage young people and their families by face-to-face visits in conveying the message of “violence is not a solution,” to emphasize parents’ objections to the radicalization of their children, and eventually take required, early steps to thwart terrorist recruitment via various tools provided by the program.

I designed this intervention program specifically to establish initial contacts with families of vulnerable youth. The members of the team included male and female police officers trained in social work and psychology backgrounds who knew Arabic and Kurdish as well as Turkish. The process started with the initiation of positive communication with the family to build mutual trust. We assured all that we were offering assistance to families to save their children from the hands of terrorist organizations. We also promised them that they would not face any prosecution or investigation if their children would stop interacting with the terrorist organizations. Our final objective was to persuade terrorist candidates to accept through professional and psychological therapy with the participation of their families and making sure the families would be part of the prevention and recovery process (Yayla & Tasgin, 2014).

The success ratio of the program was 87 percent, and we were able to save around 2,000 youth from the hands of terrorist organizations between 2010 and 2014. One of the most important findings from the project was that 88 percent of the families we engaged stated that they were not aware of their children having contacts with terrorist recruiters, giving a clear indication how terrorists, even at the very early stages of recruitment, ensured rules of isolation and secrecy applied (Yayla & Tasgin, 2014). From this perspective, while countering the Salafist ideology might be a global agenda, local recruitment activities of different terrorist organizations should be countered via locally tailored prevention programs to ensure success at the micro level even before radicalization and recruitment happen. Local recruitment also raises the issue of the next essential element: the role of close circles and family members in today’s terrorism.

When it comes to terrorist recruitment and radicalization, the cycle usually works as follows:

  • Identify the candidate (factors include established ideologies, vulnerabilities, education and neighborhood),
  • establish initial contact (if not already there),
  • build rapport and friendship,
  • play to emotions through established bonds,
  • advance friendship and trust,
  • introduce indoctrination,
  • indoctrination advances to networking with other terrorists, literature and other associations,
  • introduction of non-violent terrorist activities,
  • when candidates prove themselves, reposition them at different parts of terrorist organizations (Yayla, 2005).

In this cycle terrorists usually choose the people whom they already know so that the secret nature of their conspiracy remains veiled, thus reducing the risk of a complaint. According to data I gathered in 2001, introduction to a terrorist organization happens through friends 35 percent of the time and through family members in 26.5 percent of the cases I studied (Yayla, 2001). ISIS follows a similar pattern when it comes to reaching out to associates or establishing new contacts in the West. Whereas cyber connections also are happening, the terrorists prefer face-to-face interactions when it comes to recruiting, according to the research of existing ISIS cases in the United States by the George Washington University Program on Extremism (GW Extremism Tracker, 2018).

It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that in July 2017, when ISIS planned to blow up a commercial jet out of Sydney, the Khayat brothers in Australia were contacted by their elder brother who is an ISIS commander in Syria to carry out the plot (Yayla, 2017d). Similar scenarios happened during the Brussels and Paris attacks in which close family members and friends were quickly enlisted for the attacks and were surprisingly able to get under the radar of local intelligence agencies. Therefore, it is essential that counterterrorism agencies understand the importance of linkage and connections between their citizens and ISIS fighters, as terrorists tend to recruit the people they know and trust. From ISIS’s perspective, it is easier and safer to recruit a foreign fighter’s close circles in one’s homeland than to send fighters to those countries to carry out attacks.


Without a doubt, Salafist jihadi terrorism, ISIS and al-Qaeda and its affiliates, is here to stay and probably will evolve into new formations. The battlefield victories should never distract us from establishing long-term macro and micro policies to counter terrorism. While the initial and most important objectives of governments should be providing the immediate security of their citizens, use of force without implementation of locally tailored preventive and counter-measure programs against terrorist threats, in the long run, will not be enough to eliminate terrorism in the future. To paraphrase the African proverb, it takes a village to save a terrorist.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email [email protected]. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.


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Ahmet Yayla
Ahmet S. Yayla is an assistant professor at the DeSales University Homeland Security Department and faculty member at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is also a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Dr. Yayla previously served as a full professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013. He is an experienced practitioner in counterterrorism and has advised senior government officials around the world during his career in law enforcement and academia. Dr. Yayla has published both scholarly works and written or co-written numerous articles on mainstream news platforms related to counterterrorism and homeland security.
Ahmet Yayla
Ahmet Yayla
Ahmet S. Yayla is an assistant professor at the DeSales University Homeland Security Department and faculty member at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies. He is also a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. Dr. Yayla previously served as a full professor and the chair of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey. Dr. Yayla is a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey between 2010 and 2013. He is an experienced practitioner in counterterrorism and has advised senior government officials around the world during his career in law enforcement and academia. Dr. Yayla has published both scholarly works and written or co-written numerous articles on mainstream news platforms related to counterterrorism and homeland security.

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