Turning Point

Turning Point

Nations shift counterterrorism tactics in anticipation of returning foreign fighters who continue their allegiance to the Islamic State

FORUM Staff

Combined efforts of international forces to successfully weaken the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and ultimately extinguish its stronghold on cities in the Middle East give anti-terrorism activists reason to celebrate. It also represents a turning point in strategies for countering violent extremism across the Indo-Asia-Pacific and abroad as governments prepare for the yet unknown aftereffects of foreign fighters returning to their homelands.

“The prospective collapse of Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ is likely to increase the number of foreign fighters leaving its territory. More generally, the foreign fighter fallout from the years of conflict in Syria and Iraq will echo that of previous conflicts such as Afghanistan and Bosnia,” according to “Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq: The Day After,” an analysis authored by counterterrorism experts Lydia Khalil and Rodger Shanahan and published in September 2016 by the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy. “The fighters who survive and escape will be just as ideologically motivated as those that emerged from Afghanistan and Bosnia, but will be more operationally experienced, have more lethal skills and be better networked than their predecessors.”

Not all those returning will have an interest in continuing their quest, but the real possibility that even the slightest percentage of foreign fighters intend to foster the next generation of global jihadists means that governments must be ready to combat such efforts.

Members of an Indonesian police bomb squad examine the surrounding area where a suicide bomber blew himself up at the local police headquarters in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia, in July 2016. [THE ASSOCIATED PRESS]

“It is critically important that international security agencies understand the networks that these individuals have formed, the routes they intend to use to leave Syria and Iraq and their intentions once they have left the battlefield,” Khalil and Shanahan wrote. “This will require a more coordinated international response rather than just multiple national approaches. This should include common legislative action regarding the treatment of foreign fighters, greater intelligence and border control coordination and cooperation and a greater focus on the foreign fighter issue within existing multilateral counterterrorist groupings.”

Stymied enlistment

At the peak of recruitment in 2015, ISIS saw 2,000 foreign fighters cross the Turkey-Syria border each month — a number that had dwindled to as few as 50 as 2016 neared an end, according to U.S. intelligence data, The Washington Post newspaper reported in September 2016. The decline in appeal has robbed ISIS of momentum it once generated to declare the rebirth of a bold and powerful Islamic empire.

The shift sets the stage for conversations on national security.

Estimates of the number of Southeast Asians who have joined ISIS in the Middle East vary between 700 and 1,000, a miniscule figure in a region of over 600 million people. Australian officials place their number of nationals who joined the fight at 110, and Prime Minister Malcolm has called their anticipated return a “very live concern.”

“We are resolutely, remorselessly focused on keeping Australians safe, and we pay very close attention to the Australians that may seek to return from the conflict zone in Syria,” Turnbull said, according to
news.com.au.

Australia has already experienced the return of some foreign fighters, but there hasn’t been enough evidence to charge them with a crime — at least not yet, Shanahan told news.com.au.

“These guys will have to be watched. You’re going to have to have a good look at these guys very closely for a long time,” Shanahan told news.com.au. Authorities “will have to take a long-term view of this because at some stage, the conflict in Syria is going to be over and it’ll be more likely to get evidence that could lead to prosecutions. So you should never ever put a time frame on jihadi activity.”

The Australian Parliament has already tightened laws to deal with the fallout. Australians returning from Iraq and Syria could be placed under special terrorist control orders. That means someone could be required to wear a tracking device or live at a certain location. Australia’s law also means someone could be ordered to leave the country and be banned. In addition, Australia also wants to keep convicted terrorists in jail if the government believes they remain a threat.

“Once IS [the Islamic State] is finished, it’s not going to be the end of the problem. These people are going to splinter to a wide range of places and Australians are going to travel to a wide range of places,” Shanahan told news.com.au. “We’re going to have to have a long-term commitment to cooperation in counterterrorism strategies with other countries. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away.”

Australian officers stand guard at a Melbourne court in May 2016 as a police van arrives with five men who planned to join ISIS. [GETTY IMAGES]

Vigilance warranted

There are more than 240 million Muslims in Southeast Asia who account for about 42 percent of the region’s population. Southeast Asia has proved to be one of the most successful areas of recruitment for ISIS, experts say. Governments there have long recognized the vulnerability of their citizens to propaganda and have worked tirelessly for years with allies like the United States to counter radicalization, but recent years have seen an uptick in the success of extremist propaganda.

“We have more activity among jihadi groups than at any time in the last 10 years,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, according to an opinion column by David Ignatius in The Washington Post titled, “Southeast Asia could be a haven for displaced Islamic State fighters.”

Between 500 and 600 Indonesians and about 100 Malaysians traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, according to The Washington Post. In 2015, Malaysia reported that at least 70 of its former military members had joined the fight.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) sought to address questions about terrorism and the effect of returning foreign fighters on Southeast Asia’s security during the June 2016 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

“How serious is the current terrorist threat in the region? How does it compare with the threat from Jemaah Islamiyah in the region 10 or 15 years ago? Do we really know how many Southeast Asians have gone to the Middle East to fight? How dangerous, really, is the threat from returning fighters? And what of regional states’ responses?” Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia asked panelists — which included a military representative from the Philippines and Malaysia — during the conference. “Are they doing everything that might be ideal in terms of strengthening interagency whole-of-government approaches to counterterrorism? Are they exchanging enough intelligence and the right type of intelligence among themselves, and with external partners such as Australia, the U.S. and with European and Middle Eastern states? And perhaps, most significantly in the context of this session and this dialogue, what is the proper role of the armed forces in counterterrorism in this region?”

Despite Malaysia’s history of engaging religious extremism and radicalization, the country has shown great concern about the development of ISIS within its borders, Gen. Tan Sri Dato’ Sri (Dr.) Zulkifeli bin Mohd Zin, former chief of Defence Force of the Malaysian Armed Forces, said during the conference.

“The Malaysian Armed Forces has adopted the policy of strong interagency cooperation and pragmatic multilateral collaboration while adopting soft and hard approaches,” the general said. “In this sense, the measures taken are, firstly, developing strong interregional collaboration with the armed forces of ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] member states through the exchange of information and building of capacities.”

In January 2016, Malaysia organized its first international conference on deradicalization and countering violent extremism. The Malaysian government and military have collaborated to establish a digital countermessaging center, “which wages war of ideas through the resourceful lines of persuasion among the various target groups,” the general said. Malaysia’s prime minister also established the Global Movement of Moderates, a group aimed at countering jihadi terrorism as the government promotes the practices of moderation in the realm of religion.

“The measures taken by the Malaysian government have been very effective and successful, as we are able to stem the influence of Daesh [ISIS] in the country. Similarly, I believe that there must be a concerted and comprehensive initiative or effort by all ASEAN member states to detect, erase and monitor the sources of funding for the Katibah Nusuntara [a Southeast Asian military unit within ISIS composed of Malaysian speakers] from ASEAN member countries,” the Malaysian general said, noting Malaysia’s introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Foreign Fighters Act to better empower the enforcement agencies in combating the threat of terrorism. “That said, however, it is undeniable that Daesh [ISIS} will seek more innovative and unconventional means or methods to spread terror in this region. For that, enhancing cooperation is not an option but a necessity to ensure security, stability and the preservation of human security.”

For Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda, vice chief of staff for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, ISIS represents one of the “more serious and pressing security issues of our time.”

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in blue shirt, talks with Australian troops during breakfast at Camp Baird while visiting Iraq in January 2016.
[REUTERS]

During the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, Miranda, who was acting chief of staff at the time, called the tri-border maritime area encompassing the Sulu and Sulawesi seas a “critical area of cooperation.” The porous area remains largely ungoverned, he said, and has become a preferred nautical highway for national criminals, militants and extremists.

“This area needs patrolling and policing, but this cannot be done by one country alone. It calls for regional and national cooperation,” Miranda said. “Thankfully, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have responded to this call and decided to act.”

In May 2016, the foreign ministers and chiefs of defense forces of these respective countries signed a joint declaration on the immediate measures to address security issues in the maritime areas of concern.

Social media cooperation and the use of information and communication technology present another area needing cooperation to combat ISIS and its supporters, Miranda said.

“We understand now that their control of media content through which they conduct their cyber jihad, similar to the ungoverned maritime space, the open sites, the electronic boards and the potential cyber sanctuaries in the internet, must be painstakingly trolled for terrorist content by all concerned governments, agencies, multinational organizations, administrators and special units,” Miranda said. “The sophistication of our cyber technologies should be brought to bear wherever the terrorists might be hiding. The capacities of our agencies for intelligence and surveillance, and even social advocacy, must be coordinated to initiate sustained or provide dedicated follow-on actions to constantly discredit jihadist claims, and altogether take out the air from them with no blogs made, no column inches given and no prisoners taken.”

Targeting root causes

Ticking time bombs. That’s how some international leaders describe the returning foreign fighter population.

Others say the fuse was lit long before ISIS became appealing and that as governments prepare to deal with the looming threat of a terrorist attack or continued recruitment efforts by these returning bad actors, addressing the root cause of such ideology must remain part of the conversation.

“Historically, efforts to counter extremist ideologies and narratives have been reactive. Rather than anticipating emerging threats, appropriate resources and expertise are often deployed after the fact,” according to “Turning Point: A New Comprehensive Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism,” a report published in November 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based on findings of a commission chaired by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “Military force and law enforcement approaches can play a vital role in slowing violent extremists’ momentum and loosening their grip on territory, but extremist ideologies — and the long-term, generational threat they represent — will not be defeated on the battlefield.”

“Governments bear the primary responsibility for taking action against offending individuals, or organizations or institutions within their borders,” the CSIS commission report stated. “If the host country does not take concrete steps to rein in nefarious actors, the international community should consider punitive measures such as freezing of assets, visa and travel bans and criminal actions for material support to terrorist activity.”

As foreign fighters filter back to their places of origin, preventing further radicalization and recruitment will require mobilization of national and international powers, including military and law enforcement tools, the CSIS report said. In addition, CSIS suggested, nations must build a coalition to detect and deter foreign fighters, degrade, defeat and dismantle their strategic communications infrastructure and create a response mechanism that protects civilians.


The CSIS commission outlined a strategy to prevent and counter violent extremism (CVE) that encompasses activities that are CVE-specific and those that are CVE-relevant. Among the recommendations:

  • Strengthen resistance to extremist ideologies
    Forge a new global partnership around education reform and expand efforts to enhance respect for religious diversity to stem the spread of intolerance and reinforce community resilience to extremist narratives.
  • Invest in community-led prevention
    Enable civil society efforts to detect and disrupt radicalization and recruitment and rehabilitate and reintegrate those who have succumbed to extremist ideologies and narratives.
  • Saturate the global marketplace of ideas
    Mobilize technology companies, the entertainment industry, community leaders, religious voices and others to compete with and overtake violent extremists’ narratives in virtual and real spaces.
  • Align policies and values
    Put human rights at the center of [countering violent extremism] and ensure … engagement with foreign partners [to] advance the rule of law, dignity and justice.
  • Deploy military and law enforcement tools
    Build a new force capability and coalition to quickly dislodge terrorist groups that control territory, avert and respond to immediate threats, weaken violent extremists’ projection of strength and protect security.
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