Nearly 30 percent of European foreign fighters for the Islamic State have returned to the continent, the U.S. Department of State annual country report on terrorism reveals.
Experts fear that some of the returning foreign fighters will pursue domestic terror plots in their home countries, or even use their passports to travel elsewhere in the West. The State Department, however, noted that “the overall number of departed foreign terrorist fighters originating from Western European and Balkan countries declined significantly in 2016 from the previous year.”
The number of European fighters who traveled to fight for ISIS is unknown, but estimates range in the thousands. U.S. based security intelligence advisory firm The Soufan Group (TSG) estimated that approximately 5,000 Western European fighters traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS in 2015 alone. TSG also noted that 4,700 fighters were estimated to come from the former Soviet republics.
EU countries are scrambling to track foreign fighters upon their return, but they also must track domestic terror subjects, which are large enough in number they are already overwhelming security services.
The return of the fighters coincides with the large loss of territory suffered by the terrorist group in Iraq and Syria. The Europe based International Center for Counter-Terrorism noted in April 2016 that, while some foreign fighters returning to Europe may be disillusioned with the terrorist group, “others may return with the aim of carrying out terrorist attacks, with reports suggesting that IS may systematically export terror cells to Europe.”
The November 2015 Paris attacks and the March 2016 Brussels attacks both featured fighters that had traveled to the Syrian battlefield for instruction and returned to carry out complex terror plots. Europe is particularly vulnerable to foreign fighter plots because of the freedom of movement within the EU for member state citizens.
Many EU citizens are also eligible to enter the U.S. without scrutiny for 90 days under the Visa Waiver Program.
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