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Neil Fergus

Foreign Fighters – the next generation of global terrorism

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Daesh (Islamic State) and al Qa’ida have been competing violently on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria over the last couple of years – showing no quarter to each other.  However a much more insidious aspect of their enmity – reflecting their respective ambitions to be the pre-eminent jihadist group internationally – involves the competing outreach programmes they have both carefully constructed.  Daesh has developed sophisticated public relations and media units that are constantly working on new methods to get its messages to an international audience – to motivate its current supporters and to attract new supporters and fighters.  Unfortunately, it is clear its outreach strategies have been achieving a worrying degree of success.

In the late 90’s security forces became acutely aware of the danger posed to the civilized world by the “Afghan Alumni”; a large cadre of veterans who had honed their military and terrorist skills in the Afghanistan conflict.  This Afghan alumni was subsequently used as a recruitment and resource base by al Qa’ida – to export terrorism around the globe, including to Australia and in our immediate region.

We are now confronted with a new alumni phenomenon – as the scale of the Iraq-Syria alumni will be dramatically larger than the numbers of terrorists that emerged out of the Afghan conflict.

We anticipate significant numbers of returned fighters will continue to pursue terrorism in other parts of the globe long after the Iraq-Syria conflict eventually ends. It is critical for a multi-tiered strategy to be developed by political leaders to try and mitigate the public security consequences of this new Alumni phenomenon.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Islamic State or commonly referred to as Daesh, is an off-shoot from al Qa’ida.   It emerged as a part of the insurgency movement that grew up after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and it joined al Qa’ida in 2004.  Since at least early 2006 its leadership was represented on the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq.  However its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, fell out with the leadership of al Qa’ida and, following several months of wrangling, al Qa’ida and its Iraqi group, Jabhat an-Nusra (the al-Nusra Front), expelled al-Baghdadi and his supporters in early 2014.

As a consequence of their split, Daesh and the al-Nusra Front have been at constant war with each other in Syria and northern Iraq.  Daesh has been just as merciless in its dealings with its former terrorist associates as it has been in its genocide against its other political or religious enemies – and al-Nusra has responded in kind.  They are effectively in competition for members, finances, geographical territory, influence and – as perverse as it sounds – the global leadership of jihadist terrorism.

Al-Baghdadi has adopted a different approach to al Qa’ida based on his determination to stake out territorial gains and create a geographical Caliphate, his version of an Islamic state.  Following some extraordinary military successes, Daesh currently controls an extraordinary swath of territory in Syria and Northern Iraq.  Just as worrying, a number of foreign terrorist groups have switched allegiance from al Qa’ida to Daesh: including terrorist groups in Libya, Egypt and Yemen as well as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

Al-Baghdadi is a classic megalomaniac – he now claims political, religious and military authority over all Muslims worldwide (rejected, unsurprisingly, by all credible Islamic scholars and leaders).  However there is a one key factor that is assisting him to progress his vast ambitions – he has access to very significant cash reserves to fund his operations.

Daesh controls significant hydrocarbon reserves and is able to sell its oil products on the spot market through a range of intermediaries in the region (even selling oil to its supposed arch-nemesis the Syrian Government).  Estimates of its oil and gas earnings vary from between US$2m and US$3m per day.  It has also seized significant cash as it has occupied major cities, including over US$500m of cash and bullion from municipal banks after its forces captured the city of Mosul in 2014.  Furthermore, we estimate Daesh has received in excess of US$120m in ransom payments for the release of kidnapped persons in the last 18 months.

Daesh is using its financial resources to build a “state-like” administration and infrastructure: headquartered in modest circumstances in Aleppo a few years ago it had significant command and control elements in its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, and but it quickly decentralised operations as soon as the coalition aerial campaign commenced against its forces and infrastructure.   In fact there is confirmed intelligence that shows it had prepared detailed plans to dissolve its administrative structures into the urban environments of the major cities it occupies well in advance of the aerial campaign.

Within Daesh’s organisational and functional structure it has a sophisticated media capability that regularly demonstrates professional broadcast standards – and issues its material in numerous languages.  The al-Fuqan Media Foundation produces many of its more violent videos, including the beheadings, and presents it in a perfunctory news reader style.  The al-Hayat Media Center is even more professional – aimed directly at western audiences.  It focuses on community stories aimed at influencing and seducing the Ummah (the global Muslim community).  It uses computer graphics, slow motion and smoked effects and uses an enhanced colour palate.   The outputs from these two ISIL media units are supplemented by a proliferation of amateur social media postings by IS fighters and supporters in Iraq and Syria – using Instagram, You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and other blogs.  As social media staff quickly delete Daesh content from their sites the group has been able to successfully maintain its online presence through a maze of backup and copycat accounts with slight permutations of names and titles.

And, overarching all of the ISIL social media content, is the Daesh flag-ship digital publication called ‘Dabiq’ (named after the site where according to Islamic myth a final apocalyptic battle will take place).  Several editions of this glossy, high production value publication have been issued on the internet over the last couple of years: covering all the major activities of Daesh within the Middle East and further afield.

Among the more interesting characteristics of the Dabiq publication is its sheer chutzpah in claiming responsibility for disparate acts of violence, anywhere in the world, as a IS directed operation: including the stabbing of the two police officers in Melbourne in late 2014 and the Lindt Café siege hostage situation in Sydney.

However, despite the dubious nature of some of the related claims made in Dabiq, there is no doubt that the digital outreach programme of ISIL has impacted on many impressionable or disturbed Islamic youth around the globe.  And it must be conceded that even if some of the attacks were not directed by Daesh the perpetrators had been exposed to and influenced by the material it is placing on the internet.   Similarly, there is no doubt that many of the foreigners that have been motivated to leave their homes and travel to Syria to join Daesh have been significantly influenced by the material they had been accessing on the internet.

In April this year the Australian Police arrested an 18 year old allegedly planning an Anzac Day attack in Melbourne – he was heavily influenced by ISIL propaganda he accessed on the internet. And, a month later, a 17 year old was separately charged in relation to three IED’s he was allegedly intent on using in terrorist attacks in Melbourne.  The police will allege he had been cultivated over the internet by a jihadist recruiter associated with ISIL.

While we can dispute the detail of some Daesh claims, there is no denying the relative success of Daesh in spreading its messages around the globe and influencing a number of people to support its cause.  It is undoubtedly one of the reasons there are now estimated to be nearly 20 000 foreign fighters from over 100 countries in Syria and northern Iraq; that is a truly astounding figure.

To put the figure in context, during the mujahideen struggle to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan – from 1980 to 1992 – it is estimated 5,000 foreign fighters were involved in the conflict.  It has of course been well documented that Bin Laden had access to the details of most of the foreign fighters who went through mujahideen training camps and used them as the basis for creating the al Qa’ida global terrorist network.

Many members of the so-called “Afghan Alumni” were adroitly recruited by Bin Laden and his operations chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and these veterans were involved in every major AQ terrorist operation: including in Australia’s region.  Hambali, the operational commander of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), who authorised the 2002 Bali attacks that killed 202 people including 88 Australians and 2 New Zealanders, was a member of the Afghan alumni.  Muklas and some other key members of the JI team that planned and carried out the Bali attacks were also veterans of the Afghan conflict.

While al Qa’ida is certainly not a spent force as a global terrorist group it is clear, in just a few short years since it split from AQ, ISIL has overtaken al Qa’ida as the major global jihadist group.  Its success in recruiting members has been a key factor in that development.

If we consider the damage that Al Qa’ida has caused international security over the course of the last 20 years – empowered by its ability to draw on the 5,000 or so foreign veterans from the Afghan conflict – it begs the  question what ISIL might be able to achieve if it is able to draw on the 20,000 foreign fighters who have been trained and blooded in the current conflict in Syria and Iraq?

Many of these fighters will return to their home countries while others, prevented from returning home for a variety of reasons, will stay in the Syrian region or relocate to other parts of the globe.  And, apart from a quite small minority who might be likely to recant and avoid involvement in future acts of violence, we should anticipate this diverse pool of jihadists will – just like the Afghan alumni of a generation earlier – pose a very significant security risk for the foreseeable future.

There are some strategies that need to be carefully formulated to mitigate the potential risk – however the options all require a considerable level of international cooperation and appropriate resourcing.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), headquartered in The Hague, is the only permanent impartial tribunal empowered to try cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  However, the ICC has no jurisdiction currently in Syria or Iraq as both Russia and China exercised their power of veto at the UN Security Council to prevent the ICC receiving a remit in relation to the conflict – believing the motion was motivated by the US desire to target members of the Assad regime over alleged chemical attacks on the Syrian population.

Individual countries who are members/signatories of the court can give the ICC a mandate to investigate specific citizens.  Jordan, Tunisia and several European nations have done so in response to a number of their citizens joining ISIL as foreign fighters.  Nevertheless the senior ICC prosecutor has stated that without jurisdiction being conferred by the UN Security Council there is no basis for the ICC opening a preliminary examination into the wider assertions of systemic crimes against humanity in Syria and Iraq.

Under the Rome Statute that governs the activities of the ICC the various national authorities, including from Australia and New Zealand, have primacy to investigate and prosecute their citizens that have been involved in crimes against humanity abroad.  The Police have the lead in those matters but clearly has an unenviable task to gather admissible evidence in what is in effect a war zone.   The police will be reliant to a certain extent on support and assistance from intelligence agencies but even then will still find the task extraordinarily difficult; particularly as much of the human intelligence is likely to be deemed hearsay and inadmissible by the courts and some of the technical intelligence will be subject to public interest immunity provisions given its operational sensitivity.

To ensure the serious offenders among the Daesh fighters face justice and are removed as threats to international security there needs to be a coordinated international strategy to ensure the ICC has a jurisdictional remit to coordinate investigations.  Furthermore, all the reputable national law enforcement agencies need to cooperate and share appropriate information.  This will require a focused diplomatic effort on the part of many nations and it will also require some significant commitments on resources and funding.

Similarly, diplomatic resources, police and intelligence agencies are going to need to devote considerable energy to locating where foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria (and those who might be stripped of their western citizenships) relocate to – as and when they depart from the conflict zone.  It is inconceivable for us to “wash our hands” of these people simply because they have not been brought before a court and/or have not returned to ‘home’.  As well as potentially posing a risk to public safety in the international context they are likely to continue to pose an ongoing risk to western interests from elsewhere in the world.

Keep in mind a number of the foreigners fighting for Daesh have made some very direct and violent threats against their home nations, the local authorities and the general public in their emails and blogs.  Many of them face charges in relation to those threats.

Based on our experience with al Qa’ida and the Afghan alumni that group relied on for so long we should expect the security problems that will be caused by Daesh fighters to consume international security forces for many years to come.  It is absolutely essential that considerable thought is given, as early as possible, to strategies to mitigate the related risks – otherwise the problems we face will be much more severe and the threat could endure for another generation.