THE coverage of the Syrian and Iraq wars by the international media has ended up glorifying ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ (FTFs) while also highlighting the legal and societal implications of their return to their home countries.
According to the Global Terrorism Index, 2015, between 25,000 and 30,000 FTFs from over 100 countries arrived in Syria and Iraq since 2011, mainly from south-east Europe.
The evolution of contemporary FTFs may be classified into three phases. In the first phase, Al Qaeda attracted FTFs in Afghanistan from Arab countries. In the second, FTFs were mostly Middle Eastern expats travelling to Western universities but sociocultural discrimination radicalised them. In the third phase, the internet created self-trained and self-financed FTFs who established links with the militant Islamic State group.
In 2014, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2178, reminding member states to stop those believed to be FTFs from crossing their borders, and be alert to their sources of facilitation and funding. The resolution called for FTFs to be prosecuted, rehabilitated and reintegrated into society upon their return to their countries by either amending existing counterterrorism (CT) laws or enacting new ones to check their movement.
States can restrict the movement of foreign terrorist fighters.
The absence of special laws or clauses related to FTF activities in many countries makes it difficult to prosecute them because existing legislation is often not enough. Pakistan, too, lacks special laws pertaining to checking the movement of FTFs (although the ATA 1997 is there). Dealing with this challenge requires a thorough review of CT laws that involves criminalising a full range of behaviours/acts related to FTFs, in addition to building the professional capabilities of border police and immigration staff.
Several countries have put in place laws and restrictions to stop or restrict the movement and activities of FTFs. For example, Australia enacted the Counter-Terrorism (Temporary Exclusion Orders) Bill, 2019, empowering the home affairs ministry to block a citizen over 14 years of age with suspected terrorism links, from returning to Australia for two years. Australia also criminalised travel to areas such as Mosul in Iraq without valid reason. As per Section 119.2 of the Australian Criminal Code Act, 1995, intentional entry in a conflict zone of a foreign country is an offence liable to punishment for up to 10 years.
Similarly, to deal with FTFs returning from Syria, New Zealand recently enacted the Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill, to empower the police to move the high court to impose control orders on citizens involved in terrorist activities while overseas.
Though it can be difficult to answer why individuals want to become FTFs, states can proactively work towards detecting incitement to commit terrorist acts, and ensure timely and effective intelligence collection and sharing of information — both on a intra- and inter-government level. It is impossible to deal with the problem in isolation and without the cooperation of friendly states.
Lone wolf terrorism and FTFs are interlinked. Lone wolfs appear more educated and socially isolated than group-based actors. Their willingness to travel great distances to prepare for and execute attacks makes it difficult for states to maintain due vigilance. Thus, international cooperation and intelligence sharing is necessary.
While enacting laws and making strategies for dealing with FTFs, states can take help from the 52 guiding principles issued by the UN. These strategies may include sharing of advance passenger information, especially from airlines flying to and from conflict zones. Chapter 9 (Part B) of the Convention on International Civil Aviation (Annexure 9) provides SOPs for sharing advance passenger information.
CT departments may employ data protection officers to maintain databases of FTFs without compromising the privacy of individuals. FTFs have been seen to usually use evasive or broken travel patterns to make it difficult to track the actual destination or the motive of their journey. In this regard, officials can be trained to understand the dynamics of broken travel patterns but this is not possible without bilateral and multilateral information sharing.
Research suggests that globally only 11pc of the total returnees pose a threat to their home countries. The blowback rate may appear small, but a number of terrorist incidents in several countries have exhibited the risk of turning a blind eye to FTFs.
No country alone possesses the capability to cope up with the challenge of FTFs. Hence, encouraging mutual legal assistance, intelligence sharing, cooperation in extradition of suspects and their travel information are key to minimising the risks involved.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2020