Few Islamic State group fighters return but home-grown attacks rise, Europol says

Europeans who have fought on behalf of the Islamic State group have not flooded back in large numbers since losing strongholds in Syria and Iraq, Europe's police agency said on Wednesday but they’ve inspired a growing number of home-grown attacks.

AFP file picture | Jihadist attacks on European targets more than doubled last year, Europe's police agency said Wednesday, warning the risk of more unsophisticated attacks by the so-called Islamic State group "remains acute."

Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol's Counter Terrorism Centre, told a press conference at its Hague headquarters that a big influx of returning fighters had not materialised.

"The main threat is coming from foreign terrorist fighters even though the numbers ... that are returning are quite low," he said, referring to outsiders who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside militants there.

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The number of attacks in Europe, including foiled and failed plots, nearly doubled last year to 205, and led to the deaths of 62 people, according to Europol's 2018 Terrorism Situation and Trend report released Wednesday. The figure compared with 13 reported attacks in 2016, of which 10 were successful leading to 135 deaths.

The agency stated that the risk of more unsophisticated attacks by the so-called Islamic State group "remains acute” adding that “the increase in the number of jihadist terrorist attacks in 2017 ran parallel to a decrease in in sophistication in their preparation and execution".

This included the attack on London's Westminster Bridge on March 22 last year and a similar attack on London Bridge two months later, when attackers drove vehicles into pedestrians and stabbed bystanders with knives, killing 13 people in total and wounding some 98 others.

Islamic jihadists who carried out such attacks in the EU in 2017 were mainly home-grown, "meaning that they were radicalised in their country of residence without having travelled to join a terrorist group abroad," said Navarette.

He added that in many cases "it becomes a form of personal retaliation against the country that they failed to integrate with."

Tracking radicalised fighters

Keeping track of returning jihadist fighters remained the key concern of counterterrorism officials.

Of the more than 5,000 Europeans - most from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium - who joined the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq, some 1,500 have returned and 1,000 were killed, according to the EU intelligence-sharing body. There is only limited intelligence available about the fate of the rest.

Many fighters have been detained. Some travelled to Malaysia, the Philippines and Libya. Others are thought to be laying low or in third countries like Turkey, he said.

Tougher border controls, surveillance and prosecution in Europe have also dissuaded some from returning, with EU nations making more than 700 arrests linked to jihadi activity in 2017, he said.

The suicide bomber who killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in the English city of Manchester in May 2017 had just returned from Libya. But most recent attacks have been carried out by home-grown jihadists who never went to conflict zones.

As the Islamic State was routed last year from Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, it urged followers to carry out attacks at home, rather than travel to its self-declared caliphate.

"Now the message of the Islamic State has changed ... to being more negative and asking for retaliation," Navarrete said.

While lone actors often use tactics that result in fewer victims, they pose a threat that is difficult to prevent. In 2016, a man killed 86 people by driving a truck into a crowd in the Mediterranean city of Nice, France.

"You have to be very, very close to a person in order to take action on the police level to prevent this," Navarrete said. "And the closest you can be to a person right now is not going to the front door, it is going to Facebook, to Twitter."

The IS group is releasing far less new propaganda after years of relying upon it to draw thousands of Europeans to join its cause, but the group's prior online recruitment materials are being recycled or redistributed in other formats.