July 28, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Diaspora of Terror

• During a speech on July 27, FBI Director James Comey warned of a ‘terrorist diaspora like we’ve never seen before’ as foreign fighters flee Syria.

• The merging of trained terrorists returning from Syria and local terror sympathizers is a serious threat that has already been realized in Paris and Brussels.

• Even without returning foreign fighters, the increasing trend of Islamic State-inspired attacks by individuals outside Iraq and Syria is already becoming an unprecedented global phenomenon.

• In the last seven days, more than 80 people have been arrested for Islamic State-related offenses, from Florida to Malaysia, Morocco to Brazil.


Law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world are struggling to grapple with the growing threat of terror attacks inspired by the so-called Islamic State, carried out by individuals with little to no affiliation to—or direction from—the terror group. At the same time, as the Islamic State’s territorial prospects continue to worsen in Syria and Iraq, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are working tirelessly to detect and disrupt returning foreign fighters. While both of these threats pose unique challenges, they do not exist in parallel. Rather, the intersection of Islamic State-inspired individuals and hardened Islamic State fighters returning to their home countries combine to generate a threat that is unprecedented in its scope and scale.

During a July 27 speech, FBI Director James Comey warned of what he called ‘a terrorist diaspora like we’ve never seen before,’ as an unknowable number of Islamic State foreign fighters may try to return home. The ability of governments to consistently detect and prevent these individuals from traveling back from Syria and Iraq has proven to be inadequate, most pointedly by the undisrupted round-trip travel of several of the November 2015 Paris attackers.

The Islamic State has long planned to carry out directed external attacks such as those seen in Paris and Brussels. It has dispatched an unknown number of people with sufficient levels of training and combat experience to conduct mass-casualty attacks. As the situation in Syria and Iraq grows more negative, the Islamic State could send more fighters to attack cities and towns far from Raqqa or Mosul. As the group continues to lose territory, foreign fighters will likely begin to flee on their own or in small groups. The five-year-old Syrian civil war has seen foreign militants flock to the conflict on an unprecedented historical scale. Though there is uncertainty as to how many returning foreign fighters might attempt to conduct terror attacks at home, the sheer numbers create a near certainty that some will. 

Even without the thousands of Islamic State fighters still in Iraq and Syria, there appears to be no shortage of people willing to kill for the Islamic State elsewhere. In the last week alone, at least 80 people have been arrested in numerous countries for Islamic State-related offenses. The range of countries and offenses underscore the breadth of the challenge. On July 27, Morocco announced the arrest of 52 people suspected of belonging to an Islamic State cell that intended to conduct attacks on government and tourist locations. The relative proximity to Libya, as well as a serious indigenous terror threat, is a real concern for Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. 

On July 23, Malaysian officials announced the arrest of 14 people for Islamic State-related offenses. The arrests occurred after a series of raids between July 14 to July 20. On July 25, Brazilian officials announced the arrest of the twelfth suspect involved in a cell that had allegedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. On July 22, the FBI announced the arrest of three individuals for conspiring to join and materially support the Islamic State; one individual was arrested at the airport on his way to Syria. Even in the face of setbacks in Syria and Iraq, as long as the group holds on to some territory, it will continue to serve as a physical destination for people intent on joining. In India, an aide to a provocative cleric was arrested on July 21 under suspicion of recruiting for the Islamic State; the investigation began after the July 2 attack in Bangladesh that killed 20 people.

Both the threat of returning foreign fighters and the spread of existing indigenous terror cells will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. In addition, the threat of individuals answering the group’s call for terror will increase as well, presenting law enforcement and intelligence services around the world with enormous immediate and long-term challenges.


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