Travel for terrorist purposes
More than 5000 individuals emanating from the EU are believed to have travelled to conflict areas in Syria and Iraq. As was observed in 2015, individuals from Belgium, France, Germany and the UK account for the majority of this total. On a per capita basis, Belgium appears to have the highest numbers. In addition, more than 800 persons are believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq from the Western Balkan countries, predominantly joining IS. There is also likely to be a ‘dark number’ of travellers to and from Syria and Iraq that have not yet been detected. Turkey reported that, as of November 2016, it had approximately 7670 individuals from EU MS on a suspected FTF no-entry list. A number of countries, including the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Germany and Switzerland reported that, since the beginning of 2016, the flow of jihadists travelling to conflict zones abroad - especially Syria and Iraq - has apparently continued to decline. Nonetheless, Germany and Italy for example, maintain that the level of departures remains high or constant.
The sustained pressure facing IS in Syria and Iraq due to the air strikes and ground offensive of the anti-IS coalition is likely to be the main reason for the general decline in outgoing travellers. The air assaults have also targeted IS’s financial structures, which has led to decreased incomes for FTFs. Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult to cross the Turkish border to Syria. Neighbouring countries have improved their border security and, since IS does not control the border area anymore, it is now more difficult to reach the territory it does control. Furthermore, IS leadership and messaging has indicated that their sympathisers should no longer go to Syria and Iraq, but should instead join IS branches in other countries or focus on attacks in their homelands.
Attack planning against the EU and the West in general continues in Syria and Iraq. Groups including IS and al-Qaeda have both the intent and capability to mount complex, mass-casualty attacks. It is believed that there is not a lack of volunteers for such operations. The 2016 attacks in Brussels in March, then in Istanbul in June, appeared to demonstrate the ongoing effectiveness of IS’s external operations capability. The Paris and Brussels attacks again showed that terrorist networks directed from Syria can rely on the help of sympathisers in Europe who have never been to Syria themselves.
According to the Netherlands for example, it is possible that there are still dozens of IS operatives (attackers sent by IS, and their accomplices) in Europe. Italy reported concerns of potential sleeper cells from the external operations unit of IS or al-Qaeda operatives and affiliated organisations inspired by jihadist ideology.
Germany asserted that there is no doubt about the firm determination of all internationally focused jihadist groups to seize every opportunity to carry out an attack in a Western country, but that despite this determination, in recent years, the planning and execution of such attacks has shifted mainly to lone actors or small groups without direct links to an organisation - modifying the threat situation accordingly. Furthermore, Germany assessed that individuals who have either been prevented from travelling abroad or failed to travel for other reasons should be regarded as particularly dangerous in view of the fact that their ideological delusion and propensity for violence are strongest at the time of the planned departure.
Ongoing contact on social media between combatants in Syria/Iraq and ‘stay-at-home jihadists’ fuels the enduring potential threat posed by jihadist networks; now that leaving the country to take part in jihad has become more difficult, would-be attackers may indeed shift their focus to their countries of residence. IS also supports the interactions between some of its fighters in the region and individuals recruited back in the EU (for example, in the jihadist milieu in France) in order to carry out violent actions on home soil. These recruitments are made via encrypted social networks such as Telegram.
Several countries, including Italy and Switzerland, stated that one of the greatest risks to their domestic security is posed by lone actors or small groups, be they self-radicalised individuals or returning FTFs.