In recent years, France has seen itself rise to the top of the target list for jihadi violence against the ‘far enemy,’ and has faced attempted attacks on a far greater scale than any of its European neighbours. These attacks have been wide-ranging with bombs, gun and knife attacks, and through the weaponsation of vehichles. The country’s response has been unprecedented, with Operation Sentinalle mobilising 7,000 soldiers around the country.
But with ISIS losing swathes of territory across Iraq and Syria, causing many French militants to make their way home, how does this impact the challenge facing the country?
France’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, said earlier this week that the country has seen 271 jihadis return from Iraq and Syria, who are all subject to investigation by public prosecutors. This figure includes 217 adults, 20 per cent of whom are females, and 54 minors. While it is difficult to precisely measure, over 700 French nationals are estimated to have fought for ISIS in Iraq and Syria and, like many other countries, France is faced with the policy challenge of how to deal with a growing stream of returnees.
Those that return home leave the ‘caliphate’ for multiple reasons, with the current loss of territory cited as a key factor. This week the US special envoy for the coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, outlined the damage caused to the group. He stated ISIS has lost 27,000 square miles of the area it once held in Iraq and Syria, leaving the group with only 22 per cent of its territorial high water mark in Iraq, and 42 per cent in Syria. McGurk also asserted that the entire Syrian-Turkish border was secured and that ISIS militants could no longer return to attack Europe and elsewhere. McGurk stated that around 2,000 ISIS fighters remain in Raqqa, and that the Syrian Defence Force (SDF) has cleared about 45 per cent of the city. Coalition forces reportedly surround the area, ensuring ISIS fighters cannot escape. The US special envoy described a jihadi group that is nigh on defeated, nearing annihilation.
As ISIS loses ground, some members have fled, desperate to return to their home countries as they become dissatisfied and disenfranchised. However, not all these returning militants are intending to peacefully return to normality.
According to a militant captured by Kurdish forces in Syria, an ISIS unit called the al-Kharsa Brigade has long been training would-be suicide bombers to commit attacks on targets in Europe. The unit reportedly puts militants through an arduous seven-month training programme from which only a quarter graduate. Security officials have said that perpetrators of attacks in both Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016 were trained in such a unit, preparing them for the specific trials of their respective assaults.
In May, Interpol gave security services in Europe a list of 173 ISIS militants it believes have been trained to commit attacks in the continent. While there is no evidence to suggest these militants or those in the al-Kharsa Brigade have already entered Europe, clearly ISIS intends to strike. Interpol's figure only begins to reveal the scale of the challenge faced by security services across Europe and further afield.
Importantly, the threat to France is not solely from returnees. The encirclement of Raqqa and the strength of the Syrian-Turkish border will not prevent those who are already in Europe from committing attacks. The last three ISIS-related attacks in the UK were committed by people who did not train inside the ‘caliphate,’ but rather pledged allegiance and orchestrated the attack in situ. Four British men were jailed for life this month for planning a deadly terror attack using knives and explosives in the UK. While the likelihood of returnees surviving airstrikes and the journey home is low, the ideological appeal of extremist groups remains.
In the last week, several attempted attacks in France’s capital have served as reminders of the threat of home-grown terrorism. In an attempt to address the challenge of extremism, the French President Emmanuel Macron plans to tighten oversight of counter-terror intelligence units and bolster police powers beyond their current provision. There are plans to incorporate some current state-of-emergency legislation into ordinary law through a counter-terrorism bill that will be put before parliament in the coming months. There is also an increasing number of people being flagged under a preventative monitoring system for extreme behaviour, with over 18,500 individuals already being reported.
Recent events have reminded Europe of the complex nature of the ISIS threat. While McGurk's comments reiterate that the jihadi group is continually being pressured in the Levant, causing it to lose territory and manpower, it is clear the threat to Europe and further afield still remains. ISIS is evidently intent on striking abroad, and its track record shows that it is viable.