Prison releases of 1,000 ISIS returnees in 2020 pose fresh security challenge

Prison releases of 1,000 ISIS returnees in 2020 pose fresh security challenge
Prison releases of 1,000 ISIS returnees in 2020 pose fresh security challenge

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The threat from ISIS will be bolstered by the release of 1,000 of its returned fighters from European prisons over the course of 2020, the United Nations’ chief analyst of the ISIS threat has told The National.

Efforts to reform European returnees from the ISIS battlefields through official deradicalisation programmes are largely seen by officials as having failed to change the outlook of members of the extremist group.

Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former British ambassador to Yemen who now serves as coordinator of the UN's sanctions monitoring team, told The National that the current coronavirus crisis was a hiatus for ISIS but the group could emerge as a more dynamic force in a variety of ways.

While before the Covid-19 health crisis ISIS had the “smell of death” from a succession of defeats, Mr Fitton-Brown warned that in its Iraq and Syria heartlands it could already seen to be “growing new confidence and becoming bolder”.

Though the most recent UN report from his panel in January concluded that ISIS had not regenerated its external operational planning capability, the threat it poses in Europe and fragile states like Afghanistan would be strengthened by prisoner releases going forward, Mr Fitton-Brown revealed.

Recalling the attacks perpetrated in France and Britain in recent months, Mr Fitton-Brown said returnees were coming out of “short-term incarceration” with the same frame of mind that they had when they entered the jails.

“It is a serious worry,” he said. “ The truth of the matter is that they are not very effective in Europe. They are trying their best but deradicalisation programmes are not easy, straightforward things.”

While some of the most effective deradicalisation regimes involve a state-designed form of religious teaching, the best European approaches often involved more labour-intensive remedies like segregation and avoidance of over-crowding.

“A lot of professionals have told me how difficult it is in prisons due to the challenges they pose such as overcrowding issues,” he said.

Attacks like those carried out in London by freed prisoners Sudesh Amman in February and Usman Khan last November could be emulated by newly released ISIS members. “The two terror attacks in the UK show this,” he said.

Europe’s security is already threatened by a high number of terrorist prisoners who may not have travelled to the ISIS footholds but are also due to leave prison soon.

“It is made more problematic by the release of extremists and terrorists who are not foreign fighters. It makes the figure for the number being released significantly higher. It begs the question of the effectiveness of deradicalisation programmes.”

The regrouping of extremist network in the wake of its defeat at the hands of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS certainly amounts to a reason not to disband the 82 nation effort, even as the nature of the threat shifts.

“It's difficult sustaining a united front as the military campaign has been won but the wider counter-terrorism campaign is not yet won” he said.

The underlying social and economic factors that push recruitment to ISIS and a regenerating Al Qaeda brand in some regions are likely to be compounded by the fallout from Covid-19, he added. The IMF and other forecasters are predicting a severe downturn in global growth as a result of the crisis.

On that basis the task of undermining the extremist groups and their messaging becomes harder across the globe.

Updated: May 6, 2020 10:31 PM

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