“I had seen with my own eyes what ISIS had done,” said the Brussels native, describing the time when he used a nom de guerre and lived in an Islamic State enclave in northern Syria. He spoke on the condition that his real name not be published, fearing reprisals from Islamic State loyalists. Of all the returnees from Syria the Belgian has met since coming home, most “do not want to have anything to do with the Islamic State,” he said.
His words, echoed by other returnees in Europe, are cause for cautious optimism across a continent that saw thousands of citizens travel to the Middle East to join the group. As recently as two years ago, European officials were bracing for new waves of terrorist attacks as young men and women left the group’s self-declared caliphate to return home, often ending up in prisons crowded with other Islamists.
Now, scholarly studies are beginning to confirm what some law enforcement officials had observed privately: Despite initial fears, an overwhelming majority of the returnees appear to be shunning extremist causes so far, and many avowedly reject the Islamic State and its violent tactics.
“A number of signs point to disillusionment among returning fighters and released offenders,” said Thomas Renard, a Belgian terrorism researcher and author of a forthcoming study on prison radicalization. “They don’t seem to be reconnecting to their previous networks or returning to violent extremist activities. We are seeing reports from the security services that confirm this.”
The trend, if it continues, is genuinely good news for a region that experienced a string of deadly bombings and shootings by Islamic State supporters beginning in 2015. Officials say there have been no Islamic State-directed attacks on European soil since 2017, and the number of overall incidents linked to Islamist groups, including “lone-wolf” attacks, has fallen sharply.
And yet, despite the relative quiet, European officials worry that the gains may be fragile. In other parts of the world, the momentum appears to be shifting in the Islamists’ favor. The Islamic State is gaining strength in Iraq and Syria, as measured by the number and scale of terrorist attacks in recent months in its former strongholds. Across Africa, extremist militias are surging, with groups aligned with both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State vying for control over large swaths of rural territory from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel.
A restored caliphate — or the emergence of a charismatic new leader — could again inspire global followers just as the Islamic State did, including some who previously renounced violence, officials and terrorism experts say. A prolonged economic downturn stemming from the coronavirus pandemic will only make it easier for violent groups to win recruits, the officials said.
“We are not naive,” said a Middle Eastern counterterrorism official whose government monitors hundreds of citizens who joined the caliphate and are now home again. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal security assessments, said many of his country’s returning fighters, like those in Europe, claim “they no longer want to be part of ISIS, and that they understood they made a mistake.”
But some “could tomorrow join a new group or would fall for a new ISIS,” the official said, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “You can never be 100 percent certain.”
Disengaging from extremism
The challenge of dealing with Islamic State returnees looms larger in Belgium than in most European countries. The small, polyglot nation of 11.5 million had the highest per capita rate of immigration to Iraq and Syria in all of Europe, with about 500 of its citizens joining Islamist militant groups in the region between 2013 and 2016.
On March 22, 2016, a terrorist cell loyal to the Islamic State detonated three bombs at a Brussels subway station and at the city’s international airport, killing 32 people and awakening leaders to the scale of the terrorist threat facing the country. Parliament quickly passed tough new laws that led to the incarceration of scores of Belgian men and women returning from the Middle East, regardless of whether they had served as fighters. Returnees who were regarded as particularly dangerous were placed in a special units for extremists — called CelEx — in Belgium’s largest prisons.
Terrorism experts feared that the returning Islamist militants would radicalize other inmates, touching off fresh waves of violence. So far, however, the threat has failed to materialize. Instead, Belgium’s efforts at rehabilitation have shown early signs of success.
Inmates who already have completed sentences have largely remained peaceful, and the number of prisoners in CelEx units has steadily declined, according to a forthcoming study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London.
Out of 368 inmates who were released after serving time in CelEx units between 2012 and early this year, none have been involved directly in a terrorist attack or plot, the report found. Belgian officials, citing extensive interviews with former detainees, found that 84 percent of male returnees from the Middle East and 95 percent of the women “have been showing signs of disengagement” from extremist ideology since their return. Of those still in prison, about half had made a similar transition.
“There are some signs that radicalization in prison may be either slowing down, or at least becoming more latent,” said the report, an advance copy of which was provided to The Washington Post. “In the post-caliphate era, the jihadi narrative has become somewhat less attractive to vulnerable inmates. There are also less proactive recruiters in prison.”
The study urged caution, noting that deradicalization is a “long and hazy process, extremely difficult to measure.” Belgian officials have implemented an aggressive outreach program for former inmates that includes extensive interaction with police, counselors and social workers to help ensure successful reintegration into Belgian society.
Renard, the report’s author, noted that a small minority of former CelEx inmates appeared to retain extremist views and would continue to merit close monitoring by police. But the worries about large contingents of radicalized youths waging jihad in Belgium have receded, he said.
“In a way, we have moved back to something that is more manageable: a smaller number of cases to be managed and dealt with,” Renard said. “This is not to say that the terrorist threat is disappearing. Most people coming out of prison will not be a threat. But some will.”
Belgium’s successes so far are partly a result of the Islamic State’s failures. The group’s 2014 declaration of a new Islamic caliphate in the Middle East was the event that initially drew thousands of European and North American Muslims to Iraq and Syria.
But beginning in 2015, the extremist group lost battle after battle to the U.S.-led military coalition, culminating in the destruction of the Islamic State’s last Syrian stronghold in early 2019. As the idea of a physical caliphate faded, enthusiasm for the project also ebbed among some of the early supporters.
Other former supporters of the Islamic State have become disillusioned by the terrorist group’s brutal tactics, which included videotaped executions as well as the systematic enslavement and rape of female captives. Abu Aicha, the Brussels man who traveled to Syria, said he was ready to come home after just three months of living in an Islamic State-controlled region near Aleppo. After telling his local commander he was going to Turkey to visit his wife, he left Syria, never to return. His short career as a jihadist eventually led to a conviction and time in prison, where he met other inmates whose experiences had turned them against the Islamic State.
“People disliked how ISIS was just killing people who had not agreed with them, and how they went into mosques and slaughtered people,” he said.
Yet the man also believed that at least some of his former cellmates could again be lured away by extremist causes. “There are many in prison who I believe would be susceptible to something new,” he said. “They are waiting for a new group or hero figure.”
The prospect of such a group emerging has increased in recent months, counterterrorism officials say. Despite the loss of the caliphate, the Islamic State has not been defeated, but remains active in Iraq and Syria and across a network of regional affiliates from North Africa to Southeast Asia.
A new analysis of terrorist attacks linked to the Islamic State shows a steady rise in the number of incidents in both Iraq and Syria, after a decline in violence last year. The group carried out 566 attacks inside Iraq alone during the first three months of 2020, compared with 292 during the same period last year. The recent tempo of violence is similar to what officials saw in 2012, when the group was gaining momentum ahead of its military breakout across eastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a co-author of the study, published by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.
The group’s recovery is not entirely surprising. Islamic State leaders laid the groundwork for a terrorism campaign long before the caliphate’s fall by dispersing fighters and pre-positioning weapons, explosives and supplies, Knights said in presenting his findings in late May.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of caches in caves” scattered across Iraq, Knights said. “Each is like an insurgency in a box.”
While the group is not nearly strong enough to claim and hold territory as it did in 2014, it is clearly benefiting from political and economic instability in both Iraq and Syria, terrorism experts say. Similar conditions prevail in parts of West Africa, where local Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates had already begun to exercise de facto control over rural villages in areas where local governance has traditionally been weak.
Now, with much of the world preoccupied by a global contagion and economic turmoil, the Islamist groups could see potential for realizing their ambitions on a much shorter timetable, said a senior Western counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security assessments.
“Security forces overseas are focused on covid-19,” the official said. “This might relieve pressure on these groups and create space for them to reconstitute. We are very concerned about that.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Belgium as the European country with the highest number of citizens per capita to join the Islamic State. While Belgium ranked highest among Western European nations, Bosnia and Kosovo had proportionally higher numbers of their citizens join the terrorist group.