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Islamic State May Have Been 'Defeated' In the Middle East, It Remains a Potent Danger to Europe

By Soeren Kern

December 2, 2019

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the November 29 Jihadi attack at London Bridge, where a Pakistani Islamist stabbed two people to death and injured three others. The suspect, 28-year-old Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist, was subsequently shot dead by police.

Khan, from Stoke-on-Trent, was convicted in February 2012 of plotting — on behalf of al-Qaeda — Jihadi attacks against the London Stock Exchange and pubs in Stoke, in addition to setting up a Jihadi training camp in Pakistan. He was sentenced to an "indeterminate sentence," meaning that he could have been kept in prison beyond his original minimum term of eight years due to the danger he posed to national security.

In April 2013, however, the Court of Appeal revised that sentence with a fixed term of eight years. Khan, a student of the Islamist extremist Anjem Choudary, who co-founded the now banned Al-Muhajiroun group, was released from prison in December 2018, before the end of his sentence, after agreeing to wear an electronic tag.

Khan's early release and subsequent attack prompted a row between the Conservatives and Labour over the practice of reducing prison terms for violent offenders. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that people convicted of terrorism offenses should not be allowed out of prison early:

"I think that the practice of automatic, early release where you cut a sentence in half and let really serious, violent offenders out early simply isn't working, and you've some very good evidence of how that isn't working, I am afraid, with this case."

Meanwhile, German authorities have arrested three suspected members of the Islamic State who were allegedly planning an attack with explosives and firearms in the Frankfurt Rhine-Main area. Prosecutors said that the men had wanted to kill as many "infidels" as possible.

This plot — and others like it that have been foiled in recent months — comes as the Turkish government has started repatriating European Jihadis who fought with Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Observers warn that while the Islamic State may have been "defeated" in the Middle East, it remains a potent danger to Europe.

On November 12, more than 150 German police officers raided three apartments in Offenbach and arrested a 24-year-old Macedonian-German and two Turkish citizens aged 21 and 22. Frankfurt Prosecutor Nadja Niesen said that the 24-year-old was the main suspect:

"The men are accused of plotting to commit a religiously-motivated crime in the Rhine-Main area by means of explosives or firearms to kill as many so-called infidels as possible.

"We have evidence that the 24-year-old has already procured chemicals to make explosives and that he continued to try over the internet to obtain firearms. We have secured various materials and equipment for making explosives."

A week later, on November 19, German police arrested a 26-year-old Syrian Jihadi at his apartment in the Schöneberg district of Berlin. The man, who had been in Germany since 2014, was employed at a Berlin primary school as a cleaner. He had been under surveillance for at least three months after German authorities received a tipoff from a "friendly foreign intelligence service." Police said that the man had acquired chemicals to produce explosives to "kill as many people as possible."

The plots in Frankfurt and Berlin are, respectively, the eighth and ninth Jihadi attacks that German police have foiled in the country since a rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia murdered 12 people by ramming a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016.

Germany's security challenge is about to increase yet further. On November 4, Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu announced that Turkey would begin repatriating captured Islamic State fighters back to their countries of origin — even if their European citizenship has been revoked:

"We will send back those in our hands, but the world has come up with a new method now: revoking their citizenships. They are saying they should be tried where they have been caught. This is a new form of international law, I guess. It is not possible to accept this. We will send back Daesh (Islamic State) members in our hands to their own countries whether their citizenships are revoked or not."

At least 1,200 Islamic State fighters, including many from Western countries, are being held in Turkish prisons. Another 287 Jihadis from at least 20 different countries have been captured by Turkish forces since the start of an offensive that began on October 9 against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north-eastern Syria.

Approximately 100 German Islamic State supporters are believed to be in custody in Turkey, according to the German news agency, Deutsche Presse-Agentur. The German Interior Ministry said that although the identity of the Jihadis being held by Turkey was not known, they could not be denied entry to Germany if they indeed were German citizens.

A German government spokesman, Armin Schuster, insisted that the German returnees were not "serious cases" and warned against "media-fueled hysteria." He explained: "They did not take part in the fighting. They won't be sent to prison, but they must be kept under surveillance."

On November 11, Turkey officially began repatriating Islamic State detainees to the West by deporting a German, an American and a Dane.

On November 14, Turkey repatriated another eight Islamic State fighters: seven Germans and one Briton. One man, a German-Iraqi father of a family of seven named Kanan B., was accused by Turkey of being a member of the Islamic State. German authorities allowed the man and his family to return to their home in Lower Saxony. They said that although he is a member of the Islamist Salafist movement, they do not believe that he ever joined the Islamic State.

On November 15, two female Jihadis arrived in Frankfurt on a flight from Istanbul. German authorities arrested a 21-year-old Nasim A., whose origins are Somali. She moved from Germany to Syria as a minor in 2014 and, according to German investigators, married a Jihadi fighter in late 2015. German authorities reportedly want to charge her with the offense of supporting the Islamic State. The other woman, 27-year-old Heida R. from Lower Hesse, had her fingerprints taken, but was released because she reportedly attended a deradicalization program.

Meanwhile, on November 7, Germany's Higher Administrative Court (OVG) in Berlin-Brandenburg ruled that Germany must repatriate three children and their Islamic State-affiliated mother. The German Foreign Ministry had said that it was prepared to repatriate the children, but, citing risks to national security, it refused to bring back the mother. The woman entered an Islamic State-controlled part of Syria in 2014 with the two older children; the third child was born there. In its ruling, the OVG said the children — now aged 8, 7 and 2 — were traumatized and would need their mother after being repatriated from the Kurdish-run Al-Hawl detention camp in northern Syria.

German opposition parties have been critical of the government's failure to face the problem of Jihadi repatriations sooner. The deputy leader of the Free Democratic Party (FDP), Stephan Thomae, said that Berlin had little choice but to accept German citizens deported by another country:

"The government kept its head in the sand for a long time and didn't want to have anything to do with these cases. That is coming back to bite them now. It would have been better if the government had contacted Turkey much earlier to discuss such processes."

The Secretary General of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), Jürgen Stock, warned that Europe faces a new wave of Islamic terrorism as radicalized individuals return to the continent:

"We could soon be facing a second wave of other Islamic State linked or radicalized individuals that you might call Isis 2.0.

"A lot of these are suspected terrorists or those who are linked to terrorist groups as supporters who are facing maybe two to five years in jail. Because they were not convicted of a concrete terrorist attack but only support for terrorist activities, their sentences are perhaps not so heavy.

"In many parts of the world, in Europe but also Asia, this generation of early supporters will be released in the next couple of years, and they may again be part of a terrorist group or those supporting terrorist activities."


Approximately 320 people from Austria are known to have traveled to the war zones of Syria and Iraq, according to the Austrian Interior Ministry. Of those, 93 have returned to Austria; 58 were most likely killed. More than 100 so-called foreign fighters from Austria are believed still to be in the Middle East.

On October 18, a court in Graz sentenced four Turkish Jihadis to prison terms ranging from five months to seven years for recruiting for the Islamic State. The men were all members of a mosque in Linz. Prosecutors explained how mosques across Austria are working together in their support for the Islamic State. "We must stop with false tolerance," said the Graz prosecutor. "Islamism supplants the rule of law if we are not careful. Do not be afraid to impose severe punishments."


Danish authorities estimate that at least 158 people from Denmark have joined Jihadi groups in Syria or Iraq; about 27 remain in the conflict zone. On October 14, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced fast-tracking legislation that would strip Danish nationality from people with dual citizenship who have gone abroad to fight for Jihadi groups such as the Islamic State:

"These are people who have turned their backs on Denmark and fought with violence against our democracy and freedom. They pose a threat to our security. They are unwanted in Denmark."

On November 17, Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said that Denmark would withhold consular assistance to citizens who travelled abroad to fight for extremist groups:

"We owe absolutely nothing to foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State. This is why we are now taking measures against foreign fighters accessing consular assistance by the foreign ministry and Danish representations abroad."


France has approximately 200 adult nationals and 300 children currently in Kurdish-controlled camps and prisons in northern Syria. The French government has said that Islamic State fighters should be judged as close as possible to where they committed their crimes. Only a handful of them, mostly orphans, have been repatriated.

On October 17, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian travelled to Iraq to convince the government in Baghdad to prosecute French Jihadis after their transfer from Syria. The Iraqi government rejected that request.

On October 19, a French anti-terrorism judge, David De Pas, urged the French government to repatriate French Jihadis or "risk creating an infernal cycle." In an interview with the AFP, he explained:

"The geopolitical instability of the region and the porosity of what is left of the Kurdish camps leave two problems: on the one hand, the uncontrolled migration of Jihadis towards Europe with the risk of attacks by highly ideologized people; and on the other hand, the reconstitution of particularly seasoned and determined combatant terrorist groups in the region.

"From my point of view, it is better to know that these people are prosecuted in France rather than leaving them in the wilderness. How can we protect ourselves if we do not have them in custody? The best method is to judge and control them.

"If in 15, 20, 30 years, these people still pose a threat when leaving prison, they will remain under the control of the intelligence and justice services. If they are tried in Iraq, we will not be able to monitor them when they leave prison. I would feel responsible for not saying it."

Other recent Islamist-related cases in France include:

October 3. Mickaël Harpon, a 45-year-old convert to Islam and IT specialist at Paris police headquarters, killed four of his colleagues during a 30-minute stabbing spree before he was shot dead by another officer. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said that Harpon, who held a top-level security clearance, had "never shown any warning sign." It was later revealed that Harpon had caused alarm among his colleagues as far back as 2015, when he defended the Jihadi attack on the newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Anti-terror prosecutor Jean-Francois Ricard subsequently revealed that Harpon adhered to "a radical vision of Islam" and that he had been in contact with adherents of Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam.

October 10. French journalist Clément Weill-Raynal was threatened with disciplinary action by his superiors at France Télévisions for "prematurely reporting" that the October 3 Jihadi attack at Paris police headquarters could have been "an act motivated by radical Islam." Weill-Raynal, one of the first journalists to arrive at the scene of the search of the killer's home in Gonesse, was the first to reveal on air that the killer had "converted to Islam." His managers criticized his "lack of control" and threatened punish him. Weill-Raynal said: "I mentioned a hypothesis and today I am told about professional misconduct. It is Kafkaesque."

October 14. Five members of an all-female Islamic State Jihadi cell were sentenced to between five and 30 years in prison over a failed attempt to detonate a car bomb outside the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in November 2016.

October 17. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner revealed that French intelligence services had arrested a man for planning a Jihadi attack inspired by airplane attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001. He added that there had been 60 attempted Jihadi attacks in France since 2013.

October 28. In Paris, a man shouted "Allahu Akbar!" ("Allah is the greatest!") at the Grand Re, the largest movie theatre in Europe, during a screening of the American film "Joker." A witness said that the man "put his hands on his chest and began shouting 'Allahu Akbar!'" The witness continued: "Some people panicked and ran to the exits, but the doors were blocked. Some were crying. A mother was looking for her daughter." Another witness said, "The guy, who was sitting in the 10th row, started screaming and muttering in Arabic. Someone said that he had a weapon. There was total panic. These are images that I will not forget. People climbed over their seats. There were women on the floor and others were stepping over them."

October 30. Paris Police Prefect Didier Lallement revealed that seven police officers suspected of Islamic radicalization have had their weapons confiscated since the October 3 Jihadi attack at Paris police headquarters. He said that a total of 33 police officers were being investigated for Islamic radicalization.


Approximately 140 Italian citizens or residents have travelled to fight in war zones in the Middle East, according to official estimates, and 26 have returned to Italy. Although the numbers are low in comparison to France and other European countries, Italy's geographic location makes it vulnerable to Jihadis who cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter Europe posing as refugees.

In April 2019, the Italian Interior Ministry issued a directive aimed at dealing with Jihadis arriving from Libya. The measures included increased border controls. The move came after Libyan Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq warned that 400 Islamic State fighters held in Tripoli and Misrata were poised to flee to Italy.

In September, Interpol revealed that during a six-week operation, it had detected more than a dozen suspected "foreign terrorist fighters" crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

Other recent Islamist-related cases in Italy include:

November 20. The Genoa Assize Court of Appeal confirmed a reduced prison sentence for Nabil Benamir, a 31-year-old Moroccan would-be Islamic State suicide bomber. Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of eight years and eight months; the appeals court confirmed a reduced sentence of five years and ten months handed down in November 2018. Benamir, a so-called lone wolf living in Italy illegally, was arrested in Genoa in December 2017 on charges of terrorism after he was heard, on an intercepted cellphone call, vowing to carry out a suicide attack. He is being held at a the high-security prison on the Italian island of Sardinia.

November 7. An 11-year-old boy who was taken to Syria by his Jihadi mother when he was six was returned to Italy after being found at the Al-Hawl detention camp in northern Syria. In December 2014, the mother, an Albanian, left behind her husband and her two other children at the family home in Barzago to join the Islamic State. She is believed to have died in Syria.

August 21. Salma Bencharki, the wife of Abderrahim Moutaharrik, a Moroccan professional kickboxer who was jailed in 2017 over alleged links to the Islamic State, was deported from Italy to Morocco. An Italian court had sentenced the man and his wife to six and five years in prison, respectively. They were arrested in April 2016 for planning to leave for Syria with their children to join the Islamic State. The court suspended the couple's custody of their two children. Moutaharrik, who was heard in wiretapped conversations that he would attack the Vatican, had his Italian citizenship revoked.

June 28. Samir Bougana, a 25-year-old Italian Jihadi with Moroccan roots was brought back to Italy after being arrested in Syria. He allegedly first fought with militias close to al-Qaeda and then with the Islamic State. Bougana, who was born near Brescia and lived in Italy until he was 16 before moving to Germany with his family, surrendered to Kurdish-Syrian forces in August 2018.


At least 55 Islamic State Jihadis from the Netherlands and another 90 children with Dutch parents are in northern Syria, according to the Dutch intelligence agency AVID.

In 2017, the Netherlands enacted a law that allowed the state to revoke Dutch citizenship for people who joined the Islamic State. Since then, the Netherlands has revoked the Dutch nationality of 11 Jihadis and is considering the same for 100 others, according to the Reuters news agency.

Application of the Dutch law has been inconsistent. On September 23, for instance, the Council of State (Raad van State) restored Dutch nationality to five Moroccan Jihadis who had lost it after joining the Islamic State.

On September 16, however, a court in The Hague upheld the revocation of Dutch nationality of a Moroccan man who was convicted of committing terrorist crimes in Syria. He was prohibited from re-entering the Netherlands for ten years.

October 25. Dutch police arrested a 29-year-old Syrian alleged former commander of the Ahrar al-Sham Jihadi group on suspicion of having committed war crimes. The unnamed man was arrested in a centre for asylum seekers in Ter Apel, a village in the northern Netherlands. He had registered as an asylum seeker in Germany in late 2015 but was thought to have returned to Syria. He is said to have recorded videos of himself armed with a machine gun and posing with and kicking the dead bodies of enemy fighters. Some of those videos were posted to YouTube. The Ahrar al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, has fought both with and against the Islamic State.

November 11. A court in The Hague ruled that the Netherlands must actively help repatriate the young children of women who joined Islamic State in Syria. The mothers themselves, however, do not need to be accepted back in the Netherlands, the court said. Lawyers for 23 women from the Netherlands who joined the Islamic State had asked a judge to order the state to repatriate them and their 56 children from camps in Syria.

Judge Hans Vetter said that while the women were not required to be repatriated, the state must make "all possible efforts" to return the children, who have Dutch nationality and are under 12 years old. "The children cannot be held responsible for the actions of their parents," the court said in a statement. "The children are victims of the actions of their parents."


About 100 Norwegian citizens or residents are believed to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist Islamist groups, according to the Norwegian Interior Ministry. Approximately 20 are still in the Middle East.

In May 2019, the Norwegian Justice Ministry issued a directive preventing foreign nationals with Norwegian residency and who are associated with the Islamic State from returning to Norway. "These are people who pose a serious security threat to our lives and our values," Justice Minister Jøran Kallmyr said. "They will not return with Norwegian help."

Kallmyr said that while orphaned Norwegian children of Islamic State fighters would be allowed to return, the government will withdraw the residence permits of those who have travelled from Norway to join the Islamic State.

On September 13, Kallmyr said that 15 Islamic State Jihadis with Norwegian residency permits have been permanently expelled from Norway:

"These are mainly Islamic State fighters and mothers who have traveled out of our country to participate in the Islamic State. They have been abroad for more than two years after leaving Norway. There is an opening in the asylum rules so that the residence permit can be withdrawn. If they enter the Schengen area, they will be arrested for violating the Immigration Act."


Of the approximately 235 Spanish Jihadis who travelled to Syria, around 50 have returned, according to Spain's leading terrorism analyst, Fernando Reinares. At least 57 are imprisoned in Syria, according to Iraqi security forces quoted by El Confidencial.

Recent Islamist-related cases in Spain include:

November 26. Police in Tenerife arrested a 26-year-old Jihadi from Mauritania who was attempting to acquire homemade explosives, including TATP, an explosive known as the "Mother of Satan."

November 22. A Spanish-Moroccan businessman named Nourdine Ch. was arrested in Majorca for supporting the Islamic State.

November 6. A 71-year-old Iraqi was arrested in Madrid for channeling "large amounts of money" to the Islamic State.

October 5. A 23-year-old Spanish-born Moroccan was arrested in Madrid for publishing Spanish-language Jihadi videos and also for procuring chemicals to build explosives devices.

September 21. A 51-year-old Moroccan man was arrested in Algeciras for allegedly belonging to the Islamic State.

August 30. A 25-year-old Moroccan man was arrested in Alicante for allegedly belonging to the Islamic State.

August 2. A 35-year-old Spanish convert to Islam was arrested in Gran Canaria for allegedly photographing the headquarters of an LGTBI association on the island. The detainee had maintained contact with other converts who were arrested in Colombia and Argentina in 2018 based on information provided by Spanish police.

June 18. Ten Jihadis were arrested in Madrid for allegedly financing the Islamic State.

April 17. Zouhair el Bouhdidi, a 23-year-old student at the University of Seville, was arrested in Morocco on charges of plotting a massacre in Seville on behalf of the Islamic State. The man, who was found to possess a large amount of explosives, was allegedly planning to attack Holy Week festivities in Seville.


At least 93 Jihadis have travelled from Switzerland to conflict zones, according to the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service. Of these, 31 have a Swiss passport and 18 are dual nationals.

Recent Islamist-related cases in Switzerland include:

September 11. The State Secretariat for Migration (SEM) revoked the Swiss citizenship from a dual national who had been sentenced to several years in prison for recruiting fighters for the Islamic State. Swiss authorities did not release the other nationality of the man. SEM said that this was the first time that it has stripped the nationality of a Swiss Jihadi.

October 29. More than 100 police officers in the cantons of Bern, Schaffhausen and Zurich raided the homes of 11 Jihadis suspected of being members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Six of the individuals were adults, including one returning Jihadi already been tried for ties to the Islamic State, according to the Office of the Attorney General. The other five are youths.

October 21. The Federal Criminal Court extended the pre-trial detention of a man accused of attempted murder and supporting the Islamic State. The man, a citizen of the Canton of Vaud, was arrested in June 2017 police, who raided his home in Lausanne, found a handbook for urban guerrilla warfare, a knife, a bottle containing petrol and a Koran. While in detention, the defendant attacked a prison employee and shouted "Allahu Akbar" while threatening to kill him.

United Kingdom

An estimated 850 British Jihadis have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State, according to an estimate by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King's College London. Approximately 400 British Jihadis have returned to Britain, and around 250 to 300 are still in Syria. The others are presumed to have died on the battlefields.

The British government has resisted the repatriation of its Jihadis. It said that they should face justice in the countries where their crimes were committed, not be returned home to face trial in the UK. In a written statement, a spokesperson for the British Foreign Office said:

"Our priority is the safety and security of the UK and the people who live here.

"Those who have fought for or supported Daesh [Islamic State] should wherever possible face justice for their crimes in the most appropriate jurisdiction, which will often be in the region where their offences have been committed.

"We are working closely with international partners to address issues associated with foreign terrorist fighters, including the pursuit of justice against participants in terrorism overseas."

Several Jihadis have been stripped of their British citizenship, including Jack Letts, who was raised in Oxfordshire by British and Canadian parents. He left home to join the Islamic State five years ago but has been held a prisoner in Syria since 2017. Canada, where Letts qualifies for a passport through his father, accused the British government of "offloading its responsibilities."

International law forbids people from being rendered stateless, but British law allows the UK to strip terror suspects abroad of their citizenship if they are a dual national or able to obtain citizenship of another country.

Other recent Islamist-related cases in Britain include:

November 17. Mamun Rashid, a 26-year-old man from East London, was arrested after arriving in London on a flight from Turkey. He was charged with preparation of terrorist acts and will appear at Westminster Magistrates' Court. Turkish authorities said that Rashid was a member of the Islamic State.

October 22. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick revealed that police in London have foiled 16 Jihadi plots during the past two years.

October 16. Safiyya Amira Shaikh, a 36-year-old female Jihadi from Hayes, Middlesex, was charged with terrorism offenses for attempting to bomb a London hotel as well as St. Paul's Cathedral. She was arrested on October 10 after reconnoitering the hotel and church and preparing the words of a pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State.

October 1. Aseel Muthana, a 22-year-old who worked as an ice cream seller in Cardiff before he joined the Islamic State, said that he wants to return to the UK. ITV television found Muthana, who was presumed dead, at a secret prison in northern Syria. "Back then when I first came to ISIS, you have to understand I came way before the caliphate was pronounced," he said. "Before all of these beheading videos, before all of the burnings happened, before any of that stuff. We came when ISIS propaganda and ISIS media was all about helping the poor, helping the Syrian people." Muthana's mother urged the British government to allow him back into the UK: "My little boy went seduced and brainwashed with ideas that were not his. Have compassion for our situation."

Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.

Original Headline: Islamic State Alive and Well in Europe

Source: The Gatestone Institute