- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2017

European intelligence officials said Thursday they have yet to see the widely feared rush of Islamic State fighters returning from the Middle East, even as the terror group’s base in Iraq and Syria steadily shrinks.

Western intelligence analysts have been warning for months that many of the foreign terrorists to flocked to the Islamic State banner when it declared a “caliphate” will return home to carry out more traditional acts of terrorism once Islamic State loses its territorial base.

But ‘we have no evidence of a rising tide” of foreign fighters clamoring to get back into Europe or the West, Friedrich Grommes, head of the international terrorism and organized crime directorate for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, said Thursday.

Post-battle assessments from U.S.-backed coalition victories in northern Iraq’s Tal Afar and Mosul, which had been the Iraqi capital for the terror group show a majority of foreign fighters are choosing to bleed back into local populations rather than flee, Mr. Grommes explained. A similar dynamic is developing as the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies press in on Islamic State-held territory elsewhere in Syria.

There is evidence, however, that the wives and families of foreign fighters are joining the refugee flows from Iraq, Syria and the region overall into Germany and elsewhere in Europe, he added during a Thursday panel discussion with other intelligence officials during a symposium hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA).

U.S. counterterror experts claim thousands of fighters have already fanned out from Islamic State strongholds in Mosul and Raqqa to Europe, Asia and beyond. The terror group’s prolific propaganda arm has gone so far as to tell its followers to abandon Mideast battlefields in order to carry out operations elsewhere. The flood of foreign fighters, combined with self-radicalized natives, could become a much larger problem for the U.S. and its allies, even after the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria.

But so far, at least, the flow barely rates as a trickle.

“We haven’t seen yet the sort of flood of returnees that we were possibly expecting over the last year when [Islamic State] started suffering major military losses and losing territory in Syria and Iraq,” Europol Director Rob Wainwright told The Washington Times in July.

He said as many as 2,500 European-born fighters are likely to be in “various stages of returning” to their home countries.

Mr. Wainwright said roughly 750 of some 5,000 EU nationals who traveled to the Middle East to fight with the Islamic State have already returned. Another 1,600 or so are believed to have died.

“That still leaves half, or just under half, who are still out there or maybe in various stages of returning,” he said, adding that officials have observed a “significant relocation” of European-born fighters to Libya.

And with both U.S.-back forces and the Syrian government making consistent gains on the ground, the question of where surviving Islamic State militants will go could become an urgent question sooner than many think.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy to the Syrian conflict, told BBC Radio late last week that the Islamic State de facto “capital” of Raqqa could fall within a year.

Syria has been devastated by the fighting, he said, but “what we are seeing is the beginning of the end of the war.”

Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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