THE HAGUE — Europe’s top intelligence and counterterrorism officials are bracing for a surge of battle-hardened Islamic State foreign fighters returning home to the continent as the jihadi group loses its territorial base in the Middle East, the head of the European Union’s main law enforcement agency says.
“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 an exclusive interview, but as many as 2,500 European-born fighters are likely to be in “various stages of returning” to their home countries.
In a wide-ranging discussion at the agency’s headquarters, Mr. Wainwright also vehemently challenged American criticism of EU counterterrorism efforts after a wave of Islamic State-inspired attacks over the past year across the continent.
U.S. officials fail to appreciate the progress being made toward centralizing intelligence-sharing and analysis among the union’s 28 members, working different languages and legal traditions, said Mr. Wainwright, a 49-year-old former intelligence analyst with Britain’s MI5 who has headed Europol since 2009.
Mr. Wainwright touted what he said were unprecedented advances in the cyber realm by Europol operatives countering jihadi digital propaganda and social media over the past two years.
Despite the looming threat of returning foreign fighters, Mr. Wainwright stressed that the majority of attacks carried out in Europe during the months since Islamic State operatives inflicted coordinated horror on Paris and Brussels in November 2015 and March 2016 have been “conducted by people who never went to Syria and Iraq.”
“We are even more concerned by that phenomenon right now,” he said, pointing to Friday’s one-year anniversary of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France. In that incident, a “lone wolf” extremist of Tunisian descent plowed through crowds with large truck, killing more than 80.
While the vast majority of the 19 million Muslims living in the EU are horrified by and abhor the Islamic State, Mr. Wainwright noted the impact that a single, unstable individual can have when touched by the terrorist group’s sophisticated online propaganda outreach.
“As we come up on the anniversary of Bastille Day, it’s a reminder of the brutal simplicity of terrorism, in that you have one man who was radicalized very quickly,” Mr. Wainwright said. “One guy, hiring one truck, 86 people dead.
“It’s an illustration of the problem that we face here in Europe, with such a large number of largely disconnected radicalized people who are operating in almost a randomized way to carry out the attacks that we’ve seen now on a regular scale in the EU.”
The Islamic State threat could grow dramatically more complicated if an increasing number of EU passport holders manage to slip back home.
The Europol director said that roughly 750 of some 5,000 EU nationals who traveled to the Middle East to fight with the Islamic State have 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,” Mr. Wainwright said.
He added that officials have observed a “significant relocation” of European-born fighters to Libya.
“We’re concerned that the squeeze in the territory held by [Islamic State] will partly result at least in a relocation to North Africa and then back to Europe,” he said.
Sorting out which returnees pose legitimate threats adds another layer of complication for security officials.
“There is some part of the returning population who genuinely regret traveling out there and are making genuine attempts to reintegrate into society, but there are also a good number that are coming back in a frenzied mental state bent on revenge,” said Mr. Wainwright, adding that some “might be coming back on a mission.”
The virtual caliphate
Mr. Wainwright acknowledged deep and unsettling unknowns about the extent of the links between Islamic State leaders in Syria and Iraq and prospective field operatives already settled inside the EU.
While he pointed to “cases of encrypted communications” between Islamic State high commanders in Raqqa, Syria, and people in Europe, Mr. Wainwright said it is not clear whether such communications are driving attacks in Europe or are designed just to maintain some degree of contact.
He said interception of such communications is difficult because of encryption.
A more visible and potentially greater problem centers on the ocean of Islamic State and other jihadi propaganda disseminated online, especially through social media.
“Our concern is that we’ll have to deal with that legacy for many years to come,” said Mr. Wainwright, stressing that Europol is engaged in an aggressive campaign to counter and wipe extremist propaganda from the internet.
Since the launch in July 2015 of a special Internet Referral Unit, Europol officials have targeted extremist messaging in at least eight languages. “We’re monitoring it across, in fact, 90 different social media platforms. We know how much content is out there, how it works,” Mr. Wainwright said.
“This is a major and new strategic dimension of international terrorism,” he said. “We haven’t seen this before — an attempt by an international terrorist group to dominate the virtual as well as the physical world.”
No United States of Europe
Mr. Wainwright rejected U.S. critics who have lamented the slowness with which EU states have embraced a single, cohesive counterterrorism policy.
In a series of background interviews with The Times last year, several U.S. and European officials described a quagmire within the bloc’s vast bureaucracy when it comes to creating a strong multinational intelligence-sharing partnership.
U.S. officials have also publicly argued that jihadis holding EU passports are at the core of Europe’s terrorism threat. The fighters return from the Middle East and exploit the union’s open-border policy to set up clandestine recruiting and operations cells.
It was in January 2016 that the EU introduced a special European Counterterrorism Center beneath Europol. Participation with the center remains technically voluntary. There is also the issue of the Passenger Name Record initiative, which would oblige international airlines to hand over passenger data to intelligence services for any commercial flight landing within the bloc’s borders.
The EU reached an agreement on the initiatives in April 2016, but members have until mid-2018 to translate them into their own national laws. Critics say that means the initiative is essentially a recommendation rather than a requirement.
Mr. Wainwright acknowledged that many things with regard to EU internal security operations should go faster but insisted progress was being made.
“A top-line priority in the EU at the moment is to better connect the information and data holdings that we have in the system already, whether it’s passenger name records, visa information [or] police data in different pools,” he said. A major push is on to get EU countries to embrace Europol as “the information hub or fusion center for most of that security-related data.”
“We’re getting there,” said Mr. Wainwright. “Sometimes folks in D.C. criticize Europe, and sometimes the criticism is justified, but they refer to Europe as if it’s one country.”
“We don’t have a United States of Europe,” Mr. Wainwright said. “[But] we’ve done a pretty darn good job, I think, of uniting 28 independent nations within a framework that is the most well-developed, integrated framework of anywhere in the world.”