Foreign Policy Essay

Why the United States Needs Foreign Law Enforcement to Succeed Against the Islamic State

By Kim Cragin
Sunday, June 18, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: American leaders have long recognized that police and other law-enforcement officials are on counterterrorism's front lines and that foreign governments play a vital role in disrupting terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, these two true statements don't always go well together: Many foreign countries have poor or uneven law-enforcement capacity, making it difficult for them to stop terrorism in their countries and international terrorists who might strike at the United States. Kim Cragin of the National Defense University surveys the global law-enforcement landscape, identifying the weaknesses of allies and offering recommendations for how the United States can help allies help themselves and us in the process.


The recent tragedies in London and Manchester remind us that the Islamic State remains willing and able to attack the West. It also reminds us that law-enforcement officials are on the frontlines of responding to and preventing terrorist attacks. This observation is true for Western countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States. It also is true for countries with less capable or resourced police forces like Tunisia, Jordan, and Indonesia. As the U.S. government looks towards annihilating the Islamic State globally, not just in Syria and Iraq, it would do well to consider how it can reinforce the law-enforcement and judicial capabilities of partner countries.

The Islamic State has conducted or inspired approximately 225 attacks outside of Syria and Iraq since its inception. Slightly less than half—42 percent—have been “external operations,” taking place outside of Syria, Iraq, or one of the 25 “provinces” that the Islamic State has declared in 11 countries. Examples include the May 2014 attack by Mehdi Nemmouche against the Jewish Museum in Brussels that killed four people; the November 2015 attack by nine terrorists, including Abdelhamid Abaaoud, in Paris that killed 129; and, the recent attack by Salman Abedi in Manchester that killed 22 individuals.

Until his death in August 2016, external operations were overseen by Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. Experts believe that Moroccan-born French national Abdelilah Himich, aka Abu Suleyman al-Faransi, manages the Islamic State’s external operations today. Most likely based in Syria, Abdelilah Himich leads a team of a foreign nationals, often referred to as foreign fighters, who initially travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State, but upon their arrival were tasked with identifying recruits and planning and executing attacks back home.

The most common external-operations terrorists are foreign-fighter returnees who at one time had been in Syria, Iraq, or, in the case of Abedi, another Islamic State province—but have been sent home to execute an attack...

The Islamic State’s external operations have been conducted by individuals that fall into one of three categories. The most common external-operations terrorists are foreign-fighter returnees who at one time had been in Syria, Iraq, or, in the case of Abedi, another Islamic State province – but have been sent home to execute an attack; 47 percent of the Islamic State’s external attacks have been carried out by foreign-fighter returnees. A second category consists of terrorists inspired by but with no direct links to the Islamic State (33 percent). The third and least-common category includes individuals recruited and guided remotely by so-called virtual planners or puppeteers, who mostly work for Himich (20 percent).

Daveed Garstenstein-Ross and Rukmini Callimachi have noted that this last category represents an innovation on the part of the Islamic State, as it adapts to international community’s actions to clamp down on the flow of fighters to and from the Levant. These efforts include U.S. and other military forces targeting Islamic State personnel responsible for foreign fighters and external operations in Syria and Iraq. They also include a diplomatic push by the United Nations to encourage countries to enact legal frameworks that allow Islamic State recruits to be arrested and prosecuted more readily before they depart for the Levant (UN Security Council Resolutions 2170, 2178, and 2253). In a section titled “foreign terrorist fighters,” for example, UNSCR 2170 calls upon member countries to make it illegal for individuals to fight for non-state actors in conflicts abroad, as well as to recruit, provide logistical support for, or finance foreign-fighter travel.

These parallel efforts—military strikes inside the Levant and arrests outside—have combined with border security measures taken by Turkey to reduce the volume of foreign fighters arriving into Syria from 1,500 to 100 per month, according to U.S. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These efforts also have prevented a number of external operations. Scotland Yard and local police have disrupted 18 Islamic State plots in the United Kingdom since 2013 and convicted at least 294 people on terrorism-related charges. Similarly, according to George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, the FBI has arrested 125 individuals on terrorism offenses related to the Islamic State. Of these 125 individuals, 56 planned to travel abroad to join the Islamic State and 38 wanted to conduct attacks inside the United States. Admittedly, some have argued that the FBI has been too aggressive in its investigations. Others believe that Western law-enforcement and intelligence agencies need to be more aggressive. But these two examples illustrate the high level of resources being devoted to this threat in Western countries.

However, these aggressive and effective constraints on the Islamic State’s operations cannot be replicated in full in countries outside the West.

Over the past two years, I have met with officials from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa on the issues of foreign fighters and external operations. In the West, officials tend to be concerned with whether or not prisoners can or should be rehabilitated and whether or not to isolate them in prison to avoid the spread of extremism within prison populations. These are important issues with serious consequences. But concerns are much more basic outside the West. Some countries still struggle to identify Islamic State-inspired attackers, virtual recruits, or dangerous returnees. They simply do not have the same investigative skills and resources adopted by their Western counterparts to address this rapidly evolving threat. Several officials from East Africa and the Sahel, for example, recently told me that they have no way to identify prospective Islamic State recruits, much less tighten border security or otherwise halt their travel.

It would be easy for the U.S. government to dismiss this as a problem for “those other countries.” But it also would be shortsighted.

Equally worrisome, many countries do not have sufficient means to prosecute the number of individuals arrested, nor do they have adequate prison facilities to hold them. Tunisia has the single largest population of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, at 6,500 citizens. But it has also detained around 2,200 individuals on terrorism-related charges who are now being held in Tunisian prisons awaiting trial. This puts Tunisia’s prisons at 150-percent capacity. Likewise, Indonesia’s Cipinang jail currently holds at least 3,000 individuals on terrorism-related charges, even though it only has the capacity for 900. A glaring gap clearly exists between the threat of Islamic State external operations and the capabilities of most of the police, judiciary, and prison systems on the frontlines of this threat.

It would be easy for the U.S. government to dismiss this as a problem for “those other countries.” But it also would be shortsighted. Some of the most significant attacks against the U.S. homeland have originated abroad, including the September 11, 2001, attacks conducted by al-Qaeda. And, since then, capable partner nations have helped to foil dangerous plots against the United States. Moreover, the sheer numbers—40,000 foreign fighters, plus terrorists inspired by the Islamic State and those recruited virtually—mean that the U.S. government and its closest allies in the West simply cannot go it alone.

There are ways for the United States and other Western nations to help fill this gap. International organizations, such as INTERPOL and the Financial Action Task Force, can help to a certain degree. These organizations provide national law-enforcement agencies with access to sensitive police information, intelligence about stolen passports, or biometric data on known foreign fighters. INTERPOL also can issue Red Notices on individuals with outstanding warrants in member countries. Some foreign prosecutors have told me that the Red Notices have proven to be useful in the fight against foreign fighters. But it is not enough. Even a quick look at the numbers, briefly highlighted in the previous paragraphs, reveals that the international community still has a lot of work to do to put an end to the Islamic State’s external operations.

Simply put, Western countries with highly-capable, relatively well-resourced, police and prosecutors need to find a way to reinforce those countries that are less capable, under-funded, and over-stretched. This reinforcement should take a variety of forms. Programs to train law-enforcement units responsible for counterterrorism within their respective countries should be expanded, including not only training in investigative techniques, but also social-media exploitation. The United States does not necessarily need to be responsible for all of this training. Indonesia’s Detachment 88, for example, has benefited from the tutelage of Australia. Beyond police training, the U.S. government should do more to assist prosecutors abroad, as they attempt to convict individuals on terrorism-related charges. The most obvious way to accomplish this would be to work through and expand the FBI’s legal attaché program. And, finally, the United States and other Western countries should help resource relevant prison systems and rehabilitation programs for incarcerated individuals. In some countries, human rights concerns might constrain this assistance, but the United States should consider working with the United Nations or other international organizations to alleviate these concerns. Otherwise, the prospect is grim: The Islamic State will find a way to tap into its global network of foreign fighters, inspired recruits, and virtually-guided operatives to continue its external operations against the West.