Foreign ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq amid the intensifying battle for Mosul pose a terrorism threat and a security challenge to Europe, a top European Union official and security experts warn.
EU security Commissioner Julian King said yesterday the “recapture of the northern Iraqi ISIL-stronghold Mosul can prompt violent ISIL fighters to return to Europe,” pegging the number of Europeans fighting for the terror group at 2,500, according to the German newspaper Die Welt.
“Even a small number represents a serious threat, and we must be prepared for this,” King told the newspaper.
Boston University professor Joseph Wippl, a former CIA officer, told the Herald a flood of returning fighters “has been the fear of all these European countries and undoubtedly the reason these security services are tearing their hair out.
“That caution is warranted simply by the number of people who went there and are going to try to scurry back,” Wippl said. “They come back, they could be radicalized. They know how to use weapons. They know how to use explosives. They know how to engage in cell activity, as the cell that engaged in the Paris attacks. They’ve gotten a lot of good old-fashioned experience.”
As what is expected to be an ugly, monthslong battle for Iraq’s second-largest city enters its third day, ISIS has reportedly increased its use of human shields, killed suspected spies, blocked roads and planted bombs ahead of the showdown with Iraqi forces. ISIS, which took Mosul in 2014, has used its control of the city to bolster its claim to a caliphate.
But fighters who run from the ISIS stronghold — evading the ISIS leaders who make gruesome examples of deserters — might not have an easy way home, another security analyst noted.
Terror analyst Scott Stewart of the global intelligence firm Stratfor said, “Heading for the hills may be easier than getting home.”
“It’s going to be very difficult to get out of that theater right now,” Stewart said. “They have been identified. Their countries have BOLOs (be on the lookout) out for them. It’s not like they can walk into the French embassy in Istanbul or Ankara and get a new passport.”
The few foreign fighters who evade ISIS, slip through the U.S.-led coalition, and cross a border to wherever they call “home” may want to get out of the game, Stewart said.
“Are some going to get back? Yeah, but even among those guys they might be disenchanted. Some have seen their colleagues executed for fleeing the battle or trying to go home,” he said. “The years of the five-star jihad are long over. Their fellow fighters are being run over with tanks.”