Problems of cross-border terrorism

Eman Ragab
Tuesday 4 Jun 2024

What can be done to prevent the movement of terrorists across international borders given their increasingly sophisticated methods of evading detection, asks Eman Ragab


The cross-border movement of terrorist elements, or foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), as international agencies label individuals who leave their own country to engage in terrorism in another, has been gaining increasing attention among Arab and Western countries alike due to the challenges this problem poses to law-enforcement agencies and other bodies involved in counterterrorism and national security.

The Middle East is of particular concern due to the ongoing armed conflicts in the region. For years FTFs have been drawn to countries like Syria, Yemen, and Libya, where violence and instability form an environment favourable to the expansion of terrorist activities and their logistical support networks.

In these countries and neighbouring ones in the Sahel and Sahara region, the authorities are grappling with problems related to FTFs that go beyond legislative and judicial questions having to do with their arrest and trial. They are having to respond to multiple terrorist incidents, despite an overall 23 per cent decline in terrorist attacks worldwide, according to the 2024 Global Terrorism Index.

The challenges are compounded by the lack of reliable databases to help border security forces identify terrorists among those crossing land and maritime boundaries. In addition to the need to develop such databases, there is also a need to tighten border security in a way that minimises the humanitarian costs of security measures.

It is well known that migrant flows intersect with FTF cross-border movements, for example, and Frontex and Europol (the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency and the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, respectively) conducted several operations in the Mediterranean from July to September 2019 in the framework of Operation Neptune 2, during which several FTFs were apprehended using the sea corridor between North Africa and Southern Europe, which is also one of the main corridors used by migrants.

Terrorist groups make deals with migrant smuggling and human trafficking rings for everything from transport to false identity and travel documents. The smuggling operations often succeed due to weaknesses in border control and security systems in seaports and airports. Many ports may not be equipped with advanced detection devices automatically linked to Interpol or other FTF databases, for example, enabling speedy matchups between identity documents and known terrorists, and this places obstacles in the process of sorting terrorists from ordinary immigrants.

The intersection between terrorist and migrant movements, the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and human-trafficking and smuggling rings, and the terrorists’ exploitation of security gaps are feeding the mounting anti-immigrant xenophobia in many Western societies. Negative attitudes towards immigrants among the general public and security agencies are reflected in tougher visa and resident requirements, in some cases forcing individuals to opt for illegal avenues when seeking to travel to some countries.

To make matters worse, terrorists often take advantage of vulnerable migrants to illicitly transfer money across international borders in exchange for certain benefits. Whether or not the migrants are aware of the purposes for which they are being used, they can thus become associated with activities related to financing terrorism.

Among the main security challenges related to FTF cross-border movements is the potential rise of hybrid cells made up of foreign and domestic terrorist elements. This can lead to advances in planning and executing terrorist attacks and in the types and quality of weapons used. It can also affect the nature of the selected targets.

Several European countries have experienced this type of hybrid threat in recent years, one example being the terrorist attack against the airport and metro in Brussels on 22 March 2016. The Brussel bombings were carried out by a cell consisting of foreign fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and two Belgian nationals.

Terrorist financing methods using modern technologies that hamper tracing pose another serious security challenge. In a 2023 report prepared jointly with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the EU Financial Action Task Force (FATF) revealed a complex fundraising operation in France that aimed to smuggle a woman out of the Al-Hol detention camp in northern Syria.

The process involved traditional collection methods, such as charity boxes in various public places in France, as well as online fundraising campaigns on social media platforms. The collected cash was converted into electronic currencies and pre-paid vouchers redeemable in bitcoins. These were then re-converted into cash that was delivered to the person in charge of smuggling out the woman. All these operations were carried out by terrorist elements or unwitting migrants duped into conducting the transactions or moving the money across borders.

Another major challenge facing the law-enforcement and counterterrorism authorities is the resurgence in cross-border organised crime activities. As noted above, terrorists’ cross-border movements often operate in collaboration with migrant smuggling rings that forge travel documents and identity papers.

In 2017, smuggling a terrorist element out of Idlib in Syria to a foreign destination cost around $600 per person and $1,500 per family. According to the Global Initiative on Transnational Crime Index for 2024, the five most prevalent cross-border criminal activities globally are illicit finance activities, human trafficking, human smuggling, illicit arms trading, and illicit cannabis trading.

A particularly thorny issue for the authorities in countries that are taking back nationals who were previously FTFs abroad is how to reintegrate them into society. Generally, this entails determining whether the returnee, whether a man, a woman, or a child, could become a potential national security risk at some point in the future.

Questions have also been raised regarding the laws governing what to do with returnees who are guilty of terrorist activities abroad. While national laws often provide that the returnee can serve out a prison sentence at home, it has been noted that national prisons usually do not have special areas for convicted terrorists. The fear is that if they are placed in the same cells as ordinary criminals, the prisons could become platforms for the dissemination of extremist ideologies.

Some European attempts to reintegrate female returnees from Iraq and Syria have exposed a fallacy in their approach. It had been believed that these individuals had a lower recidivism risk merely because they were women, but then cells led by women dedicated to indoctrinating and recruiting new IS members were found in their communities.

An essential first step to addressing all these challenges is for countries to adopt policies for effective border management and control. This is the least that should be done to reduce the terrorists’ prospects of moving across borders and minimise the threat of transnational terrorism.


The writer is director-general of the Regional Expertise Centre for Combating Drugs and Crime at NAUSS.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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