Nations warned to monitor and prevent extremist foreign fighters from heading to Ukraine

Experts say knowledge of dealing with returning ISIS fighters should be used

Counter-terrorism experts are warning nations to take measures to prevent extremist foreign fighters travelling to Ukraine. Getty Images
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Nations are being urged to use their knowledge of dealing with returning ISIS combatants in their monitoring of extremist foreign fighters heading to Ukraine.

In the policy brief “Foreign Fighters in the 2022 Russia-Ukraine War: An Initial Assessment of Extremist Volunteers, the Counter Extremism Project think tank makes nine recommendations to governments to prepare for threats posed by the departure and return of citizens looking to join the conflict.

It has already found evidence of a number of far-right extremist groups using the Telegram social media platform to call for foreign fighters to join their ranks.

The brief says that nations need to quickly and comprehensively identify and share knowledge on the threat as well as disrupt the travel of extremists to Ukraine.

“They pose a clear security risk. These extremists will likely obtain combat experience in the conflict zone and potentially have a greater impact on the violence-orientated extremist milieus in their home countries upon their return,” it says.

“Their ability to plan and successfully carry out attacks in accordance with their ideology increases massively.”

The experts say that action needs to be taken to stop extremists from travelling to Ukraine and says methods used to prevent the travel of ISIS fighters could act as a guide.

“European mechanisms employed to prevent the travel of football hooligans as well as legal mechanisms employed to prevent the travel of foreign terrorist fighters to conflict zones could serve as blueprints,” it says.

“Their potential applicability should be examined with urgency and the necessary legal and regulatory adjustments undertaken.

As the situation in Ukraine develops, the report says, it is important to disrupt the travel of extremists.

“Amongst other precautions, governments should explore the possibility of collecting and collating information on violence-orientated extremists that are at risk of travelling to the conflict zone or are preparing to travel to the conflict zone,” the report continues.

“The security and intelligence authorities of the respective home countries of foreign fighters should establish or intensify dedicated information exchange frameworks and set up a comprehensive surveillance strategy that monitors the activities of the foreign fighters in Ukraine.

“If the travel of violence-orientated extremists cannot be prevented, then upon their return, specific monitoring mechanisms are advisable.”

The brief suggests creating a dedicated database of travelling violence-orientated extremists through Europol and says co-operation between security and intelligence authorities in countries bordering Ukraine should be intensified.

“These countries should be informed if violence-orientated extremists attempt to enter their jurisdiction en route to Ukraine,” it said.

“Where appropriate, the use of Advanced Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data should be considered to track international travel of violence-orientated extremists to the conflict zone as well as their return travel.”

It also says lessons learnt from prosecuting ISIS terrorists, such as gathering battlefield evidence, can be used to help with criminal prosecutions when extremists return. Deradicalisation projects should be created, it says.

“After their return, a full risk assessment of the extremist foreign fighters needs to be undertaken, including measures such as movement restrictions and contact bans, until the risk they pose is fully understood and appropriate mitigation measures are in place,” it recommends.

“Based on the learnings from handling returned western foreign terrorist fighters who had joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, a network of organisations with expertise in deradicalisation and mental health should be established through the co-operation of western governments and civil society groups to prepare for the likely fallout.”

This month, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism spoke on of the dangers of British extremists using the Ukraine crisis to fight for the far-right Azov Battalion group.

Jonathan Hall QC raised awareness of the issue after the UK's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she would support citizens who wanted to volunteer to help Ukraine.

Mr Hall said that while travelling to Ukraine and taking up arms might appear “attractive”, it could open a gateway to extremists fighting for far-right groups.

Updated: March 09, 2022, 3:32 PM