Working With our Partners To Address Returning Foreign Fighters

4 minutes read time
Iraqi police officers stand behind a bunker wall, looking into the distance of a desert landscape using binoculars.
Iraqi federal police officers look towards Islamic State group territory as civilians flee the area, in the town of Abu Saif, Iraq, February 21, 2017.

Working With our Partners To Address Returning Foreign Fighters

Terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qa’ida depend on travel. They have to travel to receive training. They have to travel to case their targets. They have to travel to carry out their attacks. Every time they try to board a plane or cross a border, we have an opportunity to detect and capture them. 

When ISIS attempted to create a physical “caliphate,” an unprecedented number of foreign terrorist fighters—roughly 40,000 people—flocked to Syria and Iraq. And now that we and our partners have liberated some 98 percent of the territory ISIS once held, there’s a risk that some of these battle-hardened veterans will return home or relocate to third countries.

So, how do we identify terrorists who are hiding in plain sight, concealing themselves among the millions of international travelers each day? How do we spot the proverbial needle in the haystack? 

To identify these terrorists, the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism (CT) at the Department of State is working through two international organizations, the United Nations and INTERPOL, the international organization that facilitates international police cooperation. Last December, the UN Security Council adopted with the approval of all 15 UN Security Council members and 66 co-sponsors, a tough new resolution on countering terrorist travel. The United States and the international community are now working to implement UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2396 and further empower INTERPOL to combat terrorist travel. 

The overall goal of UNSCR 2396 is to address returning and relocating foreign terrorist fighters and transnational terrorist groups. It creates new international obligations to help strengthen countries’ border security and information sharing capabilities, including by requiring the use of terrorist watchlists and the collection of Advance Passenger Information (API), Passenger Name Record (PNR), and biometrics data to prevent terrorists from travelling globally. 

UNSCR 2396 also urges all UN member states to make full use of INTERPOL databases to thwart the travel of terrorists and other criminals. All of INTERPOL’s 192 member countries have instant, direct access to a wide range of criminal databases containing millions of records on fingerprints, DNA, stolen motor vehicles, firearms, stolen and lost travel documents, and more. In many countries, however, that access does not extend from their capitals to their air, land, and sea ports of entry.

The CT Bureau works closely with INTERPOL and the U.S. National Central Bureau (INTERPOL Washington) through two major programs. The first program enhances use of and expands connectivity to INTERPOL databases by those member countries most affected by the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon. The project will enable INTERPOL to help member countries identify problems that limit law enforcement and border security authorities’ ability to detect and interdict terrorists and other transnational criminals’ movement. It will also increase partner governments’ sharing of information on terrorists and terrorism suspects domestically across agencies, with other countries, and with INTERPOL. 

The second program strengthens INTERPOL’s ability to respond to queries across its systems simultaneously through a new Analytical Platform. INTERPOL’s Analytical Platform can now provide member countries with more timely and actionable intelligence that assists in the arrest of known terrorist targets, flags further subjects of potential interest, and fosters international police cooperation. The platform also supports monitoring, identifying, and analyzing terrorist tactics, techniques, and procedures.




Spearheaded by the State Department and with the support of other international partners, INTERPOL continues to extend access to its databases to frontline law enforcement officers (such as border guards in member countries) through its I-24/7 secure communications system, allowing them to search the databases on wanted persons, stolen and lost travel documents, and stolen motor vehicles. This access allows an officer to submit a query simultaneously to both national and INTERPOL databases and receive responses from both within seconds. It is vital to the world’s security that this information is captured and shared with law enforcement officers in the field.  

Terrorists still threaten the United States and its allies and partners. To combat this threat, the United States will continue to work through international organizations like INTERPOL and the United Nations to improve countries’ capacity to detect, deter, and interdict those that wish to cause harm to our communities. There’s a lot of work ahead of us in the fight against terrorism. Only by facing it together can we win.

About the Author: Hassan Abbassy works in the Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.