Foreign Terrorist Fighters: Patrick Stevens

"On The Line" Podcast Series, Episode 4, Patrick Stevens

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Today we have Patrick Stevens on the line. Patrick is the director of Interpol’s counter-terrorism unit, and in this role, he leads worldwide efforts to prevent the flow of foreign terrorist fighters. We’re very pleased to have Patrick today to discuss challenges and opportunities related to foreign fighters – detecting them, prosecuting them and everything in between. 

Nancy: Hello, Hi Patrick, this is Nancy Jamal. How are you today?

Patrick: I’m good, thank you!

Patrick Stevens is the director of Interpol’s counter-terrorism unit, and in this role, he leads worldwide efforts to prevent the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.

Nancy: Thank you so much for your time and for agreeing to do this. We get a lot of questions about the work the Interpol is doing and about terrorist foreign fighters. I think this is going to be a really successful session hopefully. I’m going to get directly to the questions. My first question is, the Interpol plays a very big role in the Global Coalition as a member or as a partner of the Global Coalition. How would you describe the Interpol’s role so far?

Patrick: Well, let’s start from the beginning. The foreign fighters issue, it’s against terrorism of course, and terrorism is a kind of crime. So, the Interpol fighting international crime, that’s our main role in this of course. Now in this specific field of course the military is also involved and has a major role in Iraq and Syria. But after all it is fighting terrorism, and what started in few countries as a law enforcement operation, becomes a military operation in Iraq and Syria, and once these people are returning to their home countries or to other battlefields, it becomes again a law enforcement operation. So, there must be that connection, and our role in the Global Coalition is actually to make that bridge between the military actions and the law enforcement community.

Nancy: One of the difficulties countries face is successfully prosecuting suspected fighters because the evidence either doesn’t exist or it is being held somewhere difficult to get a hold of, or that a country’s legal system does not allow battlefield evidence. How is Interpol trying to facilitate better chances of prosecution?

Patrick: Well, there is a few parts of the answer in this one. First, the information we receive through the Coalition partners we disseminate through more or less seventy member countries of Interpol. This means they have the possibility to bring these names and all other data in their national databases, so if these people one day cross the borders and they encounter them, they can stop them, they can arrest them, they can do whatever they think they need to do with these terrorists. And at least they know there is a one country on the origin of the information, who might have more. So, we don’t provide evidence as such. We provide the lead for investigation, and the country on the other side of the road they can ask direct question or through Interpol channels or through channels from prosecutors to the country who has the origin of the information if they have more. Maybe military information which has to be declassified afterwards to go to court, but our role is just more the awareness raising who was a terrorist and where can you find information if you would like to have more.

Nancy: So, what more would you like to see in terms of military to police information exchange happening between countries, in countries? Is there a better approach that we could all be taking together?

Patrick: Yes definitely. This model we have in the Coalition against Daesh is definitely the best practice. It is a model that can be copied in other parts of the world where also military are fighting terrorism. I think the G5 Sahel areas for instance. I think Southeast Asia there is armies involved in the fighting against terrorism. So, in lots of parts of the world, the military has a big role in fighting terrorism. Now, I personally believe that the model we developed under the Global Coalition should be copied to all over the parts of the world, and actually I can tell you we are trying to copy this model, and hopefully by next year we have similar operations ongoing.

Nancy: Could you describe what the model is exactly? Just so that our listeners can get a better clear image of it?

Patrick: Yes exactly. Until recently, the military kept all the military intelligence for themselves, and they did also their military intelligence operations to fight terrorism, which of course is very important. But now in this operation they declassified the information, not everything of course, just what is necessary to bring awareness and alert to the member countries through police channels. So, the military declassified the information, gives it to law enforcement of one specific country, and that specific country sent it to Interpol. We already have more than 50,000 notices and diffusions. We have 400,000 entities in one of our analytical files. So, we can enrich this data and disseminate to other countries. And then the countries can bring it in their own national databases or to their border police. So, it is really a model where military intelligence declassified, goes over the Interpol channels, we enrich it with what we already have, and we disseminate the whole picture to the member countries.

Nancy: Let us move on to Daesh-related foreign terrorist fighters, the hot topic of this time. Sometimes it is really difficult to get a clear picture of how many Daesh-related foreign fighters, their families and orphans are actually moving around the world. Could you please sketch us a picture of what’s going on, or what’s likely going on, and where the current hotspots are, or potential hotspots?

Patrick: Since the military successes in Iraq and Syria, these people might be in several places. Lots of them they are now in a prison in Iraq or Syria. Some of them might have been returned or are in other prisons hopefully in Europe or in Southeast Asia. Others might go to other battlefields like East and West Africa or Southeast Asia. For instance, one of the attackers in Sri Lanka came also from Iraq/Syria battlefields. But of course, it is very difficult, almost impossible, to have a concrete number. Now, in our database we know about 50,000 foreign terrorist fighters on which we have alerts. But we are pretty sure there is much more going around. But here we also need to guess. We rely on input from the member countries. For us the number is not that important actually, we just try to receive all possible information on all the individuals to bring the alerts to the countries. So, they are dispersed for sure. We also know from Afghanistan that terrorists in Afghanistan came from the battlefield in Iraq and Syria and that’s why we focus on all these hotspots: East and West Africa, Afghanistan and Central Asia, but also Southeast Asia.

Nancy: And how has Daesh’s territorial loss and the proliferation of affiliate organisations affected your work directly? Has this presented new challenges for the international community?

Patrick: No because we work already before with all these other hotspots such as Southeast Asia, East and West Africa, but today it’s even more obvious. We need to try to support them as best as we can, and one of Interpol’s strengths is actually border management. We try to bring our databases to the investigators and especially to the border police all around the world because if these foreign fighters travel to other hotspots, the best place to catch where everybody can get good control is at the borders. So, we focus a lot on borders and on travel routes. For instance, we did an operation not too long ago in East Africa. We did also a border management operation in West Africa and we’re going to start a project in the G5 Sahel, where border management issues are very important. After the attacks in Sri Lanka, we discussed with the local authorities over there and they also brought our Interpol databases to their borders. So, I think this shows once again it’s a reinforcement of what we’ve done already since long time, that our Interpol databases should be used as much as possible on the borders.

Nancy: What are your projections for the next 18 months or so? What are the challenges that you perceive to pop up?

Patrick: Besides the challenges we already discussed that these foreign terrorist fighters can go to different parts of the world, I see specifically a challenge in Europe (Western Europe), where lots of these people, these terrorists who were convicted for terrorism, are now leaving prisons one by one. It is not only something that will happen in the future. In lots of countries the first are already getting out of prison. And I’m not sure if all these people are followed up correctly, if every country has enough capacity to follow these people up and if there is an international cooperation process for the follow-up of these people. We, and I specifically, advise the countries to have an international cooperation mechanism through Interpol in place by sharing the biometrics of these people, sharing biometrics in our database. So if they travel one day again to another country, and if they are travelling with another name or another passport and the countries will verify these people against Interpol databases. That we at the Interpol, we have as much data as possible to explain to these countries that this person is travelling maybe under a false name/false document, but he did prison time somewhere else. Not to arrest them of course because they did their prison time, but just as a good part of information who is in front of them.

Nancy: How can the Coalition as an entity or even as individual partners within the Coalition continue to support this work going forward within the Daesh period and beyond?

Patrick: Of course, the Coalition has a big role in building up Iraq and Syria now and to bring stability, that’s for sure. But, for stability you also need good law enforcement. So, I think in the discussions that the Coalition has today about building up the country again, we cannot forget to build up Iraq or Syria from the law enforcement point of view and we at Interpol we have lots of things to offer to help Iraq and Syria to build up their law enforcement and to give them good access to Interpol tools and collect all the remaining data to bring in the Interpol system. So, that’s definitely one of the major topics and again like I said earlier, it would be also good if we copy the model we successfully implemented on the Iraq/Syria field to all the parts of the world.

Nancy: In a world that is currently infested by global terrorism, the CT effort and the Interpol effort have become ever more important to all nations across the world. Patrick Stevens, thank you so much for your time. It’s been really interesting chatting with you today!

Patrick: Thank you! Hope it was useful and you have enough.

Nancy: Extremely, extremely. Thank you!

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