When Terrorists Stay Home: The Evolving Threat to Europe from Frustrated Travelers.

AuthorSimcox, Robin

In September 2018, Dutch authorities thwarted an alleged major Islamic State-inspired plot that was being planned in the Netherlands. As part of their raids, police discovered 100 kilograms of fertilizer and several firearms. (1) Three of the individuals arrested in this cell had allegedly previously made unsuccessful attempts to travel to Syria and, according to a United Nations Security Council report, this plot "demonstrated that 'frustrated travelers' remain a problem." (2)

Six months later, two individuals who met online were arrested in Italy for allegedly planning attacks in the Islamic State's name. Their plans to travel to the 'caliphate' were redundant, as there was no longer a viable caliphate for them to travel to; the last remaining towns controlled by the Islamic State in Syria had been liberated the previous month. So, instead, they allegedly sought to strike in Italy. (3) One cell plotted because the caliphate no longer existed; the other because they were not able to reach it even when it did. This helps demonstrate why there has been a persistent risk posed by frustrated travelers. With this in mind, this article assesses whether the problem is on the rise or decline in Europe. It also studies which trends have emerged from previous frustrated traveler plots in Europe over the past five and a half years.


The author's dataset on plots includes successful attacks carried out by frustrated travelers (defined as a terrorist attack leading to injuries and/or deaths). It also includes failed plots carried out by frustrated travelers (defined as those that were thwarted by authorities, or abandoned by the perpetrators, and led to zero injuries and deaths).

To be included in this study, an individual needed to both live in Europe and to have physically made an attempt to leave his/her country of residence in Europe in order to connect with terrorists overseas; been legally barred from doing so; or been reported to the authorities for intending to do so. Expressing a vague willingness to travel was deemed not suitable for inclusion.

Included in the dataset was one Islamism-inspired act of violence, rather than what might traditionally be regarded as terrorism: in September 2016, a 25-year-old convert to Islam strangled his own mother to death in France after she prevented him from leaving for Syria. (4)

Also of note, in the late summer/early fall of September 2016, Sarah Hervouet and Ines Madani were allegedly involved in a series of separate plots targeting France. Both have been charged with terrorism offenses in France related to this plotting, (5) with Madani having already been found guilty of using the encrypted messaging app Telegram to encourage others to carry out attacks in France and to travel to Syria. (6) Madani and Hervouet allegedly plotted once alongside each other and sometimes with others who did not try to travel to Syria. However, in this study, their plots from this timeframe are categorized as a single unit. (7)

Destination: Syria

Based on these criteria, between January 2014 and through June 30, 2019, there were 25 plots involving frustrated travelers attempting to depart from Europe.* Eight of the plots resulted in attacks and 17 of the plots failed. The 25 plots pertained to 32 separate individuals. Thirty-one of these 32 (97 percent) intended to travel to Syria.

The only exception was Lewis Ludlow, a British citizen who was jailed for life (having to serve a minimum of 15 years) for planning a vehicular attack against civilians on Oxford Street in central London. Ludlow had tried to fly to the Philippines two months before his eventual arrest, yet had been prevented from doing so at the airport and had his passport confiscated. (8) Ludlow was attempting to travel to the city of Zamboanga on the Zamboanga Peninsula, a distance 160 kilometers to the west of Marawi, the city controlled by the Islamic State for a period of five months in 2017. (9)

Four months after Philippine forces regained control of Marawi, Ludlow made his attempt to travel to that country. British authorities suspected Ludlow was going to Zamboanga to participate in acts of terrorism. (10) In April 2019, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte warned against travel to Zamboanga as it was a stronghold for Abu Sayyaf, (11) a Philippines-based jihadi group closely tied to the Islamic State. (a)

Of those who attempted to travel to Syria, only one was known to have attempted to do so before the Islamic State's June 2014 declaration of a caliphate. Nadir Syed tried unsuccessfully to travel to Syria from the United Kingdom in January 2014, with his application for a passport being rejected. He instead planned to behead a poppy-seller or police officer, leading to his November 2014 arrest. Syed was subsequently jailed for life, having to serve a minimum of 15 years. (12)

Whether an Iraqi Kurd known as Hardi N tried to journey to Syria before the announcement of a caliphate has not been publicly disclosed. He had attempted to travel to Syria from the Netherlands on an unspecified date in 2014 to join the al-Qaida affiliate there, Jabhat al-Nusra. (b) Hardi N spent three months in jail in the Netherlands as a result, having been convicted for planning to travel abroad for terrorist purposes. (13) In September 2018, he was arrested as the suspected ringleader of the aforementioned cell planning a major attack in the Netherlands. It is alleged two other individuals who had tried and failed to get to Syria in 2015 (i.e., after the declaration of the caliphate) were part of the same cell. (14) At the time of writing (July 2019), no additional information has been publicly disclosed about the status of the case against them.

The timing of most of the attempts to travel means frustrated travelers would struggle to credibly claim they were trying to go to Syria for aid work or to join non-Islamist rebel groups. Almost all were traveling with the knowledge that a caliphate had been declared there.

Year of Travel and Year of Plot

The years between 2014 and 2016, when the Islamic State was at the apex of its power and influence, were when most individuals attempted to travel. Of the 32 individuals, 21 (66 percent) attempted to travel between 2014 and 2016. Six had attempted travel in 2014, 10 in 2015, and five in 2016. The contrast as the Islamic State began to suffer military reversals and lose territory is stark: only two individuals tried to travel in 2017; just one in 2018; and two in 2019.

There were six individuals whose initial date of travel was unknown. However, by looking at the dates when their plots were thwarted, it can be surmised that most of their initial attempts to travel were also likely to be roughly when the Islamic State was thriving. Of the six, three had their plots foiled in the fall of 2016 and three between May to September 2017

While there were several people blocked from heading to Syria in 2014, there was only one frustrated traveler failed plot that year: Nadir Syed's. There was a slight increase in plots in 2015, to three, before a jump in 2016, when there was nine frustrated traveler plots. There was then a slow decline from that point: seven in 2017 and three in 2018. However, at time of writing (July 2019), there have already been two frustrated traveler plots in 2019. One was the aforementioned plot in Italy, with the two alleged perpetrators being arrested in April 2019. (15) The other was in France, where it is alleged a 17-year-old frustrated traveler was part of a broader cell suspected of likely targeting the police in a firearms attack. This individual was arrested in February 2017, aged 15, while trying to travel to Syria and was jailed for three years (with two years suspended). (16)

If that ratio was replicated over the next six months, this year would see a slight increase in frustrated travelers compared to 2018.


Thirteen (52 percent) of the 25 frustrated traveler plots were targeting...

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