The Barcelona attackers killed 14 people—a middling tally for an ISIS attack in Europe. Watch one of the attackers prancing around like an idiot on the streets of Cambrils, Spain, before being shot dead by police, and you can see why the death toll might not have been higher. These do not appear to be trained commandos, moving calmly and tactically like the Bataclan attackers in November 2015. They are amateurs, and if they had any training at all, it doesn’t show.
The biggest concern for counterterrorism officials, and indeed anyone interested in not being blown to smithereens in a Brussels subway or shot dead in a Parisian theater, is the returned foreign fighters—those who went to Syria, were taught to kill, and have returned to their home countries. Since we still don’t know much about this population, and still less about those who have come back, every last morsel of information about them deserves close scrutiny.
Last month, the United Nations office of Counter-Terrorism issued a report on the foreign fighters who left for Syria. Hamed El-Said and Richard Barrett, authors of “Enhancing the Understanding of the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Phenomenon in Syria,” sought foreign fighters from the Islamic State—returnees from Syria, plus a few who were caught trying to get there. (One of those who didn’t go listened at the last minute to his mom’s pleas to stay home. It’s difficult to say whether she deserves a Good Parenting award for saving her son’s life, or a public shaming for raising such a foolish kid in the first place.) Over 40,000 people have traveled to Syria to fight, and since many of them will return to their countries of origin, studies like this are worth reading even when they are, like this one, deficient in ways the authors themselves acknowledge. The flaws are more interesting than the findings.