Israel is a member of a secret intelligence collection and sharing operation made up of 21 nations targeting European jihadis returning home from fighting in Syria with the Islamic State group, German daily Der Spiegel reported Sunday.
Naming Germany as another of the members, the newspaper said that the anti-terror operation was known as “Gallant Phoenix” and was being led from a US Joint Special Operations Command center in Jordan.
The operation is focused on collecting documents, data, DNA traces and fingerprints that have been retrieved from former IS strongholds and comparing them with intelligence already acquired by other countries in the pact, the report said, while only naming Germany and Israel as members.
An estimated 40,000 people traveled from around the world to take up arms for the Islamic State group as it occupied territory in Syria and Iraq and declared a caliphate in 2014.
In late 2017, the group suffered an overwhelming defeat in Syria and Iraq, being driven out from over 96 percent of the territory it once held and failing to reach its goal of establishing a caliphate in the region. Since then, many of the remaining foreign fighters who had traveled to the region have sought a way back to Europe.
Last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israeli intelligence had helped stem the return of Islamic State fighters and even prevented hijacked airplanes from crashing into European cities.
“We have, through our intelligence services, provided information that has stopped several dozen major terrorist attacks, many of them in European countries,” he told Israel-based ambassadors to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
“Some of these could have been mass attacks, of the worst kind that you have experienced on the soil of Europe and even worse, because they involve civil aviation. Israel has prevented that, and thereby helped save many European lives,” Netanyahu said, apparently referring to plane hijackings.
Netanyahu added that besides fighting Islamic State terrorism aimed at European cities, Israel was also preventing the group from creating a second stronghold in Egypt.
“ISIS is being destroyed in Iraq and Syria, but it is trying to establish an alternative territorial base in the Sinai. Israel is contributing to preventing that in myriad ways,” he said. “In general, I would say that Israel is the most powerful indigenous force in the Middle East that fights radical Islam.”
While thousands of European citizens are reported to have traveled to Syria and Iraq, Israel has seen comparatively few citizens join the Islamic State group, though it remains a significant concern to security forces.
Last month the Shin Bet Security service said that a 26-year old Arab Israeli man had been arrested on the suspicion that he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and planned to carry out an attack in Israel on its behalf. In December, a Belarusian-Israeli convert to Islam was convicted of attempting to join the group in Syria, nearly a year after he tried to travel to the country via Turkey.
The Shin Bet estimates that approximately 50 Arab citizens of Israel have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join the group in recent years.