Brussels trial of Jewish Museum terrorist highlights threat of jihadist returness

Belgium has the highest per capita rate of returning jihadists from Syria and Iraq, with one-third of 125 returnees known to be in prison in early 2018.
Sunday 13/01/2019
Second wave. A 2017 file picture shows a Belgian police officer standing guard outside the court where French jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche appears in front of a judge in Brussels.                (Reuters)
Second wave. A 2017 file picture shows a Belgian police officer standing guard outside the court where French jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche appears in front of a judge in Brussels. (Reuters)

LONDON - European countries continue to question how to deal with returning jihadists and many officials are closely watching the case of French jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche, who is charged with killing four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014 following his return from Syria.

The Islamic State (ISIS), which controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, has seen its territory shrink, with many foreign jihadists, such as Nemmouche, returning to their birth countries to continue the fight.

“It is imperative that legal systems are up to speed in countering new developments of the threat. Many challenges from the last few years stem from the fact that most Western countries’ terrorism laws were unprepared to cope with the quantitative increase and qualitative shifts in radicalisation,” said Lorenzo Vidino, director of the Programme on Extremism at George Washington University.

Writing for lawfareblog.com, Vidino pointed out that many European countries did not have laws criminalising participating in terrorist organisations abroad until recently.

“Even in those countries in which such laws existed, prosecuting terrorism financing and bringing evidence from a battlefield to a civilian court are often difficult. As a result, of the more than 1,000 foreign fighters from EU member states who returned to their native countries, only a small percentage have been prosecuted,” he wrote.

Most of those were jihadists who carried out attacks in Europe. However, that number could increase after the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) indicated that it would prefer to send captured foreign jihadists back to their countries of origin for trial and imprisonment.

“What we understand is that the Europeans think… the filth they had among them is out and they don’t want them back. We don’t see our country as a landfill and we do not accept them,” SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said recently.

The US-backed SDF is one of the most powerful anti-ISIS groups in Syria and has taken control of significant territory in northern Syria. US officials previously estimated that the SDF has more than 700 foreign fighters in custody from approximately 40 different countries.

Bali called on European countries to repatriate captured ISIS fighters or convene an EU or UN court to take control of them. However, many European countries have already moved to ensure that repatriation is impossible, including stripping captured fighters of citizenship.

The United Kingdom stripped citizenship from several captured ISIS fighters, including Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, the surviving members of the infamous “Beatles” group that carried out executions for ISIS.

Speaking in February 2018, UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said Kotey and Elsheikh had their citizenship taken away because they had “turned their back on British ideas, British values.”

Williamson earlier said he would oppose the return of any terrorist to the United Kingdom, regardless of the circumstances. “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain,” he said. “I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country.”

As for those who have returned the question is of identification and containment.

Nemmouche’s journey from petty criminal to hardened jihadist appears to be a well-trodden path. The 33-year-old French-born jihadist fought in Syria for a year from 2013-14 before returning to Europe. He had a history of petty crime and had been imprisoned for theft and aggravated robbery. It was while he was in prison in France that he became radicalised and he travelled to Syria to join ISIS on his release.

A report by GLOBSEC, an NGO in Bratislava, said nearly 80% of those involved in 22 terror incidents in France since 2012 were on the terror watch list and 97% had been known to authorities as potential threats.

Belgium has the highest per capita rate of returning jihadists from Syria and Iraq, with one-third of 125 returnees known to be in prison in early 2018, Brussels think-tank Egmont Institute stated. However, that leaves more than 80 returned jihadists at large.

Interpol Secretary-General Jurgen Stock, speaking last December, said Europe faces a major threat from returning jihadists in 2019, including many who have been convicted and sentenced to prison but who were approaching parole.

“We could soon be facing a second wave of other Islamic State-linked or radicalised individuals that you might call ISIS 2.0,” he said.

“A lot of these are suspected terrorists or those who are linked to terrorist groups as supporters who are facing maybe two to five years in jail. Because they were not convicted of a concrete terrorist attack but only support for terrorist activities, their sentences are perhaps not so heavy… this generation of early supporters will be released in the next couple of years and they may again be part of a terrorist group or those supporting terrorist activities,” he warned.

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