European countries concerned about returning jihadists

Sunday 21/08/2016
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (4L at table) hosts a national security meeting at Downing Street in London, last July.

London - With the Islamic State (ISIS) in retreat across Iraq and Syr­ia, many in Europe are increasingly concerned about the prospect of foreign fighters returning to their homelands to continue jihad.
As many as 20,000 people have travelled from Europe to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Europol Di­rector Rob Wainwright last Febru­ary warned that Europe was facing its biggest terror threat in more than a decade. After a series of lone-wolf attacks in Europe attributed to ISIS, more jihadists are expected to return and that terror threat is ex­pected to heighten.
An estimated 850 people from Britain are believed to have trav­elled to Iraq or Syria to support or fight for jihadist groups, particu­larly ISIS and about half of them have returned. There have been few prosecutions of returning jihadists and analysts expressed concern about what they are doing.
Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Stud­ies, said it was alarming that so few — approximately one-in-eight — of those who had returned from Syria had been prosecuted. He warned that Britain’s security services faced a difficult task in dealing with re­turning jihadists since they would likely be using false documents.
“In theory, if MI5 knows the iden­tity of the people who’ve gone out and know about their families and where they are, if they come back, sooner or later, they’ll be picked up. In practice, our security forces are so hard pushed that it is unlikely that will happen,” Glees said.
“We need to know why so many haven’t been prosecuted. It sug­gests to me that they have simply gone off the radar, while our secu­rity services try to play catch-up,” he said. “If they can get back into the UK under a false identity, then probably they won’t be known about unless something else hap­pens.”
So what is the solution to the re­turning jihadist phenomenon, par­ticularly after it was revealed that returning jihadists had played a ma­jor role in the planning and imple­mentation of major terrorist attacks across Europe?
For many analysts, the answer is simple: European countries must stop nationals from travelling to join ISIS in the first place. They must stop former ISIS members from re­turning, regardless of whether they cut ties with the group or are plan­ning to sow chaos.
“We should do everything we can do, lawfully, to prevent people from going. In particular we should do everything we can do to prevent children under the age of 18 from going,” Glees said. “However, if you have gone and you are over the age of 18, people like me would say you should not be allowed to come back. If you swore allegiance to ISIS, that’s it.”
That leaves an estimated 400 re­turned jihadists in Britain, some of whom have been prosecuted or are in the process of being prosecuted, others who are likely being moni­tored by MI5 for intelligence pur­poses and a small number who are “off the radar” and possibly plan­ning trouble.
For those known to authorities, the Home Office has launched a Desistance and Disengagement Pro­gramme to assist deradicalisation by ensuring former jihadists receive therapy and meet moderate preach­ers — mentors — on a monthly basis.
“It [the programme] could well be broadened to apply to those re­turning from Syria who the police and security services may suspect of wrongdoing but who they don’t have enough evidence against to put on trial for national security-re­lated offences,” a counterterrorism source told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.
Participation in the programme, still in its pilot stage, will be made a condition for prisoners to be re­leased on licence but some analysts said they are sceptical.
“Security is not a switch; it’s a dial and at the moment the security threat facing the UK and all other European countries is severe,” Glees said. “Our country does not have the resources at a time when there are so many other calls on public funding to devote a large amount of money so they can deradicalise and detoxify people in this way.
“My feeling is that it would take weeks of interrogation and a vast amount of time and public expense to try and work out which of those people was coming back for legiti­mate purposes and which of those was coming back for nefarious pur­poses. Both sets of people ought to be prosecuted and then it would be for a court to determine how seri­ous the offence,” he added.
“The bottom line: We need more people to keep our borders secure. We need to know as much as we can about those who’ve gone out, and it takes a lot of trouble to catch those who come back. The best thing is to say we’ll do everything lawful to keep you here but once you go, that’s it.”