European countries concerned about returning jihadists
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.”