Europe’s problem of returning jihadists

September 10, 2017
Heightened vigilance. British police escort a man out of a property on Dorset Avenue in Moss Side in Manchester, last May. (AFP)

London - Following the fall of Mosul and the retreat of the Is¬lamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, many European countries face the spectre of returning jihadists.
An estimated 6,000 Europeans joined ISIS to fight in Iraq and Syria, not including hundreds other so-called jihadi brides who married ISIS fighters and, in many cases, had their children. European countries have yet to produce consistent pro¬cedures on how to deal with those who wish to return home. The issue is expected to represent a major se¬curity challenge.
Britain recently stripped more than 150 suspected jihadists of their citizenship, the country’s media re¬ported.
“There’s an awful lot of people we have found who will never be coming home again. Our number one preference is to get them on trial. If we don’t think that’s possi¬ble, we use disruption techniques,” an unnamed British senior security source told the Sunday Times.
However, this measure only ap¬plies to suspects with dual national¬ities. International law bars Britain from leaving people stateless. While the UK government can revoke the British nationality of jihadists with dual nationality, this leaves the is¬sue of how to deal with those with sole British nationality.
“Prosecution and conviction is always our preference for dealing with terrorists,” security minister Ben Wallace told the Sunday Times. “We have planned and prepared for the risk posed by British returnees as ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria and we are using a range of tools to disrupt and diminish that threat.”
Following terrorist attacks this year in London, Manchester, Paris, Stockholm, Brussels, Hamburg, Bar¬celona and Cambrils, it is clear that “soldiers of the Islamic State” are seeking to carry out revenge attacks in Europe, particularly targeting countries that are part of the anti- ISIS coalition. European fighters, hardened by years of battle in Iraq and Syria, could blend in across Eu¬rope, representing a major security challenge.
Perpetrators of terror attacks in Europe, including the November 2015 Paris attacks and the London Bridge attack earlier this year, were known to have fought in Syria.
A report by Europol, the Europe¬an Union’s law-enforcement agen¬cy, warned that up to 5,000 jihadists could return to Europe from terror¬ist training camps.
“The number of returnees [to Eu¬rope] is expected to rise if ISIS, as seems likely, is defeated militarily or collapses. An increasing number of returnees will likely strengthen domestic jihadist movements and consequently magnify the threat they pose to the EU,” the 2017 “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Re¬port” said.
Europol Director Rob Wainwright acknowledged that European coun¬tries faced an unprecedented threat. “The kind of attacks that ISIS has used in the conflict zone, including car bombs perhaps and others, if that technical capability is known within the organisation, then clearly there’s potential for that to be trans¬ferred into a European scenario,” he told the Associated Press.
Wainwright called for a nuanced response to the threat, particularly given that many Europeans had left ISIS after growing disenchanted and that the major concern was how to distinguish those who had left the group on those terms from those who would seek to return secretly to form new terror networks and carry out attacks.
“It’s a reflection of the very seri¬ous threat that we face in Europe and a reflection of the fact that I’m afraid we can’t get that threat down to zero,” Wainwright acknowledged.
A UN report on foreign fighter re¬turnees outlined how ill-equipped European governments are to differ¬entiate between those who pose a threat and those won can be reinte¬grated into society. “There is no one profile for foreign terrorist fight¬ers and this report warns against sweeping generalisations,” authors Hamad el-Said and Richard Barrett warned.
The report clearly stated there was no solely military solution to the problem of returning fighters. “A single focus on such a ‘hard’ ap¬proach is more likely to increase the problem by complicating and prolonging the conditions that per-suade individuals to become foreign terrorist fighters,” it said.
It is not just jihadists fleeing Iraq and Syria who pose a risk. ISIS has a strong presence in Libya, with many warning that terrorists could reach mainland Europe posing as refugees. ISIS is known to have is¬sued sophisticated forged Iraqi and Syrian documents to its fighters to smuggle them into Europe.
Interpol has circulated a list of 173 ISIS fighters believed to have re¬ceived training to carry out attacks in Europe.
It is unclear what role, if any, these have played in setting up ter¬rorist networks involved in recent attacks but what is clear is that at¬tacks carried out by “soldiers of the Islamic State” are not going away anytime soon.