Fears rise in Europe of jihadist influx after recapture of Mosul
BERLIN - Europe faces a new influx of Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists if Iraqi forces retake the group’s stronghold of Mosul, officials and analysts warned, adding to fears on a continent battered by a string of Islamist attacks.
Thousands of Europeans left for Iraq and Syria over the last two years to wage jihad but, after ISIS suffered a string of territorial defeats, some of its fighters have begun returning to the continent.
As Iraqi forces press their offensive in Mosul, the “caliphate” declared two years ago by ISIS, experts urged Europe to prepare for more battle-hardened jihadists ready to launch attacks at home.
“The retaking of the ISIS’s northern Iraq stronghold, Mosul, may lead to the return to Europe of violent ISIS fighters,” European Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King told German daily Die Welt.
King said he thought it was unlikely that there would be a mass exodus of ISIS fighters from Mosul to Europe but he stressed that even a handful of jihadists could pose a “serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for”.
About 2,500 European fighters are still in the conflict zones, said King.
ISIS may become less appealing to potential recruits if its Iraqi stronghold were to crumble but fighters left without a “home” would pose dangers for the West, said Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
“Rudderless but without a sense of revolutionary purpose, they will present a menace to security officials around the world for years to come,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph.
ISIS “has shown a capacity to send fighters back hidden among the refugees coming to Europe. If it is threatened in Iraq and Syria it may step up the number of those ‘returnees’ to establish networks or even launch attacks,” Pantucci warned.
ISIS is “entering a new phase”, said Chris Phillips, managing director of counterterrorism consultancy IPPSO, adding that as the group loses its “caliphate”, “it would force them into more guerrilla or terrorist actions”.
With the retaking of Mosul, “I think we will see a growth of terrorist attacks across North Africa and the West,” he said, adding that fighters could take cover in the routes used by refugees to slip in.
A French security source said anti-ISIS coalition forces must do everything to trap the jihadists in Mosul and prevent them from seeking refuge elsewhere. The threat posed by returnees extends to Russia as well as North Africa and South-east Asia, experts said.
A French security source noted that although about 400 French nationals were still in the war zones, “that significant contingent should be taken in perspective compared to the Chechens for instance”.
France is particularly jittery about potential Islamist returnees as it has been hit by several terror attacks, including the November 13th assault in Paris in which jihadists returning to Europe from Syria claimed 130 lives.
More than ten officers are needed to monitor each returnee around the clock — resources that overstretched European security agencies simply do not have, security sources said.
French Foreign Minister Jean- Marc Ayrault also pointed to the “very difficult work of deradicalisation” to set back on the right track children who had been taken by their jihadist parents to Syria or Iraq, but who return radicalised.
In Germany, which took in about 900,000 asylum seekers last year, scepticism is running high over the newcomers, particularly after two attacks in July committed by refugees in the name of ISIS.
The country’s head of the domestic spy agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, has raised the spectre of another problem: Radicalisation of newcomers to Germany. Some 340 cases have been recorded of Islamists posing as aid workers to gain access to asylum seekers in shelters, he said, but noted that the actual number could be far bigger.