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The danger of returning Muslim foreign fighters in Europe

Oped

The danger of returning Muslim foreign fighters in Europe

Rami Dabbas

Europe is awaiting unusual and unpredictable jihadist threats that are not only linked to specific organizations, but are also based on local jihad activity originating from within. In addition, European fighters who were in Syria and Iraq later returned to their country. This exacerbates the problem of the  presence of internal and sleeper cells in Europe.

In spite of Islamic State’s defeat in Syria and Iraq, European security officials are feeling anxious. The defeat of the terrorist organizations in the Middle East means that imminent future problems will occur in Europe, given the surrender of the European fighters and their return to their homes. The fighters may have been defeated on the battlefield, but they still hold on to their jihad ideology and have acquired invaluable military technical expertise while in the ranks of militant terrorist groups.

However, 2017 was the year of “home-grown terrorism” in Europe, not the year of the return of foreign fighters. When examining the record of the 16 terrorist attacks that occurred in 2017 in Austria, Finland, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden, we will find that all of their perpetrators were local jihadis, not returning fighters. Even the Islamic State claimed responsibility only for seven of these attacks.

And of course, the doubling of the number of unpopular attacks that are not claimed by any particular group, but carried out by individuals without ties to jihadi Islamic organizations underscores the fact that Europe is heading towards a multifaceted, unpredictable jihadist threat, and this is what the major European security services fear.

In this context, the “local” or “home-grown” attackers are those European individuals who have not traveled to Iraq or Syria, but who act on behalf of foreign jihadi Islamic organizations, after they have developed contacts with them online, or feel ideological contact with them. Therefore, since they did not travel to terrorist territory or have physical contact with these terrorist organizations, this makes the matter more complicated for the security services, in terms of predicting or preventing such attacks.

Indeed, it is a clearly European problem. The majority of the attackers are first-generation immigrants who have lived in Europe for many years; some are second-generation individuals. It is possible that members of the first generation arrived in Europe without terrorist intentions, but later became jihadis, like their second-generation colleagues.

The (local) attackers are also older than foreign fighters, so the “youth category” component is not a useful as security indicator for European security services. It is also noticeable that many of the attackers have a criminal record.

Attack methods have changed as well, and apart from the Barcelona attack, all 2017 attacks in Europe were individual actions. With the exception of the two failed attacks in Brussels and Paris, the attacks of 2017 were unfamiliar and generally uncomplicated, and this of course is a change from the sophisticated and technologically developed plans that terrorist cells have developed in the past.

What increases the danger of the threats that await Europe are the returning European fighters after the defeat of the Islamic State in the Middle East, including fighters, planners, promoters and recruiting specialists. Of course, the threat of the return of foreign fighters is no less ominous than that of local jihadis.

These (European) foreign fighters can recruit and encourage individuals in Europe to work locally, without inciting them to travel to join ISIS. For example, the Marseille striker is believed to have become radicalized by his brother, who fought with ISIS in Syria between 2014 and 2016. More broadly, returnees may become a real threat in the long run, working as jihadist agent recruiters starting with prisons, for example.

The jihadist recruitment experts certainly have a wide range of goals, especially since the European Union is home to up to 50,000 “extremist” Muslims. The concern is that the influence of the jihad ideology continues to grow in many Western European countries. Of course, the “snowball effect” would serve the jihadis well when they attract family or friends alongside them, concerning in the absence of adequate treatment for the fertile environment of jihad in Europe. To make matters worse, “mutual extremism” has become a serious problem, which leads to mutual violence by various jihadist parties.

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