No agreed EU policy for threat posed by European fighters returning from Syria, says Hague report
Up to 1,700 European jihadist have joined Syrian conflict, report says
Members of Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra pose at a checkpoint at the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, a passageway separating Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr, which is under the rebels’ control, and Al-Masharqa neighbourhoods, an area controlled by the Assad regime. Photograph: Reuters/Molhem Barakat
Although the number of Muslim jihadists travelling from European countries to fight the Assad regime in Syria has grown “exponentially” during the past year, there is no co-ordinated EU-wide policy to deal with the potentially violent threat posed by their return, warns a new report.
Between 1,100 and 1,700 European fighters are known to have gone to Syria since the conflict began in 2011, the majority of them from Germany, France, the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium, says the study by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in The Hague.
While the largest number of foreign fighters comes from Syria’s Middle Eastern neighbours and from North Africa, those European fighters form perhaps the next most significant bloc, and have been joined by between 300 and 400 more from Russia’s North Caucasus region, particularly Chechnya.
The paper does not provide a breakdown of the European numbers, but its analysis is broadly in line with a survey by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, in April, which put the number who had travelled from Ireland at 26.
The ICCT report says that most Europeans join Syrian or international jihadist groups, of which the most significant is Jabhat al-Nusra, which aims to establish an Islamist state.
That group’s core members, says the report, include veteran jihadists who formerly fought in Iraq under the banner of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. About 20 per cent of its leaders in Syria are foreigners.
Another group said to consist almost exclusively of foreigners, including Europeans, is Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, led by the increasingly prominent Abu Omar al-Shesheni, responsible for the capture of a military air base in Aleppo in August.
Among the myriad smaller groups, the report – entitled Dealing with European Foreign Fighters in Syria: Governance Challenges and Legal Implications – identifies Sukur al-Sham or “Falcons of the Levant” as having recruited French and Belgian fighters, and al-Dawla al-Islamiyya, which kidnapped two western journalists in 2012.
“It is not only families and communities who worry about losing their youth to Syria’s increasingly bloody civil war,” say the authors, Prof Edwin Bakker, Dr Christophe Paulussen and Eva Entenmann. “European governments and security services are particularly concerned about the potential threat returning fighters could pose.” The threat posed by those returning fighters is known as “the veteran effect”, where young, politically committed but largely untrained would-be fighters return to Europe as “lethal operatives” who have become inured to extreme violence and perhaps indoctrinated with more broadly anti-western views .
Lack of data
Only a small proportion return with the aim of committing acts of terrorism in their home countries. The difficulty, says the study, “is lack of data on those who have returned and especially on those who have not committed terrorist crimes in Europe”.
The reason for that lack of intelligence is that “despite increased calls for a comprehensive approach to the foreign fighter phenomenon at European level, there is currently no such union-wide response”.