Jihadist recruits continue to pose threat to Europe, finds EU report
At least 223 French people charged and imprisoned on returning from the war zone
A woman is evacuated from the Bataclan theatre after the terror attack in Paris on November 13th, 2015. Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP
Islamic State may be losing the war in Iraq and Syria, but the return of thousands of jihadist recruits continues to pose a threat to Europe, says a report by the European Commission’s Radical Awareness Network (RAN).
As its report points out, the massacres that claimed 162 lives in Paris and Brussels in November 2015 and March 2016 were carried out by returning European jihadists.
The US Senate homeland security committee estimates that 42,000 “foreign terrorist combatants” from 120 countries joined the Islamic State terror group between 2011 and 2016. More than 5,000 were European.
RAN says the return rate for European recruits is between 20 and 30 per cent. Denmark, Sweden and the UK have the highest rate of return, at nearly 50 per cent.
Some 700 French citizens are estimated to have joined Islamic State, which is also known as Isis, or the al Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al Sham.
At least 223 French men and women have been charged and imprisoned on returning from the war zone. Another 46 returnees are children who have been placed with relatives, foster families or in children’s homes.
David Thomson, a journalist at Radio France Internationale and the author of Returnees. They Left to Wage Jihad. They’re back in France, believes the flow has peaked, because large numbers of French fighters were killed in Mosul and are now dying in Raqqa.
Thomson’s book won France’s highest journalism award, the Prix Albert Londres.
Systematic imprisonment of returnees “is the least bad solution”, Thomson says. “There is no alternative.” Unfortunately, a small number of truly repentant jihadists are being sent to prison, he adds. Of the 19 returnees he interviewed, only two genuinely regretted having joined Islamic State.
“The danger from French prisons is now greater than the danger from Syria,” because prisons are centres of radicalisation, Thomson says. “Tomorrow’s jihadists are being born in today’s prisons.”
A young Frenchwoman of Algerian origin called Lena recounts in Thomson’s book that she married a French fighter whom she met via the internet in 2014. He was killed. She was suspected of spying and was imprisoned by Islamic State. She escaped and returned to France. But she has not renounced jihadist ideology.
“The Charlie Hebdo attack [which killed 12 people in January 2015] was one of the most beautiful days of my life,” Lena said. “I so wish it would happen again. And I hope that the next targeted attack will be done by a sister.”
Between 2014 and 2016, France invested heavily in “deradicalisation.” It was a mistake to treat jihadists as if they were mentally ill, Thomson says. He compares them to violent left-wingers of the 1970s and 1980s, who joined Baader Meinhof and Action directe. “No one asked that they be deradicalised, because it was understood they were motivated by political ideology. It’s the same thing with jihadists.”
At the age of 16, a young man called Zoubeir told Thomson, he was disgusted by consumerism and was searching for “a spiritual absolute”. He joined non-violent salafists, who want to practice Islam as the Prophet Muhammad did. “Little by little, I thought it was never enough, and that the highest level was jihadism,” Zoubeir said. “At that point you cut your ties. You tell yourself you can’t leave quietly, so you have to die fast, you have to fight…”
Today, France’s three leading “experts” on deradicalisation have been discredited, after spending substantial amounts of state subsidies. “There’s a consensus that deradicalisation is a fantasy,” Thomson says.
Sonia Imloul was given a four-month suspended prison sentence for misappropriation of public funds. Patrick Amoyel is in prison, accused of rape and illegally practicing medicine, after falsely claiming to be a psychiatrist. Dounia Bouzar claimed to have “deradicalised” young women who subsequently returned to Syria.
The RAN report lists reasons why jihadists return to Europe. Some are disillusioned or remorseful, because they are living in terrible conditions or because the group they joined is losing. Others are persuaded to return by their families. Some leave after taking refuge in Turkey to give birth, or after being wounded. A few have been captured and extradited to Europe. The most chilling, unquantified reason is to stage an attack.
“The majority were disappointed by their experience in Syria, but remain faithful to their ideology,” Thomson says.
Despite the fact that Islamic State “no longer puts people in a collective trance”, in the words of one interviewee, its ideology is very much alive. Thomson concludes his book with an Islamic State pronouncement after it lost Manbij, Syria. “We may have lost the battle, but we have created a generation who knows who its enemy is.”
Jihadist attacks, foiled, failed or “successful” continue at a rate of approximately one a month in France. The jihadists’ capacity and intensity may be waning, but the danger is ever present.