EU Foreign fighters: an activate ticking time cluster bomb

No EU State is exempted from the threats posed by extremist groups and the brand-new clothes of the transnational terrorism embodied by the ISIL proves how true and current is this concern.

Since the Syrian rebels’ movement took up the arms against the Assad clan and Alwite rulers, a number of individual holding different nationalities and settled all around the world started supporting in many ways these opposition movements. A significant number of men, and only later women, literally flocked to the battleground to join the cause.

This phenomenon may be classified as without any precedents in the most recent history not as a per se. It may be useful to consider the unprecedented features that the warfare has attained as well as the matter of concern related to the returning European fighters under the Schengen regime, more than for the number of foreign fighters active in Syria and Iraq today. At least due to the uncertainty ruling the roller-coast esteemed digits when it comes to issue officials number of EU nationals fighting alongside the Syrian opposition or joining ISIS. Basically, due to the current stances related to the phase of recruitment and travels of the wannabes fighters, besides the regime of free movement in Europe, officials are groping in the dark in assessing the real bulk of active foreign fighters. From the 80s’ Afghan War till the most recent conflicts in the Balkans, passing by the periodic upheavals in the Caucasus, it has always been recorded a notable number of foreign fighters joining the militias. Nonetheless, the upstanding technological progress of mass communication granted a valuable asset to the soi-disant Caliph of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

Since the ISIL took over limited Iraqi areas, and then extended its ground towards the Levantine historical territory of Bilad of Sham, territorially and ideologically speaking, the debate concerning counter terrorism and defence stances has been magnetized by a series of thorny points.

Likewise who are these fighters, what pushes them to flow in another country’s war, is it only a romantic nouvelle vague inspiring sympathy for the cause or it bobs up other problems rooted in our societies?

The prospect that EU nationals may carry out terroristic attacks against their homeland, at their return from the Jihad in Iraq and Syria shakes EU policy makers’ frights and nightmares.

Therefore the real question to be asked is “Do they really have long-term plans to hit their home Country? Whether yes, “To what extent do they pose threats to the EU and its internal space of freedom and security?” and “How to cope with it in the post-Schengen era?”.

 Gunman, hangman and sacrificial lambs

 The whole issue may be depicted as a prism, being far more complex and multifaceted than the common twofold argument put forward by media. The concern cannot be limited to the role of returnees and the possible actions they would undertake once back to the motherland. In fact, while fighting boots on foreign grounds, they also act as catalyser agents by embedding the conflict in the war-torn Middle Eastern scenarios. Besides the false Islamic message they wage, the dreaded connected menace relies on the chance that the fighters may use and spread the know-how acquired during the training periods they attended or during the side-by-side combatting training phase with locals in Syria, Iraq and so on.

The Caliph and all the international terror brokers can count on a nourished army composed also by European personnel, around 3000 according to the esteems publically delivered by the EU anti-terrorism chief, Gilles de Kerchove (1). It is not a case that after the inception of the Syrian upheavals, the first violent action on the European soil has been carried out by a French gunman trained in Syria (2). Other face of the same medal is the case of the hangman with British accent, and possibly EU national supposed to have been raised up in Great Britain, executioner of the American reporter beheading in Iraq past August 2014. It has to be noted that since the outset of Syrian-Iraqi turmoil, EU individuals have been involved in the crisis scenario in multifaceted role, from falling under targeted attacks, kidnapping and spectacular web-broadcasted killings. On the contrary, the murder role has been well equally played by EU nationals (3).

Whether they are executioners or victims, the domino effect especially related to possible reactions. The so-called “blowback effect” may take place at these foreign fighters return to their motherland or to third countries after the conclusion of their mission of the operative phase of fighting on the ground. Conversely, the European public opinion may radicalize and entrench their views regarding some sections of the population that have already been experiencing mistrust and prejudice after the 9/11 attacks. Et voilà the background for a perfect chain reaction series able to embed and radicalize violent trends already present in the European societies, undermining the mission of an integrated security approach involving both the internal and external dimension.

As mentioned beforehand, the presence of EU combatants convening to others’ fights is not a prime-time event, but trying to track some individuals’ movements, it has been spotted that it is not uncommon to find cases of wannabe fighters failing to reach the chosen destination, namely Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia i.e. at the first attempts. Conversely, Syria or Iraq are easily reachable through sea and land passages not really controlled by indulgent “doorkeepers”, namely throughout Turkey. Far from being empowered to block EU citizens’ travels unless they are suspected to be moved by malicious objectives, EU government should engage those Countries alleged to be tacit supporters of fighters’ flow throughout their borders and directed to the battlefield in Iraq and/or Syria. Lately, Ankara has progressively changed its attitude and suspended the “zero problems” policy towards neighbours as the Syrian crisis has been escalating with the involvement of Jihadist militias from Iraq besides the involvement of the historical thorn in Turkish government’s side: the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As the situation has unrelenting escalated, the EU has been forced to find a remedial. The shrinking exercise has not brought any substantial long-lasting solution yet, but only measures enabling answer for the momentum. Recalling the Council conclusions on Terrorism and Border Security the bulls’ eye has been definitely set on the enhancement of the already existing frameworks and the call to the bordering Countries to strengthen and effectuate more efficiently their borders’ check duties, seen the emergency situation (4).

The concern is shared, as long as the tasks to tackle terrorism. Recognized to be a major threat to EU’s freedom and its citizens’ security, terrorism needs to be addressed by deploying tailored tools acting in four phases: prevent, protect, pursue and respond to terrorism, as of the legal bases for action under the Amsterdam Treaty and the Stockholm programme (5).

The whole basket of EU counter-terrorism strategy’s measures and actions are fundamentally shaded in compliance with horizontal issues such as the respect for fundamental rights, as of the Charter of fundamental rights, for the tools adopted to hinder terroristic actions, propaganda and funding. The above mentioned four pillars of the EU’s fight against terrorism and the set of actions, they enable are also subject to the respect of international law and conventions by the neighbouring countries and the supposed partners to counter terrorism worldwide.

On this page, the bid to cooperate to better the external borders’ control system opened to the third countries’ officials, Turkey at the forefront:

 “the Integrated Border Management (IBM) of the EU should take into account countering terrorism in relation to external borders, including by organising practical cooperation with third countries” (4).

Although the most pressing issue is clinched with the 2.0 means used by the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his analogues to propagate the Jihadist message and recruit youngsters and fighters globally. The development of a counter-narration to the argument brought up and waved by the Lords of Terror should be considered as a remedial against the radicalization, so much as to deter the phenomenon mainly among young people trying to desecrate the reasons to join militias and the whole violent Islam narrative.

Civil society itself and possesses the knowledge on how to counter radicalisation meaning that the action must be undertaken at any level, as the former Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmström had to say in January 2014.

“Schools also have an important role in strengthening resistance against extremist messages glorifying violence. So, among the recommendations presented today, the Commission is calling on Member States to do more in the field of education” (6).

 Youngsters are seen as the weakest subjects allured by these narrations due to their age, incomplete education scheme and, sometimes, poverty-stricken background. Thus, nothing compared with Lord Byron Romantic beckon tied with the expedition to fight alongside the nationalists in Greece during the XIX century. Contemporary appalling appeal gained by terrorism and Jihadism requires a broader approach to counter the phenomenon, as the traditional techniques of law enforcement are inadequate as atout, or at least too slow to catch up the speed of evolving trends linked to radicalisation and violent extremism, in all its features.

Between wannabes and returnees, how to cope with them?

Since the inception of the millennium, the world find itself vis-à-vis the transnational terroristic menaces put in practices triggering the relentless research of measures and tools to prevent and cope with the terrorism, in all its features. The EU experienced a series of attacks on its soil, so to show publically that the lack of a comprehensive smart response to the phenomenon would have only worsened the situation, chiefly after the decision to fight a new-generation transnational menace through the deployment of traditional warfare strategies.

The EU has developed a series of programs in the last years to cope with the pit of concerns related to the terroristic threat. Although the insurgent issue related to the EU –possibly- indoctrinated to spread the violence and move attacks against the motherland has put the institutions and national governments face to face with the question on how to manage the returnees under the Schengen free movement regime. As to worsen the whole affair, EU concerns is amplified by the situation of porosity affecting the Middle Eastern borders and the existing international well-established networks among States of origin, transit and destination through which resources to support foreign fighters’ venture are channelled.

The set of measures, directives and agencies active on the field from a European perspective have to confront with the sticks hiked up by the national authorities and police bodies. The effectiveness of the judicial tools and police operations passes through the cooperation at all the levels of actions involved. The EU both national authorities do not need any further instrument, just to share best-practices and to commit energetically on the implementation of these instruments.

The EU space of freedom and justice and its citizens have till now benefitted from the Schengen scheme of free movement, but now someone is misusing this mechanism for mischievous purposes. Gaining the first pages of newspapers and tabloid, British Prime Minister Cameron suggested to rip off passport or even nationalities of those citizens returning from war-torn Countries whose profile required further investigation on the purpose of the travel. It sounded more as an overreaction output on the wave of feelings, since the legal ground was crumbling under Mr Cameron’s feet as soon as he spoke the words out. Such an intervention would first of all harm the British law presumption of innocence, appointing citizens returning from Syria mainly with the reversal of the prescription, in a fictionist diktat “guilty until proved innocent”. From a totally different opinion, the other “opt-out” Schengen waiver Country, Denmark, approached the returnees’ issue issuing programs supporting the rehab and reintegration process of those experiencing the Jihad in Syria.

Some returnees might need psychological help and treatments as suggested by the Danish policy, which is difficultly digested by contributors as widely considered a spending of public resources on people labelled as terrorists. Abroad, it of course raised criticism among the Countries and whose national budgets and welfare programs are dismantled by spending reviews actions.

Being treated just like as a Danish citizen, the returnees are eligible for any services and assistance covered by the Danish welfare without forcedly spending a period of reclusion unless found guilty of crimes or proselytise (9). In full compliance with Mr De Kerchove’s demand to deploy best-practices and develop the best responses possible when dealing with returnees so to de-radicalize the phenomenon. Whether proved guilty, he continued during the LIBE committee session on the 5th November 2014, the national juridical system shall be provided of a proper offence to address the issue and proceed within a legal framework, as pledged under the UNSC resolution 2178. Since 2008, national judicial authorities’ investigations and prosecution tasks are empowered with a new set of offences such as training, public provocation and recruitment established.

Under no European Country juridical system an individual can be convicted for planning to travel to Syria or Iraq, so what the national authorities are empowered to do is to deploy twofold measures to deal with the wannabes fighters informing them about the risks connected to the travel, as well to act carefully with these individuals when the fighting experience has concluded as they may suffer of shell-shock. The thorny point related to the informative session in the attempt to discourage them to undertake these travels is that some potential terrorists remain invisible to authorities unless they expose themselves on the internet and social media platform by sharing their willingness to join the Jihadists or posting pictures embracing arms.

As defined by Mr De Kerchove, this is the first “Twitter war” with real outcomes on the ground. Due to the wannabe fighters’ peculiar narcissism the job of EU officials charged with security and surveillance tasks is slightly eased. Indeed, profiling and detection tasks are constantly carried out so to mobilize the employ the existing mechanism to deter the menace, as the Schengen Information System (SIS) and the Smart Border Package (SBP). The Package consists of a Registered Traveller Programme (RTP) and an Entry/Exit System (EES) to record frequent travellers to third countries and data of third countries’ nationals entering the Schengen space as provided by of the integrated borders management to assure EU internal security (10).

As seen, the measures all criss-cross from national to international level, having in the instruments kicked off by the EU the most operative whether the cooperation and the transmission belt of data do not go loose. Ms Coninsx stressed the importance of the common cooperative engagement fight against this phenomenon, by stating:

 “We must avoid a fragmented fight of symptoms. Therefore, we need to ensure fully coordinated actions against terrorism. This is like a cancer, and just as against cancer we must fight this disease in time, to do otherwise may be too late”.

 The panel of counter-terrorism and security experts auditioned by the LIBE committee on the 5th meeting all agreed on it. What the EU and Member States are desperately in need of in this anti-terrorism fight is better cooperation and a wiser employ of the existing instruments already existing, complementary to the above mentioned SIS, with the possibility to consult on a non-systematic basis national and European databases, as well as make a better use of the Interpol database of stolen and falsified documents when the tasks of borders control are carried out by frontiers’ officials and police authorities.

Although the apparent entente between the counter-terrorism personalities and the LIBE committee MEPs, the debate in the European assembly heated up when the Passenger Name Record (PNR) came out showing that the issue still embodies the elephant in the EP’s living room.

Anita Nappo

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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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