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Jean Francois Badias / AP

Europe braces for potential threat of returned Syrian war veterans

Experts say travel bans and other measures to track terror suspects radicalized in Syria are only part of the solution

European governments this week announced plans for sweeping travel bans and new measures to combat "lone wolf" terror suspects, as a quadrupling in the rate of radicalized Europeans entering the war in Syria has the West bracing itself for the potential security threat posed by returned fighters.

At least 12,000 foreigners are believed to be fighting or to have fought in Syria since the rebellion broke out in 2011, including at least 300 from France, 300 from Germany, and 200 from the Netherlands. The fear is that these foreign fighters will return home, trained in guerrilla warfare and perhaps even more radicalized then when they first picked up arms, and strike targets in the West.

The stark numbers spurred U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Tuesday to publicly urge European nations to be more “pre-emptive” in combatting violent extremism — perhaps suggesting that Europe might need to straddle the line between defending against terror attacks and encroaching on civil liberties, which many European nations have resisted doing.

On Wednesday, French officials announced they would propose legislation to ban suspected proponents of “terrorism” from leaving the country and would expand censorship of extremist websites. The new laws would also criminalize what officials called the “individual initiative” to carry out terror attacks, meaning that French intelligence would have wider capacity to pursue “lone wolf” attackers who are not working in conjunction with monitored international networks like Al-Qaeda.

The measures are necessary “to confront the rapid increase in the departures of young French for areas where training in armed combat is coupled with ideological indoctrination,” the government said in a statement.

It’s difficult to determine what percentage of returned fighters are intent on attacking their home countries — there have only been a handful of incidents, to date — although one researcher put the figure at “about one in nine” based on data from 1990 to 2010, before the Syrian war began. Because many European countries have no clear guidelines for how to prosecute those who fight or collude with extremists in Syria, they often move freely around the continent.

The threat is particularly salient for France. In May, French citizen Mehdi Nenmouche became the first Syrian war veteran to carry out ideologically-driven killings in Europe when he gunned down four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

But all of Europe has been on high alert, perhaps heeding the warning of experts who say Al-Qaeda-breakaway group The Islamic State’s recent declaration of an Islamic caliphate across Syria and Iraq has reinvigorated the post-9/11 generation of radical Muslim youth.

Earlier in the week, European leaders adopted an as-yet-undefined “action plan” to combat the threat posed by returned fighters, which would encourage the sharing of intelligence across borders to enforce travel bans and track suspects. “Recent developments in Iraq increase the need to act immediately,” one official told EU Business.

What to do about returned foreign fighters is a question Europeans have been struggling with for years, and it isn’t unique to the Syrian civil war. In 2012, a 23-year-old Frenchman named Mohamed Merah killed seven people, including four children, in three separate attacks on the French cities of Toulouse and Montauban. Merah had spent time in an Al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan, later fighting in Afghanistan, and had been under close surveillance since he returned home.

But the influx of European fighters into Syria is unprecedented, experts say, due to factors on both sides of the Mediterranean.

In recent European elections, far-right, Islamophobic parties have made unprecedented gains across the continent, while social marginalization and economic discrimination against second and third-generation Muslim immigrants has compounded the difficulty of integration into society.

Add to that the historical dimension of the Islamic State’s mission to establish a 7th-century-style Islamic caliphate, where oppressed Muslims the world over might find refuge, and the call to arms for foreign fighters has rarely been so appealing, said Magnus Ranstorp, who heads a working group on foreign fighters as part of the European Union’s Radicalization Awareness Network initiative, or RAN.

Over social media, now, you have widened recruitment tools, to play on sympathies,” said Ranstorp, also a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College. “It becomes an international echo chamber for taking in radical world views which continually reinforce those world views.”

Even fighters who return without violent intensions against the West are likely to suffer psychological trauma and difficulty adjusting to normal life, which could potentially set them down a path towards violent radicalization directed against their home countries. The harshest critics of the proposed French laws say that confiscating passports, which Germany has already done and the Netherlands is weighing, will only exacerbate Muslim isolation.

The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazaneuve, insisted the new measures would not be a slippery slope towards mass surveillance of Muslims. “This is not something discretionary and arbitrary,” he told France Info radio. “There must be a body of evidence that shows that a person is decided and determined to go to areas of jihadist operations.”

Even so, Ranstorp cautioned that travel bans and the like should be considered stop-gap measures, at best, and that more needed to be done at the local level to erode the root causes of radicalization.

Scandinavian countries, where civil liberties are rarely sacrificed in the name of national security, have pioneered what Ranstorp called the “softer” approach to neutralizing returned fighters.

Just a few months ago, the Danish city of Aarhus counted 28 cases of radicalized youth who either intended to fight in Syria or had returned. The local RAN unit there employed a multifaceted strategy that involved making a threat assessment of each suspect — involving security services when necessary — and then pairing each with a psychologist to “shake their world view and their radical convictions” and a mentor available 24 hours a day. Families and local mosques have also been looped in.

Aarhus hasn’t seen a new case since January.

“Governments have a tendency to lean towards repressive measures because they show immediate results and are punitive in nature,” said Ranstorp. “But if we only rely on taking passports and banning travel, at the end of the day it’s going to be a Band-Aid. It won’t resolve the underlying issues.”

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