Coordinated attacks by multiple gunmen in Paris this week have revived concerns in France, and the rest of Europe, about the threat posed by European citizens who may be inspired or deployed by armed groups abroad.
More than 12,000 foreign fighters have fought in Syria since the beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011, with as many as 700 of those believed to be from France, according to a report by the Soufan Group (PDF). One of them, Frenchmen Mehdi Nemmouche, killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May 2014. Growing worries about further attacks prompted French and Western officials last summer to crack down on Western nationals leaving for foreign battlefields.
Many French fighters who have joined the fight in Syria have grown disillusioned with the reality of life under such hardline groups as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and sought clemency on their return. That has prompted a wide debate in France about whether authorities should be lenient, in an attempt to gain intelligence from returned fighters, or prosecute them as potential security threats.
The radicalization of Frenchmen Cherif, 32, and Said Kouachi, 34, the two brothers suspected of carrying out the Charlie Hebdo attack on Wednesday who were killed in a shootout with police on Friday, began well before the conflict in Syria. Cherif was arrested in 2005 when he tried to go fight the U.S. and its allies in Iraq. He was convicted on terrorism charges in 2008 and served 18 months for his role in helping to funnel fighters into Iraq.
Amedy Coulibaly, an associate of the brothers who French authorities say killed a police officer in the Montrouge section of Paris on Thursday and then took five hostages at a kosher grocery store in eastern Paris on Friday, spent time with the younger Kouachi in prison, where he too became radicalized. Coulibaly also died in a shootout with police on Friday, during which four hostages were also killed.
While the details of Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers’ links to international armed groups are not yet clear, there is growing evidence of their ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the group's affiliate in Yemen. U.S., Yemeni and French officials said Said traveled to Yemen in 2011 and reportedly fought with AQAP. Some reports suggest he met with radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen responsible for the group’s online propaganda who was killed in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike.
During his standoff with police on Friday, Cherif Kouachi told French television station BFM-TV that, "I, Cherif Kouachi, was sent by Yemen's Al-Qaeda." In online messages, AQAP praised the Charlie Hebdo massacre and, after the two brothers were reported killed, claimed responsibility for the attack.
While authorities have not released any information about what, if any, operational role AQAP may have had in planning the assault, the group has planned previous attacks against Western targets. In December 2009, for example, AQAP sent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national, on a mission to take down an American airliner flying to Detroit using a bomb concealed in his underwear.
France has the largest Muslim community in Europe, with a population of 5 million, and it has struggled to address both the disillusionment of second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants and the rise of far-right parties that have found electoral success by campaigning on anti-immigrant platforms. Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism analyst with the Swedish National Defense College, told the Associated Press that “the sectarian tensions in the Middle East are mirrored in our cities in Europe,” adding that “there is a much sharper polarization of society.”
However, Andrew Lebovich, a New York-based researcher and analyst, cautioned against embracing a “directly causal relationship” between foreign conflicts and violence at home. Given the large number of foreign fighters in the Middle East, “So far there is a relatively low number of foreign fighters who have gone on to commit attacks in the West,” he said. It is much more likely, Lebovich noted, for returned foreign fighters to become active in jihadist groups in Libya or Egypt.
Citing examples from Afghanistan to Bosnia, Lebovich said that the incidence of foreign conflicts being used as either de facto training grounds or opportunities to hone skills for subsequent attacks elsewhere was not a new phenomenon. "People are going to take advantage of that foreign experience," he said, adding, that the conflict in Syria “may accelerate and intensify that trend.”
Meanwhile, the Paris attacks have also highlighted the competition between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. A report from British Channel 4 news on Friday said that a leading cleric for ISIL claimed that his organization, not Al-Qaeda, was behind the French attacks. Both groups have actively praised the Charlie Hebdo massacre on social media, a sign of the ongoing branding war between militant groups who capitalize on such attacks to attract new recruits.
With additional reporting by the Associated Press