EUROPE is struggling to respond to the challenge posed by the thousands of militants who travelled to the battlefields of Syria or Iraq and have now begun to return home.
Of the around 27,000 foreign fighters believed to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to take up arms alongside extremist groups such as Daesh (the so-called IS), around 5,000-6,000 are estimated to be European.
But with some slipping in and out of Europe unnoticed, the exact figure is unknown. The EU’s anti-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, believes that between 2,000 and 2,500 European nationals or residents are still in the Middle East but are likely to return as anti-Daesh fighters close in on the militants’ last strongholds such as Raqqa in Syria.
“The most recent figures suggest that 15 percent to 20 percent of European fighters have died there, 30-35 percent have already come back and around 50 percent are still in Syria and Iraq,” De Kerchove wrote in a recent report.
Those who have not returned home are holed up “in pockets of resistance in neighboring countries or will travel to other conflict zones”, he added.
The EU’s security commissioner Julian King said in March that the militant threat “will remain high in the coming months and years, particularly as events in Syria, Iraq and Libya unfold”.
Some of the foreign fighters will attempt to return to EU countries, “some with the intention of planning and executing potential future attacks”, he said.
Although attacks this year in Stockholm, Manchester and London were carried out by “homegrown” extremists who had not fought in Iraq and Syria, security services fear battle-hardened extremists pose a high risk.
According to a count by AFP’s European bureaus, based on official estimates, around 1,500 militants have already returned to their home countries or countries of residence. They are often either put in prison, or placed under surveillance, sometimes with stringent conditions and sometimes in de-radicalization programs whose success remains unproven for the time being.
French journalist and author David Thomson, who has written a best-selling book about returning militants called “Les Revenants”, said the biggest challenge for the authorities was evaluating what exactly they did in Iraq and Syria.
“The problem is when they’re questioned after they return, they all say they were nurses,” he told AFP.
The biggest problem for investigators is finding proof of what the individual did, Thomson said. “The most cunning, and often the most dangerous, never post anything about their activities on social networks.
“So in France as a rule it leads to prison, and with longer and longer prison sentences. The problem is just pushed back because no-one knows what else to do for the time being.”
When returnees set foot back in EU countries, they are first arrested, then questioned and put under investigation.
Different countries have each come up with specific charges to correspond to the problem of returning militants, such as “membership of a terrorist organization”.
A breakdown done by AFP showed there are currently 280 suspected militants who have returned to Germany out of 820 who went to Iraq and Syria, 450 in Britain out of 850, 210 in France out of around 1,000 and 45 in the Netherlands out of at least 280. In Norway the figure is around 40 from 100 who went, in Sweden it is 150 (out of 300), in Finland 20 (out of 80) and in Denmark around 70 (out of 145).
In Austria, of the 300 people who went to fight at least half are of Chechen origin. Around 40 were killed and 50 were arrested on their return. — AFP