‘Significant Threat’ to Europe After 1,300 Jihadis Return Home

ISIS fighters
A masked man speaking in what is believed to be a North American accent in a video that Islamic State militants released in September A masked man speaking in what is believed to be a North American accent in a video that Islamic State militants released in September 2014 is pictured in this still frame from video obtained by Reuters October 7, 2014. FBI/Handout via Reuters/REUTERS

Up to 1,300 European jihadists have already returned to the continent after fighting under the banner of ISIS according to ‘cautious’ estimates made by anti-extremism thinktank, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.The foundation, founded by former UK prime minister Tony Blair, also believe that these returning fighters intend to wage jihad in Europe.

“Returning foreign fighters are a potent force and a significant threat,” Ed Husain, a senior advisor at the Foundation told Newsweek.

“As they meet other young Muslims in mosques or community centres they can portray themselves as returning heroes from the trenches of jihad in Iraq and Syria. These people have walked the walk, not just talked about it in abstract terms,” Husain added.

According to figures compiled by King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), over 2,580 European fighters have left their home countries to fight with militants in Iraq and Syria. Interpol’s European chief, Rob Wainwright told British MPs this week that the number of Europeans fighting in the Middle East is now estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000.

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation think that between 1,000 and 1,300 fighters have already returned to Europe. Husain believes many will return invigorated by their experience and ready to continue their jihad on the continent. “Unprecedented numbers are going to train and fight in the so-called caliphate, a tangible Islamist State which is also directly targeting our citizens online and through their glossy propaganda magazines, taking advantage of the sense of vulnerability and victimhood many young Muslim men and women in Europe feel,” Husain said.

A wave of terrorism-related arrests has been made in the last few days in Germany, Belgium and France, and European security services are on high alert after three Islamist gunmen killed a total of seventeen people in Paris in attacks last week.

The first of the attacks saw two of the gunmen storm the headquarters of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, after the publication printed images of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. 

All three of the gunmen were French-born, however evidence suggests two were radicalised by an al-Qaeda cell based in Yemen, while the gunman who held up the kosher grocery shop claimed to be a member of ISIS.

When asked by Newsweek how many British jihadists have already returned to the UK, Shiraz Maher, senior fellow of King’s College London’s ICSR estimated that around 260 had returned.

Last week, the head of MI5 Andrew Parker warned in a rare public speech that Islamist militants are “planning mass casualty attacks against the West,” urging security services around Europe to avoid becoming “complacent”.

Charlie Hebdo French soldier patrols near the Eiffel Tower in Paris as part of the highest level of "Vigipirate" security plan after a shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo January 7, 2015. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

However, Haras Rafiq, managing director of the anti-radicalisation organisation, the Quilliam Foundation believes that UK has the mechanisms set up to rehabilitate many of these returning jihadists.

Commenting on the estimated 1,300 jihadists already back in Europe, Rafiq said: “First of all I think loads of people should be allowed back into the country and if they have broken any laws, they should be arrested and face trial. However every person should go through a deradicalization, rehabilitation programme to help them disavow the ideology and the theology that made them go and fight in the first place,” Rafiq added.

According to Rafiq, the UK’s deradicalization programme called Channel, which was set up in 2007 and which the Quilliam Foundation works in partnership with, has a “significant success rate” in reforming radicalised individuals.

“There is a risk assessment done when the treatment begins and there is a bespoke mentoring programme, where mentors who are already part of the British community, and are accredited by the home secretary engage with the person being treated. Sometimes mentors are former jihadis, sometimes not. They focus on five different aspects of deconstructing the narratives that cause radicalisation starting with the intellectual to the ideological, social, emotional and spiritual causes of why their charge became radicalised,” he said.

“I think the greatest success we have seen is in mentors who have joined after going through the programme themselves,” continued Rafiq, who added that individuals can also be referred to the programme prior to being radicalised. “France needs an anti-radicalisation programme like this,” he noted.

“I am optimistic because we have programmes like this in place, but the other reason I am very optimistic about our chances of combating radicalisation is because of the civic response we saw in France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.”

Around two million people took to the streets of Paris last weekend in the largest march in French history, to express their solidarity with the victims of the attack at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.

Leaders from across Europe and the Middle East joined the march in a bid to show civic unity in the face of terror.