Europe 'Reacted Too Late' to Danger of Islamists Returning From Middle East

Security forces
French police patrol 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

As France mourns the victims of its worst terrorist atrocity since the mid-nineties' attacks carried out by the Armed Islamic Group, attention has begun to turn to the significance of the Syrian civil war.

A former UK counter-terrorism detective has told Newsweek that the authorities in Britain and France "face awkward questions" about letting young jihadists travel to join the Syrian rebels, especially in the early days of the civil war when the Islamic State had yet to emerge as the predominant fighting group.

And a French security source says European intelligence services underestimated the danger of Syria-linked jihadist groups.

Connections between the Syrian conflict and the attacks in Paris are beginning to emerge, with a video circulating apparently showing supermarket gunman Amedy Coulibaly pledging his allegiance to ISIS, and suggestions in the US media that the Kouachi brothers may have returned from Syria relatively recently.

CNN quoted a French source saying that Cherif Kouachi might have travelled to Syria and returned in August last year, whereas USA Today reported both brothers returned last summer.

Charles Shoebridge, a former counter-terrorism detective in the UK, says the strategy of Western governments in relation to the Syrian war will now be scrutinised, and warned that the battlefields "have served as incubators for the kind of jihadist terrorism increasingly seen on Europe's streets."

Shoebridge told Newsweek: "For the first two of the last three years, countries such as the UK and France did little to stem the flow of their citizens to an already destabilised Syria and Libya, perhaps believing these jihadists would serve Western foreign policy objectives in attacking Gaddafi and Assad for example."

He continued: "Only when domestic intelligence services began to warn of the dangers of blowback from such people, and when groups such as ISIS began over the last year to turn against the West in Iraq and Syria for example, was any real action taken to stop the flow of UK and French citizens to what, in effect, were largely western policy created terrorist recruiting and training grounds. By then, as Europe seems increasingly likely to experience, it was already too late."

The security analyst and writer Nafeez Ahmed, who has been critical of the UK's anti-extremism programme Channel, thinks the approach to extremists with Syrian links was wrong: "What we know is that the police took a pretty lax approach. There were a bunch of court trials in 2008, but there was a whole network who were just sitting there, and who were under surveillance.

"At some point, there was a decision to leave these guys, these Islamists inside Paris, because they were going abroad. I saw quotes from French police and agents who were saying they didn't think there was a threat for Paris. The question is: to what extend did it allow these people to operate inside France and Britain, and to carry out their recruiting activities?"

A source familiar with the French security services doesn't believe police and agents ignored terror recruitment, but admits that "we were naive".

"I think that the confusion in the European position allowed recruiters to say that it was OK to go to Syria. I won't say they were 'allowed' to do this, but clearly, they were not properly prevented. In the two first years, a lot of services didn't pay the necessary attention to this situation and, actually, for once, it was Belgium who sounded the alarm."

He continued: "At the very beginning, authorities treated the problem as a humanitarian and social one, about 'poor young men going to Syria and being exposed to violence'. At the time very few understood that this was 'a new Afghanistan' for jihadists, but at a much larger scale."

It has emerged that both Kouachi brothers, Coulibaly, and his girlfriend Hayat Boumeddiene – who is thought to have escaped France, possibly heading to Syria – were all associated with the same jihadist group in Paris, Buttes-Chaumont. "I think until a year ago, they were considered as a joke," says the French source.

"Those people were extremists but they were mainly talking in the streets, telling Muslims to cut off from society – it was bizarre, but it was not a priority. Those organisations – like Sharia for Belgium, and the equivalent in London - were seen as crazy people, quite funny people. They were treated as average extremists. Maybe not the security services, but the policy makers were very naive."