Authorities from several European countries are publicly warning about the increasing danger that some of them will inevitably return as battle-hardened and radicalized terrorists and target their home countries. The growing concern explains Western foot-dragging in arming forces fighting Syria’s regime as they scramble to find ways to help rebels without empowering more radical Al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat Al-Nursa and the Islamic State of Iraq.
The two groups appear to be taking the leadership and initiative from moderate rebels fighting to topple Syria’s regime. They also consider Western countries and Arab regimes their enemies, even if they share a common enemy in Bashar Al-Assad. Indeed, Europe’s worst fears of terrorism are materializing. For years, anti-terrorism efforts have concentrated on the massive population of North African and Pakistani immigrants and descendants, some of whom are being lured to radical jihadist struggles across the globe.
Most terrorism plots in Europe, successful or not, have not been directed by foreign terrorist networks, but by home-grown dormant cells, many of which fought in far-away wars like Chechnya, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the Syrian and Malian wars, on top of the growing Al-Qaeda presence in Libya, Algeria, Lebanon and, presumably, Egypt has empowered jihadist groups on its borders. Maghreb descendents and immigrants are increasingly being lured to these struggles, significantly complicating anti-terrorism efforts.
Ongoing court cases, authorities and independent security think tanks suggest hundreds of European residents have gone to fight in Syria, including some who died as suicide bombers and many more who joined the ranks of Al-Qaeda affiliates, as opposed to moderate rebel forces. The most recent was on June 21, when eight men, all Spaniards of Moroccan origin, were arrested for their alleged involvement in an Al-Qaeda-linked cell based in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, on the North African shore. The cell also operated in Belgium and the Netherlands.
The cell sent at least fifty men to Syria, including minors, out of which twelve were Spanish citizens mostly of Moroccan origin. There were also at least another thirty-eight from Morocco. One of them, a Spanish citizen, killed 130 Assad troops in a suicide attack in 2012.
On June 27, a Spanish court ordered the arrest of the cell leader, also of Moroccan descent, born in Ceuta and a resident of Belgium. It also ordered the arrest of another man, who allegedly said in a wiretapped phone conversation that he would target Ceuta if he was not allowed to go to Syria, according to court documents. Spanish authorities said returning jihadists are “a real and serious threat to our security.” And they are right to be concerned.
On July 1, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb criticized the arrests in a statement, and accused Morocco’s monarch of treason for working with Spanish authorities instead of fighting to reclaim the Spanish enclaves on Morocco’s coast. Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz said authorities “are certain” that Al-Qaeda’s goal is to get many of its militants “to return to their home countries to carry out jihad” as lone wolves or by integrating existing dormant cells.
He did not say how many Spaniards fighting in Syria had returned, but added that “we have the information. We are not talking about combatants, soldiers in Syria’s conflict, but of recruiting jihadists to carry out [suicide] attacks.” Belgium, where the Ceuta-born alleged leader of the Spanish cell resides, is also looking into recruitment on its turf, as is the Netherlands. According to the Belgian press, at least two hundred Belgians have joined the war in Syria; the majority are of North African origin.
The European Union said in April that at least five hundred European citizens had joined Syria’s war, but the exact number remains uncertain. How many will try to target their home countries is ultimately Europe’s biggest concern.