PARIS: The suspect in the recent killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels provides a textbook example of a long-standing fear in the West – the threat posed by radicalized citizens returning from the battlefields of Syria.
Since Syria became a magnet for Westerners, European nations have been slowly fortifying themselves with measures to detect potential jihadi fighters and counter any plots. But French-born Mehdi Nemmouche – the first Western citizen returning from Syria to be implicated in a major attack – was caught by chance, in a spot check for drugs by a customs official, making a mockery of efforts to counter the threat.
The suspect had slipped through a handful of countries from Asia to Europe in the three months after leaving Syria, a French prosecutor said, a clear sign of the difficulties of tracking returnees.
Whether or not he was the Brussels shooter, the portrait provided by authorities of Nemmouche, 29, is that of a dangerous man. They say when he was arrested Friday at the Marseille bus station he was heavily armed, carrying a large supply of ammunition and a banner of Syria’s most notorious fighting group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Between 1,000 and 1,500 Europeans may currently be fighting in Syria against President Bashar Assad, according to Charles Lister, an analyst with Brookings Doha Center, who drew the estimate from governments and other sources. Each one who returns represents a potential threat, according to official European thinking, and the challenge to track them all is huge.
Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on foreign fighters at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, says that attacks by one person are far harder to thwart than large-scale operations. EU governments “are quite well positioned to thwart larger plots involving several people.”
“They’re not able to stop all the smaller, simpler attacks like the one in Brussels, with one person and a gun.”
In its annual report issued last month, The EU’s police organization Europol said radicals who travel to fight alongside militants in conflicts like the Syrian civil war are “posing an increased threat to all EU member states on their return.”
A leading French criminologist who advised former President Nicolas Sarkozy said that a lack of coordination and data-sharing among nations – even within the EU – stunts measures to counter the threat.
France feels particularly vulnerable because it has the highest estimated number of youths heading to Syria or fighting there - around 800. It rolled out new measures in April to prevent its citizens and legal residents from joining jihad and protect against potential threats posed by returnees, including canceling French passports and deporting foreign residents.
Britain has also withdrawn passports under a “Royal Prerogative.” However, softer approaches also are on the books in U.K. and elsewhere.
o FRANCE: A series of tough-love measures introduced in April includes a hotline for parents who fear their children are at risk of taking up jihad in Syria.
o NETHERLANDS: The Dutch have an elaborate program to counter the jihadi phenomenon that sent about 100 youths to Syria, of whom 10 were killed and 20 have so far returned. Beside canceling passports, an unspecified number of minors have been stopped from leaving, some placed in juvenile detention.
o BELGIUM: Belgium, which says about 150 of its citizens are in Syria, has set up programs in sensitive towns to improve cooperation among authorities, and designated a “prevention specialist” in 29 towns.
o BRITAIN: The long-standing Prevent program liaises with schools, volunteer agencies and local groups to detect a potential extremist. It recently encouraged women to reach out to other women concerned about potential jihadi on the home front.
o GERMANY: Some 320 extremists from Germany are currently in Syria, and some 50 have returned, but the authorities maintained a hands-off approach until recently, allowing them to fly out and return without being stopped because terrorism in Syria is difficult to prove.