FILE - A man pays respects prior to a service for victims of a shooting — alleged to have been carried out in May by French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche — at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, June 2, 2014.
FILE - A man pays respects prior to a service for victims of a shooting — alleged to have been carried out in May by French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche — at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, June 2, 2014.

France and Germany, traditionally among the fiercest defenders of document-free travel within the 26-nation Schengen travel zone, are calling for changes to counter the increasing number of Europeans leaving to wage jihad in Iraq and Syria.

They aren’t the only countries grappling with how to address the problem of their citizens leaving to fight in a war abroad.

In January, Britain, which is outside the Schengen zone, is expected to unveil legislation providing for the seizure or cancellation of passports of British nationals linked to armed groups. Britons who have gone and fought will be prevented from returning home, rendering them stateless.

According to British Prime Minister David Cameron, there is “no opt-out from dealing with this” challenge of foreigners leaving to fuel the conflict in the Mideast.

Westerners who have joined the ranks of radical groups fighting in Syria and Iraq have been compared to time bombs. In May, one of them apparently  detonated in Brussels: French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche allegedly went on a shooting rampage at the Jewish Museum, killing four. He is thought to be the first Western volunteer to have fought with Islamic militants in Syria to then carry out an attack in Europe.

The incident added to increasing alarm that as foreign jihadist volunteers return to their home countries, more will launch attacks, opening up yet another chapter in the long-running war between jihadists and the West. European governments are struggling to address this problem with strategies such as intelligence sharing and monitoring local Muslim populations.

Sizable threat seen

Even before the Brussels shooting, anxiety was mounting at what the blowback might be for Western countries, let alone in the Mideast, when an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters — at least 3,000 Westerners — return.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the threat” to Western countries, said retired FBI agent Martin Reardon.

According to scholars Chams Eddine Zaougui and Pieter Van Ostaeyen, Western fighters who have spent time in Syria are not likely to pursue attacks in their home countries. Writing in an opinion piece in The New York Times they argued that the fighters are motivated to fight the “regime of industrial-scale torture, barrel bombs and chemical attacks” mounted by Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

Other analysts disagree with that argument.

A study by Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, found that between 1990 and 2010, one in nine Western foreign fighters who fought with jihadists overseas, mainly in Afghanistan and the Balkans, subsequently became domestic terrorists. Some analysts, though, wonder whether the ratio will be higher with the foreign fighters who have gone off to fight in Iraq and Syria; they appear more radicalized before setting off than previous generations.

U.S. anxiety about blowback was heightened in May when Florida-born Moner Mohammad Abusalha became the first known American fighter in Syria to undertake a suicide bombing against Syrian government troops. The 22-year-old triggered a truck bomb in the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib.

Most were 'unknowns'

For intelligence agencies across the West, the most alarming aspect of the flood of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria is that most were previously “unknowns” who had not come up in intelligence surveillance.

The challenge of knowing which of their citizens have gone off to wage jihad is even harder for Europe’s smaller countries. They have fewer intelligence resources and a narrower surveillance reach, analysts say.

The number of foreign Muslim fighters from Europe in Syria is historically unprecedented; far fewer took off for Afghanistan. No one claims to have definitive numbers. France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population, about five million, appears to be leading the way with at least 700 people believed to have fought in Syria. Officials say at least 500 Britons have gone to wage jihad. But the numbers could be much higher.

A report by the Soufan Group, a security consultancy firm, estimates “3,000 fighters have traveled to Syria from Western countries to fight with rebel groups dominated by Islamic extremists.”  But that report was issued in May, and since the announcement of a caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the self-styled Islamic State group, there has been an acceleration of foreigners heading to war.

Across Europe there have been a series of cross-border meetings at ministerial and senior intelligence levels to try to coordinate counterterrorism strategies. The focus has been on intelligence sharing, what to do with returnees, and whether they should be arrested and prosecuted for fighting in a foreign war. Will imprisoning them just further radicalize them and make them more determined to attack the West?  Is a better approach to require them to go through de-radicalization programs?

Caution on punitive measures

Senior research fellow Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London argues that governments shouldn’t rely on a purely punitive approach when dealing with recruits or returnees.

“Research has shown that only a minority of foreign fighters will become involved in domestic terrorism,” and “targeted [de-radicalizing] interventions, not blanket sentencing, will provide the appropriate [and sufficiently calibrated] tool for mitigating potential risks,” he said.

But he agreed that governments should be doing more to empower security agencies to be able to “disrupt the travel plans of potential fighters before they leave the country.”

That is what Paris and Berlin want to do. The French and German governments want more airport checks in the Schengen travel zone and are calling for creating a real-time European passenger database that security agencies can use to track the movement of terrorism suspects. 

“This is urgent,” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve told reporters.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said, “3,000 fighters have left Europe to wage jihad, and we don't want Europe to become an exporter of terror."