As the US-led coalition slowly but surely expands its operations to fight back the Islamic State (IS), concerns over national security have risen in a region far broader than the Middle East. YouTube videos of Western IS fighters fuel the fear that these fighters will return to their home countries to continue the fight there. Therefore, although many argue that the existence of Islamic State in itself is a threat to national security, participating in the military operation against IS could create even larger, more direct security risks.
In order to prevent extremists from attacking civilian or governmental targets, counterterrorist measures have been taken across Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, after a Dutch jihad fighter posted a YouTube video in which he called for ‘severe action against the Dutch government’, military personnel has been advised not to wear their uniform when traveling with public transportation. In August, the United Kingdom raised its terror threat from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’. Schools in Belgium and The Netherlands canceled field trips to, respectively, Brussels and Paris, out of fear for possible terrorist attacks.
The desire to join armed forces in foreign countries is nothing new. In the past, foreign fighters have joined armed groups in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Somalia, to name a few. The motivation to do so can range from a sense of solidarity with the fighters to a strong sense of not belonging in the home country. In a Dutch documentary that follows several jihad fighters, one of them explains: “I could finally go to a place where I can be myself.” Across Europe, (Islamic) immigrants face difficulties integrating in their new societies. For some, this lack of integration, sometimes combined with discrimination and few economic opportunities, might be the final push toward jihadism. Others feel a strong sense of solidarity with fellow Muslims in Syria and Iraq, that urges them to fight back. After three years of civil war in Syria, and with the chaos in Iraq fresh in their minds, they have lost all trust in the Western policy in the Middle East. In a report on Dutch TV show Nieuwsuur, a jihadist explains the sense of betrayal he shares with many of his comrades: “It’s too much. Too many millions have been killed by these useless wars of America and their coalition.”
Another common feature many foreign jihad fighters share, is their ideology. Many of them follow the same form of Islam that terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and IS, propagate: radical Salafism. Salafists follow the first three generations of Muslims (including the Prophet Mohamed) as strict as possible. Salafism, Dutch Islamologist Joas Wagemakers explains, is generally very peaceful, and most followers oppose revolutions such as those that occurred during the ‘Arab Spring’. Radical, or Jihadi, Salafists, disagree with this perspective. Wagemakers: “Socially, Jihadi Salafists are very strict, but politically, they hold radical views. They embrace the idea of revolutions, they do use violence.” This ideological background is important not only in understanding IS, but the foreign fighters as well. Although a small minority of Western Muslims adhere to Salafism, and an even smaller part of them follows Jihadi Salafism, most Western jihad fighters are radical Salafists.
Leaving the battlefield
Although analysts argue that the battle with IS could take years, Western politicians and policy makers have already shown deep concern with the homecoming of jihad fighters. And indeed, some of them might not wait until the end of the war to leave the battlefield. However, it is not set in stone that they actually will return to their home countries. In fact, researchers found a total of eight possible paths foreign fighters can follow after their battle has ended. First of these is, of course, death. The other seven can be categorized under three travel routes: to stay in the country they were fighting in, to return to their home country and to travel to a non-Western country. In each of these locations, there is the possible outcome of a peaceful integration into society. The other outcomes include terrorist actions and, in the case of traveling to a non-Western country, fighting in other conflicts. This latter option might be the most dangerous one. It creates stateless jihadists, who travel from conflict to conflict and cause fear and instability in all countries they visit.
Home sweet home: warm welcome or cold shower?
Obviously, jihad fighters do not get the VIP treatment upon returning home. Several countries in the Western world have announced that they will prosecute members of terrorist organizations currently fighting in Syria or Iraq. Belgium, in fact, already started a similar lawsuit – against no less than 46 of its inhabitants. The suspects are accused of membership of Sharia4Belgium, but some of them are currently fighting on the Syrian battlefields. If convicted then, a return to Belgium could therefore result in incarceration. Denmark, on the other hand, has taken an unusual stand in its response to jihad fighting countrymen. The Scandinavian country has proposed a deal to Danish jihadists: return now, and you will not be prosecuted. The condition to this deal? The jihadists must enter a rehabilitation program, in which physical wounds and psychological traumas are treated. Crime prevention adviser Steffen Nielsen told Al Jazeera: “Unlike in England, where maybe you’re detained for a week while they figure out who you are, we say ‘Do you need any help?’”
There is no questioning the fact that the battles currently taking place in the Middle East create a threat to national security in countries thousands of kilometers away – especially if they are part of the ‘coalition of the willing’. The severity and source of this threat, however, must be reviewed carefully. Homegrown extremists without any intention of traveling to the scene of the conflict itself, might form a more eminent threat than returning jihadists. Furthermore, these returning jihadists do not necessarily have the intentions of planning a terrorist attack in their home countries.
By Lisanne Oldekamp
Image Credit: Wikimedia