It was a threat Europe’s security services had long feared coming true. In June, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French-born jihadist who had returned to Europe after fighting in Syria with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, shot four people to death in an attack at the Jewish museum in Brussels. While the Brussels attack was the first successful one executed by European jihadists returning from Syria, there have been other numerous other planned assaults.
Last fall, Britain’s MI5 disrupted an attack allegedly planned by a cell of “returnee” jihadists for a Mumbai-style mass attack on civilians in London. And in March of this year, French counterterrorism authorities announced they had foiled an imminent attack by a jihadist from Syria who was preparing to strike in southern France. Moreover, several European countries have broken up networks recruiting European Muslims to fight with jihadist groups in Syria, most recently in Spain where police arrested eight people suspected of forming a group that recruited militants to fight in Iraq and Syria.
Imitating al Qaeda’s Afghanistan strategy, radical jihadist groups in Syria have begun to put down permanent roots. Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, recently announced the establishment of two training camps in Syria, one of which was named after al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Meanwhile ISIS has established the formation of the "Zarqawi Camp" on the outskirts of Damascus as well as a number of other training sites. ISIS has even formed entire European fighting units—primarily French-speaking Muslims from France and Belgium—near Aleppo. Now, with ISIS’s rapid advance in Iraq, the organization controls large swaths of northern Syria and western and central Iraq, which provides the strategic depth for ISIS to establish additional training camps while its lighting success provides the group a potent recruiting tool to encourage foreign fighters to join their cause.
A recent EU assessment figures over 2,000 European passport holders have gone to Syria to fight, while the Belgian security services have estimated that the number may be over 4,000. According to an ISIS defector, many Western fighters are being trained with the aim of sending them back to their home countries to commit terrorist acts. “The volume of European returnees is so huge that it is almost impossible for the European security services to keep track of them all,” said Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College. “There is a strong likelihood,” continued Ranstorp, “that at some point we could see another 7/7 or Mumbai-style attack in Europe.”
What makes young Europeans join an organization like ISIS? In Europe, where many Muslims come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, the path to radicalization can begin in prison. Muslim immigrants and their children are disproportionately represented in almost every prison system in Europe, and in countries such as France and Belgium approximately 50 percent of the prison population is Muslim. According to a report from the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization on prison radicalization, convicted terrorists or those already possessing jihadist views may take leadership roles by negotiating with prison authorities on behalf of the broader Muslim prison population or by leading group prayers. In a new environment removed from family and friends, new inmates are more likely to be influenced by extremist interpretations of Islam. As a result of these factors, European prisons can actually produce more of a threat, as inmates in jail for less serious crimes emerge angry and radicalized upon their release.
Not all European jihadists are young men coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, however. As a study from MI5 noted, the reasons European Muslims choose jihad are varied, and there is no one single profile. Many are older and well educated. Some even have families, though they may have feelings of social or political displacement. As a result they are susceptible to radicalization as a means of establishing a sense of belonging or identity—part of which revolves around the concept of violent jihad. Obviously not all Western fighters returning from Syria or Iraq desire to commit acts of terrorism in their home country—Western anti-terrorism experts believe 10 percent of those returning from Syria to the West are able to carry out terrorist acts—but if even a small number do, the threat is serious.