The phenomenon of “citizen jihadists” travelling to Syria has prompted European countries to take preventive measures as they try to stop them joining the civil war, aiming to prevent young Muslims becoming radicalized and posing a threat to their home country.
British police have started to reach out to Muslim women in an attempt to prevent young people going to fight in Syria, while France has unveiled a plan to stop youths joining jihad. Meanwhile, the Netherlands has warned that militants returning from Syria posed a security threat to Europe.
British counter-terrorism officials yesterday launched a national campaign to raise awareness of the risks of travelling to Syria, especially for those who just want to offer humanitarian aid. The campaign was prompted by an increase in the number of Britons caught travelling or returning from Syria, from 25 arrests last year to 40 in the first three months of 2014. Several of those arrested were subsequently charged with terrorism-related offences.
“We are increasingly concerned about the numbers of young people who have or are intending to travel to Syria to join the conflict,” said Helen Ball, senior national coordinator for counter-terrorism. “We want to ensure that people, particularly women, who are concerned about their loved ones are given enough information about what they can do to prevent this from happening.”
The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London estimates that between 200 and 366 British nationals have gone to Syria to participate in the conflict.
Police will hold meetings across Britain with women from different community groups, charity workers and government officials involved in preventing extremism. A leaflet has been prepared outlining the risks of travelling to Syria, which will be handed out at airports and ports.
New measures in France
France announced measures on April 23, aiming to deter youths from joining the ranks of jihadists in Syria. The measures include a system for allowing suspicious parents, and perhaps teachers, to tip off authorities. Those suspected of wanting to become a foreign fighter will have their passport withdrawn and their name put in a European security data base.
France believes it has more of its young people joining the Syria fighting than any other European nation. The government said April 23 that nearly 300 French people are currently in Syria, 130 are in transit and 130 others have returned home after one or more tours in Syria. Another 25 French citizens or residents have died on the battlefield. In total, 740 people have been identified as belonging to Syrian networks.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the plans include preventive measures and “repressive elements aimed at dismantling networks that expose our country to risks.” Speaking after a Cabinet meeting that approved the plans, Cazeneuve said France had “the will to use all means to identify recruiters and suppliers of hatred on the Internet, and dismantle the networks.”
France plans to create an alert system for parents who fear their children are at risk of taking up jihad. Parents would contact the Interior Ministry, which would mobilize social services and the educational system.
Belgium to host conference on homegrown Syrian fighters
Several other European countries have been dealing to varying degrees with the phenomenon of citizen jihadists. Belgium is hosting an international conference on homegrown Syrian fighters May 8. Belgium says about 150 of its citizens are in Syria. The country has set up programs in sensitive towns to improve cooperation among authorities and designated a “prevention specialist” in 29 towns. A national prevention cell brings together police, experts and social workers in an outreach similar to France’s proposals.
The Netherlands’ annual intelligence report, released April 23, put the number of Dutch in Syria last year at more than 100, with 10 dead, including a suicide bomber. About 30 have returned and are being monitored, it said. The country also warned militants returning from Syria posed a security threat to Europe and said two Dutch citizens had carried out suicide attacks in Syria and Iraq in the past six months.
Germany also recently opened three outreach centers. A German former rapper who joined jihadists fighting in Syria was reported dead this week by jihadist sources, but hours later some retracted the claim, saying he was still alive.