The jihadist threat to the West has been evolving for some time but has recently been aided by the increasing instability in the Middle East. The rise to prominence of the Islamic State (IS) is but the latest and most prominent manifestation of these trends. Stretching across a more than 400-mile wide swath of Iraq and Syria, IS has a caliph not a president, holds the Koran to be its constitution, and uses ruthless tactics, including summary executions and suicide bombers, to assert its authority and achieve its goals of ending the “partitioning of Muslim lands” (embodied in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement) and uniting “the Muslims under one Imam carrying the banner of truth.”
While it currently makes its home within the borders of Syria and Iraq, the roots of IS are in Jordan and Afghanistan, dating back to about 1999–2000. Since then, IS has evolved and transformed itself from a loosely structured group with broad international ambitions into a vast organization with sizable quantities of weapons, a significant stash of cash, the ability to recruit experienced fighters (many of them foreigners), and ambitions to govern Muslims across country boundaries. As such, IS is a much more sophisticated organization than any other the West has encountered so far. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, in Djerba in 2002, in Madrid in 2004, or in London in 2005—tragic as they were—were one-off and local in immediate effect. In January 2013, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb conducted a military campaign whose goal was the acquisition by force of an entire country, to be turned it into a base for further operations in the region, using captured airfields and military or communication facilities. Yet even these goals are modest compared with those of current IS operations.
The European Union is particularly vulnerable to the threat from IS. The geographic proximity of the threat is one of the main reasons that Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the UK joined the US-led, limited campaign of air and cruise missile strikes against IS, which began in August 2014. France was the first European country to commit bombers to the skies over Iraq, and President Hollande has called for a no-fly zone over Syria to help rebel forces combating the Assad regime. President Holland’s call made France the only Western country, other than Turkey, to call for an internationally protected enclave within Syria. France, however, has refrained, as others EU countries have, from flying missions over Syria. The UK has signed up to the coalition in spite not only of the public backlash following its participation in the Iraq war but also Prime Minister David Cameron’s continued wariness of the dangers of mission creep. Denmark took part in the Iraq war, and in NATO’s Libya operation in 2011, but the country’s highly Atlanticist policy is the key reason for its participation in the air raids. Germany is providing military equipment to Kurdish forces in Iraq but is not taking part in the air raids. In response to criticism from some EU fellow countries, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated that it would be wrong to regard participation in air strikes as a yardstick for Germany’s commitment to the fight against IS, or to any similar threat against Europe. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Italy are also contributing military equipment and personnel. Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Greece, Poland, and Romania have opted to contribute political rather than more concrete military support to the anti-IS international coalition. Finally, the EU has activated the its Civil Protection Mechanism to support “rapid deployment of in-kind assistance and expertise to Iraq.” Ten member states are providing essential relief through a “humanitarian air bridge” And the European Commission has increased the level of aid to $22-million in 2014.
The various levels of participation of EU countries in the anti-IS international coalition highlights yet again the shortcomings of the EU’s diplomatic machinery, which continues to follow a case-by-case approach despite the ambitious foreign policy goals put forward in 2009 by the Lisbon Treaty. EU member states traditional unwillingness to coordinate their efforts abroad, their marked preference for conducting bilateral rather than common foreign policy, and the ineffective relationship between the EU Commission and the European External Action Service continues to translate into the EU’s inability to line up its foreign policy positions with relevant actions on the ground. Institutional and national rivalries are impacting the ongoing efforts to come up with coherent foreign policy instruments to address the IS threat, as are differing priorities among EU governments, particularly those of France, Germany, and the UK.
The Islamic State’s European jihadists and sympathizers are also a cause for great concern across the EU. The roots of IS in EU countries appear to be just as deep as those it has in the Middle East, the Maghreb, and Turkey. Estimates suggest that up to 3,000 of the Islamic State’s 15,000 foreign fighters (and these numbers are growing by the day) are EU citizens, the majority of whom were born Muslims and recruited in low-income neighborhoods through active, well-organized recruitment channels, as well as networks of sympathizers. Europe’s economic crisis, problems of social exclusion, religious tensions, and political frustrations complement the Islamic State’s shallow religious narrative and further boost its recruiting potential. Even considering that, since the 1980s, Belgium, France, and the UK have harbored active Islamist movements pushing for anti-democratic, intolerant, and at times explicitly violent ideology, the Islamic State’s share of EU-born foreign fighters is unprecedented among jihadist organizations.
Some of the media coverage of the Islamic State has downplayed the threat posed by returnee jihadists. Yet Thomas Hegghammer’s research suggests that the EU’s concerns are realistic. Hegghammer shows that the number of European fighters in IS may exceed the total number of Muslim foreign fighters from all Western countries to all conflicts between 1990 and 2010, and that approximately 10 percent of the European-origin foreign fighters have become security threats after returning home. Sadly, the recent cases of Mehdi Nemmouche in Brussels and Ibrahim Boudina in France suggest that these fears are not just potential but are already all to real.
The rising homeland security concerns are weighing heavily on one of the EU’s most cherished multilateral projects: the Schengen Agreement, which eliminates any form of systematic border check for any purpose other than to validate the authenticity of an individual’s travel documentation. In every day life, even the required systematic checks on documentation are loosely applied, as border guards rarely do anything more than simply glance at the color of a passport’s cover. Thomas de Maiziere, Germany’s Interior Minister, has been very vocal about the need to change the Schengen Agreement in order to prevent returnee jihadists from crossing borders within Europe undetected. However, because it is a matter of EU law, reforming the Schengen Agreement could take years to achieve, and any push to do so would likely face stiff opposition from the majority of EU members who view the principle of free movement of people as inviolable. Other efforts to increase EU-wide data-gathering on Europe’s IS supporters or sympathizers have also become politically toxic in the aftermath of the U.S. scandals surrounding the NSA’s data collection techniques. For example, a European Commission proposal for an EU database of air passenger data, the Passenger Names Record (PNR), has been on ice for the past two years due to a deadlock in the European parliament over civil liberties issues (the PNR would monitor millions of ordinary travelers). The EU has open borders, but policing remains national and, more importantly, controversial. EU member states refuse to co-ordinate policing powers, and their intelligence services generally remain wary of contributing information for fear of compromising their material.
But there is some political will to make changes. How to stop European jihadists traveling to the Middle East has been the key issue discussed at the G6 meeting of EU Interior Ministers held in Paris at the beginning of November. Turkey’s Interior minister, Efkan Ala, also attended the Paris meeting and shared data regarding the number of johadists it had stopped on their way to Syria over the last six months. In fact, the overwhelming majority of European jihadists travel to Syria via Turkey’s southernmost province of Hatay, where for about $50 dollars they can be smuggled across the border into Syria. Though the French Minister of Interior, Bernard Czeneuve, avoided criticizing Turkey openly, the other Interior ministers were vocal about the problems that the porousness of the Turkey-Syria border create when trying to cope with the jihadist threat to Europe, and that Ankara should be more active against EU foreign fighters. Moreover, following the G6 meeting in Paris, the EU-PNR proposal was discussed in the EU Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties and progress was made to accepting it in light of increased IS violence in Syria as well as to include “foreign fighters” as a special topic in the Schengen Information System (SIS) to track jihadist when they enter and exit Schengen countries.
Earlier in 2014, De Maiziere and other Interior Ministers agreed to speed up the implementation of a 22-point plan drawn up by the EU Commission to tackle jihadism. Foremost among the proposals is the introduction of systematic but rapid electronic checks at all borders for the validity of travel documentation, which would be a step up from current visual-only inspections. As more and more European countries begin to roll out powers to cancel passports, this may effectively prevent jihadists from travelling on expired papers. Building on this political will, Gilles De Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-terrorism Coordinator, stressed the relevance of already existing EU security policy tools and structures under the EU Common Security and Defense Policy, EuroJUST, EuroPOL, and, especially, the SIS. This is an EU-wide information system for public security which allows for information exchanges between national border control, customs, and police authorities; if successful, it could demonstrate the effectiveness of shared intelligence and become a strong complement to the proposed PNR.
Several EU countries have also decided to intensify domestic security measures. For example, France, has introduced tough regulations to stem terrorist recruitment among its Muslim community, which is Europe’s largest. According to the French Ministry of Interior, the number of French Jihadist is estimated to have increased of about 60 percent, and one in three Westerners fighting in Iraq and in Syria is believed to be French. The Ministry of Interior now has the powers to refuse to issue a passport to anyone it suspects of volunteering for terrorism, and to shut down any website that it believes is promoting violence. As of last October, the French Senate approved a new law that allows individuals to be charged with “terrorist conspiracy”; prior to the law, only two or more people could technically be accused of a conspiracy. In the UK, authorities this year have carried out several hundred more Syria-related terrorism arrests than in 2013; the government has also introduced a new Counter-terrorism and Security Bill to tackle the problem of British jihadists. British Home Secretary Theresa May has stated that the proposed legislation intends to give Britain some of the “toughest powers in the world” against terrorism. These measures include, among others, the cancellation of passports, temporary exclusion orders that can last more than two years, new rules to bar airlines that do not intend to comply with the UK no-fly lists or security screening measures from landing in the UK, new powers for police at ports to seize passports, upgraded terrorism prevention and investigation measures, and internet address matching.
In the Netherlands, following the implementation of the 2002 Intelligence and Security Services Act and two high profile prosecutions in 2006, jihadist activism almost came to a halt and remained confined to disrupting public meetings, making provocative statements, and attempts to join the Muslim struggle in other parts of the world (and many of those attempts failed due to the intervention by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service, Dutch judicial authorities, or their counterparts abroad). Yet the Dutch Ministry of Interior estimates that, beginning in 2013, IS could count on several hundred Dutch supporters and a few thousand sympathizers, many of whom are believed to want to become active in jihad. The German government, which discovered that some 400 German citizens may now be fighting in Syria and Iraq, has agreed to take a series of steps in order to tighten its anti-terrorism laws. German history, however, is posing a problem for these measures. Hitler arbitrarily deprived German Jews of their nationality during the 1930s; the introduction of new regulations stripping German citizenship from “would-be terrorists” is therefore a delicate matter. Equally fraught are measures that would restrict the right of Germans to travel abroad or grant the intelligence services wider powers to collect and store private data.
Together with provocative activism in the EU, the widespread use of social media has enhanced the effectiveness of jihadist propaganda and introduced an entirely new dynamic to EU jihadism. Social media aren’t just new tools allowing for more intensive flows of information and communications among activists; they have fundamentally changed the nature of those flows. Only few years ago online forums were the predominant means of communication; today, peer-to-peer channels like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are ascendant. Such media allow for the continuous influence “of many, by many”; methods include a weekly Islamic State Report, complete with videos and links to recruitment websites, several slickly designed English language magazines, and even an online shop. As a result, social media have changed the public face of jihadism in Europe and made the jihad experience more immediate and personal.
Young people interested in IS and jihadist movements can scour Facebook in search of like-minded individuals, or can post jihadist materials onto their profiles. On Twitter, jihadists openly debate each other as well as their critics. News from the battlefronts in Syria and Iraq reaches Europe’s IS sympathizers with little delay, and sometimes even in real time via mobile chat apps and e-mail. These communications paint portraits of comradeship in arms and duty to fight for the faith, which seem to appeal to many of Europe’s young Muslims.
The rise of social media has changed the structure and dynamic of the EU jihadist movements. They have become fluid networks with few evident leaders or hierarchical structures shaping ideological outlooks or taking charge of particular activities; decentralization and supporters’ and sympathizers’ self-directed actions have become far more decisive factors. Constant mutual influence by friends, relatives, and like-minded people in the online and the offline worlds is at the heart of this new dynamic. This has made jihadist movements more flexible and less vulnerable to outside “attacks.” It has also strengthened the links between those who stay in Europe and practice “dawah” and those who leave Europe to fight.
Social media have made easier for a person to move quickly from being a passive recipient of jihadist propaganda messages to sympathizer and then to overt supporter. For this reason, the Foreign Ministers of Belgium, France, and Germany have been pushing for the EU to strengthen its collaboration with social media providers—including Facebook, Google, and Twitter—to develop a plan to counter and weaken the Islamic State’s communications strategy. However, EU Foreign Ministers recognize that the development and implementation of effective countermeasures will require patience, and that these efforts must be maintained over the medium to long term. IS poses a terrorist threat unlike any Europe has faced before. Europe’s leaders must act decisively to counter it.