For some time now, the Western media has been full of alarming reports of European citizens leaving their home countries to fight in the Syrian civil war, which already spilled into neighboring Iraq and could well spread further. For Europe’s politicians and security experts alike, these ‘foreign fighters’constitute one of the greatest threats to the security of the European Union. By using the term ‘foreign fighter’ in this context, we mean the representatives of European Muslim communities who travel to fight in the Middle East in what they call the ‘defense of Islam’.
Over eleven thousand foreign fighters joined the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At least two thousands of these came from Europe, mostly from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, given the distance between Syria and the EU, it is not the horrors of the civil war themselves which threaten Europe. Rather, the fear is of radical Western Muslims who travel to fight in the war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, and subsequently turn their newly acquired skills against civilians in Europe in the form of terrorist attacks as part of their ongoing jihad. Most transnational Islamist movements were fomented following a mobilization of foreign fighters, since the two phenomena share one venomous ideology which pervades not just the war zone, but the entire globe.
Foreign fighters coming to Syria from Europe usually join an Al-Qaeda offshoot group called the al-Nusra Front, or the Islamic State, a group so brutal even the infamous al-Qaeda denounced its violence against fellow Muslims. Both groups adhere to forms of militant Sunni Islamism derived from radical Salafi teachings. For these jihadists, Islam is under attack and must be defended against ‘apostate’ regimes in the Middle East (the near enemy), and the Western states (the far enemy) which continue to exert political dominance over the region and stand in the way of the creation of a true Islamic state. Their ultimate objective is the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate, a transnational empire governed by the Sharia law. Needless to say, to the Islamists this end justifies violent means. In a VICE documentary about the Islamic State, one of the fighters threatens to raise “the flag of Allah” above the White House. In a different statement, a German extremist reveals his plans to detonate US nuclear stockpiles stationed in Germany. In May of this year we were once again reminded that these people mean what they say when Mehdi Nemmouche, a French Muslim who returned from Syria, committed a terrorist attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four. The weapons which were later found in his possession were wrapped in the flag of the Islamic State.
Since citizens of EU Member States can move freely across the EU, the danger is omnipresent. April saw the arrest of another German jihadist returning from Syria who was captured at the Vaclav Havel Airport in Prague. Intelligence agencies across Europe have to monitor the returnees from Syria very closely. As a consequence, this activity currently takes up roughly half of their counter-terrorist agenda. The British secret service already foiled at least one terrorist plot.
The Islamic State is mostly active in its newly acquired territories in Syria and Iraq. However, its ideology is deeply hostile to the West. The news of the day may make it seem as if the Islamic State’s only strategy was indiscriminate killing of its enemies. In fact, the Islamic State is also very active in promoting its radical ideology both on the ground and online, in order to attract Muslims across the globe, including Europe. Its territorial advances must therefore not be left without response. The EU must join in on the efforts to prevent the Islamic State from growing further. Humanitarian aid to Iraqi refugees and military support to the Kurds, who are already backed by US air strikes and are engaged in an open warfare against the Islamic State, should be placed at the top of the security agenda both in the EU as a whole and the Czech Republic.
Translated from Czech by Jan Stehlík
2nd September 2014