Returning fighters from Syrian conflict cause concern in the EU

The Hague, the Netherlands
29 May 2014

The presence of potential or experienced terrorists in the EU, as evidenced by the number of arrests in 2013* for offences related to terrorism, is a serious cause for concern.

The phenomenon of religiously inspired terrorism figures prominently in the newly released EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2014 published by Europol, based on input from EU Member States and other partners.

In the wake of the Syrian conflict, the threat to the EU is likely to increase exponentially. European fighters, who travel to conflict zones, are assessed as posing an increased threat to all EU Member States on their return. They may seek to set up logistical, financial or recruitment cells, and may act as role models to individuals within extremist communities – further enhancing their capacity to encourage others to travel. In addition, their resolve is likely to have strengthened in the conflict zones, and they may have gained the skills and contacts to carry out attacks in the EU. There is no overall official figure available regarding EU citizens travelling to take part in the conflict in Syria, but estimates suggest that, by the end of 2013, they numbered between 1200 and 2000. Although depending on the developments in Syria, this number might possibly increase during 2014.

It is believed that the Turkish-Syrian border's accessibility is one factor why more European volunteers travelled to Syria rather than to Afghanistan, Mali, Somalia or Yemen. It seems likely that Syria will remain the destination of choice for prospective fighters departing from EU Member States, as long as the civil war there continues.

The threat from self-radicalised, self-organised and self-financed individuals was underlined in 2013 through the disruption of terrorist plots in several EU Member States, including Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. A limited number of those arrested appeared to be connected to terrorist groups outside the EU and several of them had criminal backgrounds.

Between June and September 2013, nine individuals were detained in Ceuta (Spain), suspected of belonging to a network dedicated to sending volunteers to Syria, to fight alongside groups including Jabhat al-Nusra ('support front') and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The network appears to have had international links to Morocco, Belgium, Turkey and Syria, and to have successfully sent at least 12 young Spanish and Moroccan men to Syria, a number of whom died there in suicide attacks or combat.

In addition, there were a number of arrests and convictions across Europe, including in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, in connection to travelling to Syria to participate in the conflict. In July 2013, for instance, a woman linked to an investigation into a broader network of recruiters for Syria, was arrested in Rotterdam (Netherlands); she was later released and managed to travel there herself.

Arrests also occurred after individuals returned from Syria. For example, in September 2013 UK police arrested two British citizens (of Pakistani origin), suspected of attending a training camp in Syria.

Many travellers are believed to have funded and organised their journeys to Syria themselves. Some used rented vehicles, which were stolen and used as transportation to and within the Syrian conflict zone.

Bulgaria reported isolated cases, in which those on their way to Syria sought assistance from Bulgarian criminals to obtain false identity documents to facilitate their journeys. The facilitators appeared to be exclusively financially motivated. Other reporting indicates that a group of Syrian nationals residing in Sofia – some of whom participated in the conflict – organised logistical activities to facilitate the travel of (potential) fighters from Bulgaria to Turkey and on to Syria. In addition, a number of foreign fighters are reported to have travelled to Syria under the cover of legitimate humanitarian aid missions.

Specific organised facilitation networks may be involved in ensuring a smooth transition into the more radical fighting groups, which are believed to operate strict admission policies and require references. There were indications that Sharia4Belgium, for example, may have played a significant role in facilitating individuals to join jihadist groups fighting in Syria. In April 2013, a number of persons were arrested following a judicial investigation into Sharia4Belgium members, some of whom were suspected of recruiting for Syria. Furthermore, in the network dismantled in Ceuta (Spain), each of the members appears to have had different tasks: recruiting and indoctrinating volunteers; obtaining financing; organising relocation logistics; contacting facilitators in transit zones and in the final destination in order to guarantee arrival in the conflict zone; ensuring transfers to training camps, and finally to al-Qaeda-linked fighting groups.

Download the TE-SAT 2014 report. Watch the Te-SAT 2014 video.

Number of suspects arrested for religiously inspired terrorism in EU Member States in 2013

Number of suspects arrested for religiously inspired terrorism in EU Member States in 2013

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