Propaganda photo of ISIS fighters training in Raqqa
Jean Chichizola

PARIS — European nations are bracing themselves for the return of their citizens who had left to fight the wars in Syria and Iraq.

"The EU member states most affected expect a slow but gradual rise of returnees," noted a recent Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) report submitted to the European Commissioner for Security, Julian King.

The return of men, women, and children who left the Old Continent to take part in the war in Syria and Iraq is particularly a problem for France. It was here that a European citizen, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, among other terrorists, struck Paris on Nov. 13, 2015. And although security forces ended up killing Abaaoud, there are many like him who continue to haunt European governments.

The problem isn't specific to France. The RAN report also focuses on Germany, Spain, Italy, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria as well as Scandinavian countries.

The return of jihadists to their countries of origin is, in itself, nothing new, but the growing number of said jihadists is remarkable. According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security, quoted in the report, more than 42,000 "foreign terrorist fighters' (FTF) from more than 120 countries have joined the ranks of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in just five years — between 2011 and 2016. That's far higher than the sum total of people who have joined jihadist organizations in the past three decades put together.

isis_iraq_syria_jihad_terrorism

Propaganda image of ISIS militants in Raqqa — Photo: Dabiq/Planet Pix via ZUMA

A study by the Swedish Defense University, also noted in RAN's report, lays out the figures for previous jihad campaigns: Afghanistan (about 20,000 foreign volunteers between 1980 and the 1990s), Bosnia (some 2,000 foreign jihadists between 1992 and 1995), Chechnya (a few hundred, often from the Arab world, in the 1990s and the 2000s) and Iraq (about 5,000 in the mid 2000s).

Among the foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, "more than 5,000 have come from Europe," according to the report. European intelligence services believe that 1,200 to 3,000 of them might return, with many women and children among them. Until this summer, an estimated 30% of FTFs have returned to Europe, although RAN says that the figure for Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom is closer to 50%.

Experts see two "generations' of FTFs here: The first generation, who has already returned, "was predominantly men, and comprised those who had been motivated to leave for humanitarian reasons and/or fighting the Assad regime — with some notable exceptions —, more prone to disillusionment, arguably less violent and relatively free to leave the terrorist-held territory," the report says.

The "new" FTFs are "more hard-wired in their beliefs, and trained in how to act and respond to (formal and informal) questioning" from special services.

The second generation, however, comprises fighters currently returning. They are "more battle-hardened and ideologically committed, had to evade pervasive surveillance by Daesh the Arab acronym for ISIS to escape and may have come back with violent motives: to harm EU citizens." In other words, police officers and magistrates interviewed by RAN claim that, contrary to those who returned "in the earlier days' of ISIS, the "new" FTFs are "more hard-wired in their beliefs, and trained in how to act and respond to (formal and informal) questioning" from special services.

The report underlines that, in addition to the Nov. 13, 2015, attacks in Paris, the plots that targeted Brussels in March 2016 were also committed by FTFs. "While many FTF returnees will not become operational terrorists," the report says, "mere contact with "jihadi" terrorist groups ... translates into significant national security risks." It is therefore crucial to precisely identify them so as to better assess the level of danger they pose and to accordingly "tailor" responses.

Disillusionment and remorse

RAN also noted several motives for FTFs who want to return to their country of origin: disillusionment and remorse due to the "dire living conditions', "a loss of power from terrorist group they belonged to", family pressure and intervention, poor health due to injury or childbirth, a desire to return after taking refuge in Turkey, and, disturbingly, the intention to carry out an attack.

For the Dutch foreign intelligence agency AIVD, beyond the question of what "motivates' FTFs to return, the duration of their stay in Syria or Iraq and their activities there are equally important in order to "assess' an individual.

The risk FTFs represent is not limited to the attacks they might potentially commit. RAN notes that even if they're "not engaged in criminal behavior", they "may still strongly support ideologies opposing apostates, other religions, so-called infidels, women's rights and even EU society." The spread of this ideology has many European officials worried.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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