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Homegrown terrorists

Ralf Bosen / db February 7, 2014

Experts across the EU seek strategies to prevent potential young European jihadists from traveling to Syria to join radical groups. Some fear the young people could return to Europe as terrorists.

Syrien Islamisten Brigade Photo: ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Zac Baillie/AFP/Getty Images

"Dangerous, misdirected fanatics" and "violent, traumatized criminals" - those are terms often used in Europe to describe European jihadists in Syria.

As the civil war in Syria drags on, EU officials are increasingly worried about the stream of Europeans joining the extremists in Syria, where they are trained and radicalized in special camps. Some officials fear the freshly trained European will return home as ticking time bombs. According to EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, the foreign fighters in Syria are "very dangerous people." EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kechove said even a small number of determined jihadists "pose a high security threat."

Training camps for Europeans

Media reports fuel such scenarios. Quoting an alleged former extremist, Britain's "Daily Telegraph" reported that al-Qaeda trains hundreds of British jihadists in Syria for attacks on British soil, while other recruits from Europe and the US are trained to assemble car bombs and initiate terror cells in their native countries.

To stem the flow of home-grown jihadists to Syria, EU interior ministers agreed at an informal meeting in Athens two weeks ago to prevent young fighters from leaving and to monitor returnees. EU intelligence agencies are to cooperate more closely, as are experts and local initiatives more experienced in dealing with extremists and terrorists.

Largely unnoticed by the general public, 180 experts and official representatives from 23 European cities gathered last week in The Hague to discuss ways to stop the flow of jihadists from Europe to Syria.

German jihadist fires rocket Photo: picture-alliance/dpa
The man in this online video is suspected of being a German extremistImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), created in 2011 by the EU Commission, organized the "Cities Conferenceon Foreign Fighters to Syria," and invited legal and law enforcement officials and youth workers to share their experiences and knowledge with the aim of developing strategies.

Learn from Britain

"Britain is far ahead due to its colonial history and experience with the attacks in London," conference participant André Konze told DW. The director of the Münster-based German Police University mentioned an Islamic project leader from Birmingham, who traveled to Syria to get a feel for the situation. That visit gave him credibility, Konze said. "After his return, he was in a position to tell young extremists how misguided they are if they think their action helps Syria."

The young people that become radicalized imagine there is something great in store for them in Syria, Konze said. A jihad, or holy war, has positive connotations for them, he said, adding that "European jihadists don't have any idea about the atrocities that exist in Syria, or of the crimes committed and what the real consequences of this supposed holy war are."

Andre Konze Photo: DHP
Britain has begun to tackle the problem, Andre Konze saysImage: DHP

The EU estimates that up to 20 percent of the foreign fighters in Syria come from western Europe. Most are between 20 and 30 years old. France tops the list of European countries with people thought to be in Syria, followed by Great Britain and Germany. Experts don't equate conversion to Islam with radicalization, but it is regarded as a possible indicator.

Support for families

The EU's RAN network said the number of foreign fighters who travel to Syria is far higher than in comparable conflicts over the past decades, including Afghanistan and Iraq combined. RAN refers to studies by the International Center for Study of Radicalisation (ISCR) in London, which estimated that up to 2,000 fighters from Europe are in Syria - more than three times as many as in an ISCR study in April 2013.

Radicalization via the Internet as well as dysfunctional family structures are regarded as the roots of the problem. Cities and communities should "approach families where a member has announced plans to leave, or where a family member has returned," Konze said. In Germany, families could turn to youth welfare offices it is generally young people considering traveling to Syria.

Kazim Erdogan, a psychologist from Berlin who started Germany's first self-help group for single fathers with Turkish roots, said the issue of radical Islamist propaganda on the Internet or in underground mosques needs constant attention.

"Many of the at-risk young people are kids whose mothers feel overwhelmed," he told DW. "We suggest that men take more responsibility for education and communication."

He told representative in The Hague that Muslim families need to be addressed directly in an understandable manner that takes their cultural sensibilities into account.

"We have to do everything we can to reach the several thousand at-risk young people who don't see futures for themselves and who feel pushed out by society," Erdogan, adding that parents also need to be involved. "This is something we cannot leave to chance."