Hans-Georg Maassen, Germany's head of domestic intelligence, was quite clear this week when he warned that returning jihadists posed a danger to German security at home. Membership in the terrorist militia group "Islamic State" (IS) is growing, he said, pointing out in an interview with television news channel N24 that they had proof that well over 450 people had already left the country for Syria and Iraq.
Maassen spoke of "absolutely brutal" young men, "certainly in a position to commit serious crimes in Germany." Does Germany, through its participation in the anti-terror campaign, really find itself in the crosshairs of "IS"? A survey jointly conducted by N24 and polling organization Emnid, 58 percent of Germans said they feared that the risk of a terrorist attack has increased since Germany provided weapons to Kurdish peshmerga fighters who are battling "IS" militants in Iraq.
In response to the increased threat - or at least the perception of an increased threat - the German government wants to toughen its laws. Eva Högl, a member of parliament from the Social Democrats (SPD), who share power with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives (CDU), said that the ruling coalition had "agreed on a series of steps in order to better address the Islamist threat."
Berlin wants to check if it's possible to withdraw dual citizenship from German Islamists - legally, a rather delicate matter. For some time now, discussion has focused on the idea of flagging the identity cards of jihadists, in this way preventing them from traveling to the Mideast via Turkey. The Green party has called on the government to enact this measure as soon as possible. "That should have happened long ago, and would be much more effective than this endless debate on the expatriation of jihadist returnees," said the Green's Volker Beck.
Rule of law needs to be 'sharpened'
Thomas Strobl, a senior CDU official, believes that proselytizing for terrorist organizations should generally be subject to penalty. In addition, he said, the hurdles faced by the prosecution should be lowered when it comes to those training in terrorist camps.
Strobl said that Germany needs to overhaul its criminal code; in particular, guidelines for criminal prosecution procedures, when it comes to Islamists, stressing that the rule of law needed to be "sharpened." In an interview with news portal "Spiegel Online," Justice Minister Heiko Maas agreed that this was a priority. But at the same time, he said that the standards of the rule of law would remain high. After all, he added, it's the Islamists' goal to restrict freedom and the rule of law.
Under current practice, however, it's often difficult to impose travel bans against possible "IS" sympathizers, according to Burkhard Freier, the head of the domestic intelligence service in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
"We have to prove in a court of law that someone is traveling to Syria to fight," said Freier, speaking with DW. "That's not always possible. In such cases, these young men are able to travel and we can do nothing to prevent them."
Security authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia are especially under pressure because a large part of the German jihadists come from the state. Freier, however, disputes the belief that violent Salafism is a concern mainly for Germany.
"The departure and return of jihadists is a European problem," he said. "Many more have traveled to fight from France, thw Netherlands and Belgium, for example."
European problem, national strategies
Freier's claim was backed up in a recent interview by European anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove, who told the BBC that in addition to Germany, most European extremist fighters in the Middle East come from France, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark, and to a lesser extent Spain, Italy, Ireland and Austria.
De Kerchove estimated that around 3,000 EU citizens have traveled to join the fight in Syria and Iraq. He said that the number of returnees, so far, was about 120 people, with roughly 25 of them having been involved in hostilities, or having received terrorist training. He also said that the recent airstrikes led, by the US and its allies, have increased the threat of terrorist attacks in Europe.
Efforts are being made across Europe to show, with arrests and accusations, that the situation is under control. In the UK, police recently arrested two men in an anti-terrorist operation, accusing them of "inciting terrorism." The Spanish government was able to announce the arrest of nine alleged jihadists supposedly linked to the "IS."
The group had been active in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, on the North African coast, and its neighboring Moroccan city of Nador. It's estimated that about 1,500-2,000 Moroccan jihadists are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq in conjunction with the "IS" and other groups. As in Europe, the Moroccan government also fears that returnees could carry out attacks at home.
According to the Belgian newspaper "L'Echo," Belgian authorities estimate that up to 400 Belgians have traveled to join the fight in Syria. About 90 of them are said to have since returned. A French-Algerian national has been accused of carrying out a deadly attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May, which left four dead. "We are working around the clock on the problem of returning fighters," said a representative of the judicial authorities. According to media reports, Belgian authorities have already thwarted several attacks by jihadists, including a planned attack on the European Commission building.
Security precautions and stricter laws
France sees itself as the Islamists' main target, a sentiment that has grown even stronger since the recent beheading of a French tourist by Islamists in Algeria. So far, it's the only European country to have joined the US airstrikes in Iraq.
France has more homegrown "IS" militants than any other European country; France's Ministry of Interior recently estimated that 930 people had left to fight in Syria, with about 180 having since left and in part returned to France.
The risk of an attack in France by "IS" supporters is taken very seriously in security circles. France's counterterrorism program, Vigipirate, has increased security patrols at tourist attractions, airports and railway stations. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron has called "IS" sympathizers a threat to national security. There are plans to introduce tougher anti-terror laws to stop the influx of Britons joining the "IS."
All EU member states must now do whatever is necessary to stop these "traveling jihadists." On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously obliged members to introduce stronger border controls and inspections. The stricter measures are an attempt to target and prevent any further recruitment, transportation and organization efforts by "IS" terrorists.