Europe Braces for Returning Jihadists
Difficult to separate fighters from ideology
Europe faces an influx of battle-hardened jihadists in the wake of a weakening Islamic State in Iraq and Syria following the ongoing major offensive by Iraqi forces to reconquer Mosul, the country’s second biggest city.
Rob Wainwright, director of the European Union’s police agency Europol, told the Wall Street Journal: “I think it will be a generational-long struggle that we face to absorb the return of thousands of foreign fighters, particularly to Western Europe.”
Between 4,000 and 5,000 European residents are estimated to have gone to Syria and Iraq to take part in the fighting there. Attacks in Paris and Brussels in recent years have been carried out by European-born terrorists, many of whom fought with ISIS.
Experts at a recent UNESCO conference in Quebec which dealt with the Internet and the radicalization of youth affirmed that “deradicalization” – the process of reversing the brainwashing or countering the theological justifications that extremists use to justify their actions – doesn’t work and that efforts to counter Islamic State’s sophisticated digital propaganda machine are for the most part ineffective.
“Deradicalization just doesn’t work,” Stéphane Berthomet, co-director of the Observatory on Radicalization and Violent Extremism told The Media Line after attending the conference. “These jihadists are seriously brainwashed; we can’t just take out the violence within them. We’ve seen failures in this domain in Indonesia and in France.”
Berthomet believes that Google, Twitter and Facebook have a huge responsibility in this domain. “I created several phony Twitter accounts, and without even looking to contact jihadists I was contacted in less than two weeks by Omar Omsen.” French authorities believe Omsen is responsible for recruiting about 80 percent of French-speaking jihadists heading to Syria and Iraq.
A strategy that does work, according to Berthomet, is what’s known as peer-to-peer: when an ex-jihadist has decided to work to counter the spread of the ideology of his former comrades. “We have to first make sure that they have really rejected jihadism, and have done time for any crimes they committed overseas. Some of them have done an excellent job at disabusing those who may be attracted to jihad, describing to them in detail the true horrors of life under ISIS.”
Francois-Bernard Huyghe, a senior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, is also dubious of the feasibility of deradicalization. “In all my years researching the radicalization of youth, I haven’t seen a single case of someone coming back to ‘normal’ life,” he told The Media Line.
Huyghe is skeptical about the efficacy of what are called “deradicalization centers” that have opened in France and Denmark. “The most important thing to realize is that these jihadists aren’t lost or desperate; they are taken in by an ideology that is very seductive, one that promises them a better life, and allows them to fulfill the religious duty of living in a country that is subject to the law of God.”
The French government’s attempts at countering ISIS’s aggressive online recruitment by opening Twitter and Facebook accounts called Stop-Djihadisme in order to offer a counter discourse to potential jihadists are not efficacious. “Putting out information on how wonderful and tolerant our Western societies are, how accepting we are of homosexuality for example, is not at all what they want to hear. This is exactly what disgusts them!”, Huyghe pointed out.
ISIS adapts its message according to its target: for men, there are virile selfies of jihadists on the battleground in 4×4’s brandishing AK-47s; for women, the message is softer: it offers the possibility of helping children in need, a community of like-minded women. The ISIS recruiter on Facebook presents himself as a friend to whom one can confide in. “Many women are taken in by this, they think they will have a serene life which will allow them to study the Koran and eventually find the love of their lives. It’s very much like a ‘pick-up’ technique.”
When asked what does work, Huyghe said that “one must infiltrate and distort ISIS’s content by diffusing false information, attacking with viruses or by ridiculing the jihad, as ISIS terrorists are extremely sensitive about their self-image.”
Google’s global head of international relations, Ross LaJeunesse, stated at the last day of the Quebec conference that censorship doesn’t work. “What we’ve seen over the past couple of years is that taking the content down doesn’t work because when one website goes down, two or three more are up the very next day. What you do is drive them underground.” LaJeunesse said. “Simply taking down the content doesn’t address the hatred. You need to engage the speakers who are promoting radicalization and hate online.”
Both Huyghe and Berthomet agree that the struggle against the jihadists is likely to go on for decades and that conferences like the one in Quebec go a long way in creating fruitful collaborations and joint research projects.
Quebec’s International Relations Minister Christine St-Pierre announced the creation of an international research chair on youth radicalization at the conference. The new chair will be backed by UNESCO and will bring together experts from the University of Sherbrooke and the University of Quebec in Montreal.
“Politicians want simple solutions. But there are only complicated answers to complicated questions. There is no magic formula – we must be adaptable and work together to find intelligent plans of action,” concluded Berthomet.