When Foreign Fighters Come Home

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 16 2015 @ 11:19am

Belgium raided an alleged terrorist cell yesterday:

In Belgium, officials said they had averted “imminent” large-scale attacks on police targets after raiding a terror cell in the eastern town of Verviers, near the German border, whose members had recently come back from Syria.

John Hinderaker wants to strip returning jihadists of citizenship:

It seems obvious that anyone who leaves the U.S. or a European country to fight for ISIS or al Qaeda should not be allowed to return. But we are talking about citizens here–Belgian authorities have said, I believe, that the terrorism suspects are all Belgian citizens–and so far, to my knowledge, no country has enacted such a ban.

This may not be entirely due to a lack of will. The jihadists travel to a legal destination–Turkey, say–and disappear from there. While authorities may be aware of them and know that they have jihadist sympathies, there may or may not be clear evidence that a particular person joined ISIS or al Qaeda. Still, it seems long past time for Western countries, including the U.S., to try to prevent such obvious terror threats from re-entering the country.

But Juan Cole focuses on how few Belgian Muslims have fought for ISIS or al Qaeda:

About 310 Belgian Muslim young men appear to have gone to fight in Syria, with 40 having been killed there and 170 still in the field. About 100 have returned to Belgium. … Note that 310 volunteers for Syria out of some 500,000 Muslims is not very many, contrary to what some press reports imply. It is a fraction of a percent. You can get 300 people to believe almost anything (e.g. Heaven’s Gate ). Moreover, there are all kinds of rebel groups fighting the government in Syria, and you can’t just assume that the 100 returnees all served with al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIS or ISIL). Several of the major rebel groups in Syria that they would have joined are extremist. The Support Front or Jabhat al-Nusra is an al-Qaeda affiliate. Daesh controls much of eastern Syria now. The Saudi-backed Islamic Front in Aleppo has become more and more extreme. However, in the past 4 years or so there have been moderate and even secular-minded rebel groups, so that they are returnees does not necessarily mean they are al-Qaeda.

Regardless, Christopher Dickey remarks that “the authorities in Europe now believe it is too dangerous to let potential terrorists who have fought and trained abroad continue to roam the streets”:

Alain Bauer, one of France’s leading criminologists and an expert on counterterrorism, tells The Daily Beast that there’s widening recognition that surveillance tactics and strategies will have to change.

“Counterterrorism used to be like counternarcotics,” says Bauer. “You wait and you wait, and then you get another guy, with the idea that you are working your way eventually to the boss. But time, which was the ally of counterterrorism in the past, is now the enemy.” In the old days, suspects were followed from training camp to training camp, from connection to connection, as authorities mapped out whole networks. But the Internet allows connections to be made very quickly, and inspiration for attacks to take effect without any direct connection at all.