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Foreign fighters in Syria: prevention as important as repression

The conflict in Syria has attracted an estimated 20000 foreign fighters from at least 90 countries, including about 3400 Europeans, the Political Affairs Committee was told by experts at a hearing organised in Paris today.

While foreign fighters are not a new phenomenon - Osama Bin Laden is probably the most famous former foreign fighter, one expert stressed, the scale, pace and geographic scope are unprecedented and the context is different.

Participants agreed with Dirk Van der Maelen (Belgium, SOC), rapporteur on Foreign fighters in Syria, that while it is important to have a firm legal framework to ensure prosecution of those committing or preparing to commit terrorist acts, repression alone will not work. Preventive measures against radicalisation and violent extremism are just as important, he stressed.

Experts were unanimous in stressing that while it was not possible to establish a clear profile of a typical foreign fighter, today's foreign fighters were extremely young and their knowledge of Islam generally quite superficial. "The current foreign fighter phenomenon is part of a youth subculture that has developed against a very specific social and international context. For a significant number of them, drugs, petty crime and street violence have been a part of their former life. One gets the impression of solitary individuals, estranged from family and friends who at a certain point became angry as a result of their estrangement. Going to Syria is one of a number of possible outlets for their anger," Rik Coolsaet from the Ghent University (Belgium) explained.

The Dutch AIVD compared the suddenness, speed and scale of the departures to a 'swarm': highty decentralised, with numerous individual and largely autonomous elements that collectively, however, maintain a cohesion and direction. In absence of a strong hierachy and leadership structures, the main driving force within the movement is the horizontal influence by friends, relatives, neighbours and other like-minded individuals, in both the online and offline world.

"Contributing factors may also be found in the intense media exposure and the very professional use of social media by ISIL. What we can learn from historical conflicts like Afghanistan, is that the risk of foreign fighters being further radicalised by their participation in conflicts is very real. The training in handling weapons and explosives may be used for carrying out terrorist attacks upon their return to Europe, " Mats Benestad, coordinator of the Council of Europe CODEXTER Sub-Group on radicalisation and the receiving of training for terrorism including via the Internet, warned.

Sandra Krähenmann of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights said that available data confirmed the so-called "blowback" effect, namely that foreign fighter mobilisation serves as an important recruitment pool for terrorist groups.

According to Christophe Paulussen from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague of all jihadist terrorists who have been convicted of terrorism-related activities in Europe between 2001 and 2009 about 12% had been abroad prior to the attack, either for ideological, military training or participation in foreign conflicts. "Absolute numbers are rising and with that the chance of an attack," he warned.

"It is a priority to prevent jihadist travel, and to contain the potential risks posed by individuals returning from conflict zones, Mr Benestad stressed, explaining that the Council of Europe was currently preparing a draft protocol to its Convention on the Prevention of Terrorism aimed at criminalizing traveling and attempt to travel abroad for terrorist purposes; funding and organisation of such travels; receiving terrorist training and participation in a terrorist organisation.

UN Security Council resolution 2178 already requires states to criminalise travelling abroad for terrorist purposes. However, there is concern that its implementation may lead to human rights abuses, in particular due to overly broad notions of terrorism that covers legitimate forms of dissent.

Measures such as the introduction of powers to withdraw passports or to strip citizenship from dual nationals suspected of terrorism raise significant human rights concerns, Mrs Krähnemann stressed calling for safeguards, including judicial oversight. "We also need to be mindful of the danger of discrimination and racial profiling," she added.

Finally, participants discussed alternatives beyond jail for disillusioned and repentant returnees, or even potential returnees.