ISIS Jihadists Returning to Europe

The latest audiotape from the Islamic State (IS) calls for attacks on the Western nations conducting strikes in Iraq. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, IS spokesman, said on September 21st: “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European—especially the spiteful and filthy French—or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be. Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling.”

This latest development marks a clear escalation of the anti-Western rhetoric from IS and spells even more trouble for Western security. IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, did not take long to demonstrate their seriousness: a few hours later after the release of the tape, a French citizen was kidnapped and beheaded in Algeria by IS’s newest franchise, the Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria.

What is interesting is that before the US started its military campaign in Iraq, the West was not really a priority for IS. Now, as the beheadings of Western hostages and the recent IS statements make clear, the equation has changed. 

One should remember that IS is not al-Qaeda. In its early period, IS was a local jihadist movement focused on grabbing territory in Iraq and Syria. With their success on the battlefield their ambitions and their ranks swelled, as did their reach into Iraq and Lebanon. At that time IS’s main enemy was not the US, France, Britain, or Israel but rather Iran. Until now, only al-Qaeda had both the aspiration and capacity to strike globally—and did so, targeting the West and its Arab “pawns.” Now, that is changing, as the battle-hardened and ruthless IS jihadists return to the West with their EU and US passports. With each passing day, IS will be better positioned to carry out its threat to reek havoc in the West.

The claim that returning European jihadists will not attack the homeland is looking increasingly naive. Mehdi Nemmouche, for example, returned to Europe in April. He was detained in Marseille, in France, and imprisoned in late May as the lead suspect in the shooting that killed four in the Jewish museum in Brussels earlier that month. When Nemmouche was arrested, among other things, he was apparently carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle wrapped in a cover with IS inscriptions and a video in which he reportedly confesses to the shooting in Brussels. This attack will likely come to represent the starting point of violence perpetrated by homegrown jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq to European soil.

Recent testimonies from former French hostages link Nemmouche to the group of operatives who interrogated, guarded, and tortured Western hostages in Syria, among them the US journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by a mysterious UK resident turned jihadist. Whether Nemmouche was actually tasked by IS leadership to attack Europe or if he acted on his own, is unknown. Though one could argue that given the IS call for Muslims to attack Westerns unilaterally and universally, the question is somewhat mute.

Had Nemmouche not been arrested in late May, it is likely he would have followed the path of his hero, Mohammed Merah, who in 2012 killed seven people in Montauban and Toulouse in three different attacks. Interestingly, despite denials by French authorities, the French daily Libération is sticking by its story that Nemmouche was planning to attack the military parade in Paris on Bastille Day. 

Nemmouche’s profile, history, and voyage as a jihadist are not unlike those of thousands of other European Muslims who have morphed into radical jihadists and left Europe for Syria. Upon arrival, they make their way to a training camp, often along the Syrian-Turkish border, where they are trained to fight and, equally importantly, inspired and indoctrinated into a cause for which to fight—a cause driven by a searing resentment and hatred, as documented in online video rants, of the defiled and evil West, its values and ideologies.

Nemmouche has come home. Hundreds of his comrades will follow him in the coming months and years. There are some, like the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, that challenge the notion that these returning jihadists represent a threat and who see the claim as yet another effort by Islamophobes to stigmatize Muslims. But if Nemmouche is a sign of what’s to come, the Brussels attack may yet mark the bloody arrival of the first “wave” of European jihadists from Syria. The second wave will be much larger than the first. In a recent study, the Norwegian researcher Thomas Hegghammer found that one out of nine jihadists will return resolved to attack their nation. The latest estimate of European jihadists in Syria stands at more than 3,000, which leaves us with about 330 potential Nemmouches that could strike at the heart of our cities and are keeping our security forces awake at night.

Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical risk consultant to corporations and governments. Follow him on Twitter: @OlivierGuitta. Researcher Camelia Assem helped with the research for this article.

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