Mix of radical ideas and idealism drives Europeans to join global jihad

One way to curb the existing threat from the European jihadist fighters is to monitor them upon their return from warzones, Gilles de Kerchove, European Union Counter-terrorism Coordinator told RT.

Most EU member countries, Kerchove says, adopt a mixed approach in dealing with the radicalization threat, including psychological counseling for victims, and closer border cooperation with North African States.

RT: Where does radicalization stand right now – is it getting substantially worse?

Gilles de Kerchove: Radicalization in Europe – it is not much different from the past. We are in the process of trying to understand better the reason why so many Europeans are going to Syria. We start with the idea that they are not all radicals when leaving because some maybe just driven by idealistic ideas and they just want to be helpful. Some are just joining refugee camps and rarely may join the most radical groups.

But where we start being concerned is when, and that is what we understand, many of them are mainly joining the groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda and groups which not only want to withdraw Assad but have the global jihad rhetoric and share fully the project of Al-Qaeda.

And therefore we think, I think we’ll see that in the future but that many of them will get back in Europe much more radical. They may inspire others, recruit others, or they may, some, even direct attacks in Europe and that’s why all member states are very mobilized by this subject.

RT: Can we say that the fear of terrorists from outside is not to become a threat from inside?

GK: In fact the terrorist threat has evolved a lot since 9/11 in recent years. It is no longer one, single organization, very well structured like Al-Qaeda was on 9/11. It is something that is much more diversified, much more diverse. We still have the Al-Qaeda, but of course the core of Al-Qaeda has been very much degraded. But we have different other manifestations.

We have a proliferation of franchises and all services believed that the most dangerous one which still has the intent and the capability to mount attack in the West it is AQAP Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But we have other franchises which are pretty dangerous – Al Shabaab, AQIM terrorists in the Maghreb, Al Qaeda in Iraq and so forth.

And we have two other phenomenon indeed. Youngsters who live in Europe who go abroad for training purposes or to fight and getting back to Europe more motivated and more radical and for some – very few, but some of them – with the intent to mount attack in Europe.

And we have the so-called lone actor, very few are completely alone, they may be part of a virtual community and many of them get radicalized on the internet or they belong to a movement, Salafist movement. We have had attacks in the southern part of France in Toulouse where Mohammed Merah got radicalized in prison but he went to Pakistan, he went to Egypt and carried out these attacks when he came back.

So I would not say that the threat is coming only from outside, the threat is coming only from inside. It is a bit of a mix of the two.

RT: Some say that people get radical without going to Syria –online people can be radicalized. What is the main motivation for the new recruits – money? Thrill?

GK: In respect to Syria, we are looking at this. I do not have a comprehensive answer. We know that some of them, as I’ve said are driven by just idealistic motivation. They want to be helpful, they think they have to help their brothers in Syria, their Sunni brothers. And therefore, they just want to bring their forces.

They are not necessarily driven by religion, it is a question of promoting democracy. We all remember that they all start with sort of Arab Spring-type of uprising and it turns into a civil war exploited by the most extremist groups related to Al-Qaeda.

Some others are already pretty radical and that is the case in some of the member states – take Belgium and the Netherlands. Most likely they have been recruited by an organization called Sharia for Belgium in Belgium and Sharia for the Netherlands. So they are recruiting the people already pretty radical.

Is money an argument? Probably some may get money just to cover the travel, which is not expensive by the way. You can just buy a very cheap flight to Turkey. You may get support there. Your family may get support. But I do not think that money is that much a motivation. So it is a mix of radical ideas and idealism in a way.

RT: Are there a well-known ways/channels to recruit in EU?

GK: We have 9-10 member states out of the 28 having some citizens leaving. It is not only Belgium and France, it is the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Ireland and it differs from one country to the other.

I mention Belgium and the Netherlands because there we have identified an organization, in other countries it is more people leaving on their own. And some– when they are there – are trying to advertise the jihad. If you see the active presence of these youngsters on Facebook, it is quite telling. They are pretty narcissist. They want to be seen with a Kalashnikov and try to invite friends to join.

So it is a sort of peer process. So you have either external recruitment, just own initiative peer dynamic, or – but that is the main – some network. We are looking into this. We’ve asked different agencies to look into this.

RT: Spain is concerned being the first step between Africa and EU. What are they to fear?

GK: In fact, of course Spain is worried, but it is the same for many other member states. And I would not say, on the basis of the figures that I have, that Spain has quite a high figure of Jihadists going to Syria. But indeed Spain is close to North Africa and we have cases where people have two passports – European one, Spanish one, and a Moroccan one – and it is much easier for them to fly below the radar. Because they can enter Morocco with a Moroccan passport and then go to Turkey and then Syria and get back with the Spanish passport. And maybe they will go there and return undetected.

So it is of critical importance that we collectively as a European Union, we engage more with the countries in the North of the Mediterranean. We know that there is a fairly high number of Tunisians for instance who have joined the fight in Syria. And we start engaging with this country and brainstorm together on how to address the problem.

RT: Some suggest making it a crime to join jihadists – so upon their return they could face criminal charges. Is it the right way to address the issue?

GK: In fact what the member states are now doing is to set up a mechanism to assess each case on its merit, if I may say so. So it would be up to a sort of multiagency evaluation where people would determine what the best answer should be.

It could be either to provide psychological assistance because some of these people will get back completely demobilized – they have been confronted to an ugly war, they were not prepared to this and so they will need some support. Social support, psychological support could be one response.

Another one is just to monitor them discretely. But you cannot monitor people on the 24/7 basis. It is very demanding in terms of resources.

And others need to be brought to court. And that is why we have asked Eurojust agency for judicial cooperation, to look into different legislation to make sure it has in its criminal law an adequate offense of going abroad for the jihad. And that for instance what the French have discovered after the Merah attack, that they had no adequate legislation and that they later on adopted this legislation. So it is not the only answer, but of course I think it should be just one part of the tool kit.

RT: How real is the threat that the young men returning from a conflict like Syria will commit a terror attack in EU simply by having returned as a ‘radicalized’ individual?

GK: I don’t have a crystal ball of course and there is risk, we should not hide this. This is the reason why we need to be prepared and concentrating as well on preventing the flow of jihadists. But monitoring better and being better prepared for the returnees. And I of course I do not suggest that every returnee may mount an attack, that is not the case and that is why we have to offer a set of answers, tailor made for each and every case. But the more we have fighters the more it’s likely that we will be confronted with a terrorist attack and therefore we had better be prepared and start working on this right now.