Belgian counter-terrorism expert: Home-grown terrorists bigger threat than returning foreign jihadists

The Islamic state Syria and Iraq is being defeated. This is not the end of the story but rather a new chapter in the fight against terrorism in Europe. The terrorist threat in Europe remains. This was the conclusion at a recent hearing in Brussels organized by the Egmont Institute. The hearing took place in the aftermath of the recapture of the capital of the Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, by a coalition of Arab and Syrian-Kurdish troops with the aid of US-led air strikes.

The Islamic State has lost the major cities it ruled, such as Mosul and Raqqa, but is not yet finally defeated since it still musters some thousand fighters and controls swaths of land in the Syrian-Iraqi border region.

According to the organisers of the event, Europe is experiencing an unprecedented level of jihadi activities. The number of terrorist attacks is increasing year on year, while the scope of radicalization is troubling.

The organisers referred to sources according to which there could be as many as 50,000 Islamist radicals across Europe, a number of which could pose a threat to the society.

Thomas Renard, Senior Research Fellow at the Egmont Institute, however does not foresee a mass return of foreign terrorist fighters to Europe. “Many have been killed and those who have survived will be arrested if they’ll return to Europe.”

The terrorist threat has been oscillating over the past years between home-grown terrorists and foreign terrorists returning, says Renard. Basically they are the same persons – homegrown and radicalized in Europe, often through the similar hubs.

The only difference is whether they have travelled or not to the conflict zone. However, the virtual connections between recruiters from the Islamic State and homegrown terrorists diminish the added value of travelling and blur the lines between them.

The two categories of terrorists feed each-other, especially if they meet in prison cells, where returning jihadists have an audience. But what happens to convicted terrorists after they have been released from prison?

Asked by The Brussels Times if there is any follow-up, Renard replied that it depends on whether the convicts have been released after serving part of the sentence or full-time.

In the first case they have become conditionally released and are on probation. A special probation judge is appointed and the ex-convict can be obliged to report to the police and participate in a disengagement program.

Paradoxically, this possibility does not exist in case the ex-convict has served the full sentence. The person is free and no measures can be imposed on him, besides offering rehabilitation support for him.

Renard mentioned that special platforms have been established in recent years consisting of local actors such as social workers, psychologists, and police.

“They meet regularly to discuss individual cases and the risk that a person will relapse into crime and terrorism (recidivism). They can tailor specific measures to address the needs of the individual but have no legal power.”

Prisons aren’t the end of story, adds Renard. There is a need to prepare for a life after prison. Unfortunately, Belgium has a high rate of recidivism. Rehabilitation programs are considered to be one of the weakest spots in Belgium’s counter-terrorism approach.

“We need to be very attentive to what happens in the prisons because the future terrorist cells are built there,” he says. “There is a need to engage with the convicts already in the prisons and inform local authorities about what is happening there but this is still a very repressive process.”

Renard explains that there are two elements. From a security point of views we need to know whether a person is still radical and to what extent and pass on the information to the relevant authorities to ensure that adequate measures are taken.

As regards rehabilitation, local authorities have to work with the ex-convict to offer psycho-social counselling and social services. For this they need to know more about what happened in prison in terms of disengagement in order to offer some continuity in the programs but this is currently not happening.

“It’s too early to assess the effectiveness of these new programs and platforms,” concludes Renard. “We aren’t there yet.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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