New Reports Allege Foreign Fighters in Iraq Returning to Europe

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 20

Recent pronouncements by a Spanish judge who has led high-level inquiries into al-Qaeda in Spain, Baltazar Garzon, and the head of France’s domestic security service, Pierre de Bousquet, imply that Iraqi foreign fighters are already returning to Europe to re-establish or establish new networks to support terrorist operations in Europe (AFP, May 9). While Garzon’s and Bousquet’s official comments provide no concrete details about the number of European Islamists returning from Iraq nor their nationalities, it is apparent that there is terrorist activity. With Iraq being the new center of gravity for jihad, Europe has become the de facto center of gravity for recruitment, weapons and financial activities, all critical to ensuring the continuation of jihad in Iraq and, increasingly, in Europe.

The return of jihadists from Iraq and Afghanistan would transform European states from logistical platforms (support infrastructure) to “battle front stations” (operational structures). After their experiences in Iraq, jihadists are probably returning infused with the intention to engage in jihad in their respective European countries and to make Europe the new front in the international jihad. These jihadists will bring back ideological concepts and recruitment and fighting techniques that can assist their efforts in radicalizing and mobilizing segments of the Muslim populations in Spain, Italy and France. Of particular concern is training they may have received in fighting techniques (such as IED’s and suicide bombings) and the use of chemicals for unconventional attacks. Several jihadi personalities, including Abu Musab al-Suri, have legitimized the use of chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons as a tool in jihad.

The debut of “mobile jihad satellite platforms” in Europe demonstrates how critical Europe is to sustaining al-Qaeda related terrorist operations on a global basis. European counter-terrorism officials have been concerned about the terrorist threat of returning foreign jihadists from fighting in Iraq since the discovery of extensive Iraqi jihadist support networks following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. During the past two years, arrests of Islamists and Salafi-Jihadists have been made in Spain, France and Italy. Those arrested had close links to the GSPC, GICM and al-Qaeda, revealing a structured, and, at times, interconnected network of cells, each responsible for support such as recruitment of volunteers to fight in Iraq, falsification of paperwork for travel throughout Europe and to Iraq, and procurement of explosives materials. Counter-terrorism officials from these three countries now know that the heads of the cells in Spain, France and Italy—which were dispersed regionally throughout each country—and the members of each cell were predominantly foreign Muslims from Morocco and Algeria (Terrorism Monitor, May 4). It is probable that there remain sleeper cells and a loose underground network of terrorists, collaborators and sympathizers all capable of providing non-tactical and tactical assistance to the returning foreign fighters.

There are a few documented cases of Spanish and French Muslim citizens who traveled to Iraq. At least 50 French Arabs have traveled to Iraq for suicide operations over the last two years (Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos, In Spain, there is some data about the increasing number of Spaniards who are members of terrorist cells responsible for sending suicide bombers to Iraq. The continuing arrests, especially in Spain, of new al-Qaeda sympathizers and Muslims indoctrinated to engage in jihad in Iraq indicates that the terrorist mission for radicalizing and recruiting fighters for Iraq is active.

Based upon Garzon’s and other senior European counter-terrorism officials’ comments about foreign fighters returning from Iraq, it would appear that the intelligence services of France and Spain have a way of monitoring the travel of some of these individuals. Those foreign fighters that do enter France, Spain or Italy without detection could do so by first traveling to a staging country—such as Syria or other countries in the region—where the jihadist could try to “hide” his travel from Iraq. From the staging country, the jihadist would pick up a falsified passport, if needed, and enter Europe by boat, train or car. The individual, once integrated into one of these countries, would easily disappear into one of the multiple Muslim pockets where he would be hidden and protected.