France: What Lies in Store for Returning Militants?
French authorities have detained one of the county’s most high-profile Islamists who, after reportedly growing disillusioned with Islamic State (IS), left Syria, turning himself over to Turkish authorities.
Kevin Guiavarch was placed on the United Nations’ sanctions list of individuals connected to IS and al-Qaeda in September 2014 and was the subject of an Interpol red notice. The 23-year-old moved to Syria in 2012, initially joining what was then the al-Nusra Front (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) before turning to IS. The French allege he recruited foreign fighters for the group online and believe that he was directly involved with the group’s financing (France 24, November 1, 2016).
Guiavarch has variously claimed to be reformed or to have grown fearful of dying in Syria (Aranews, January 23). After contacting the French authorities, he turned himself over to the Turkish police in June last year, along with his four wives and six children, three of which were born in Syria (Le Monde, November 20, 2016). While his family was moved back home shortly after, Guiavarch spent nearly seven months in jail in Turkey before being extradited to France, where he now faces terrorism charges (RFI, January 21).
A former church choirboy raised by a single mother, Guiavarch is one of a number of fairly colorful French alleged jihadist recruiters. His peers include militants like Omar Diaby, a Senegalese immigrant living in Nice, who after moving to Syria faked his own death in order to undergo surgery — afterward, he contacted the French media to announce he was still alive (France 24, June 1, 2016).
Of the foreign fighters who travel from Europe to Syria, a high proportion comes from France. By the close of 2015, the French government estimated a total of about 1,800 fighters had traveled to Syria from France, compared to about 760 from the United Kingdom.
Since then, the trend has started to reduce. As well as security measures, heightened since the Paris attacks of 2015, the French government has employed various deradicalization strategies, including the use of short interactive films available online that show individuals battling with the temptations of radicalization (RFI, November, 18, 2016). Such “soft” techniques should not be too easily dismissed, particularly in Europe, where the data suggests those tempted to join IS are often tech-savvy young people with no real experience in the hardships of violent jihad.
Now in French custody, Guiavarch is doubtless being debriefed by the authorities and should be able to provide some useful insight into IS’ structure and finances. The return of foreign fighters is often couched in terms of the potential security threat they pose to their home state; but assuming Guiavarch’s reasons for returning are as he claims, he could perhaps prove a useful tool for deradicalization efforts as well.
Libya: Haftar’s Star on the Rise
Libyan fighters loyal to General Khalifa Haftar have recaptured the Ganfouda district of Benghazi, in Libya’s east, finally securing an Islamist stronghold that had resisted the general’s forces for nearly two years (Libya Herald, 25 January). The move is a victory for Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), but also strengthens concerns about the general’s wider ambitions.
Some believe he has set his sights on Tripoli, and those fears are not without foundation. Already backed by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the anti-Islamist general has seen increasing support from Russia. Earlier in the month, Haftar toured a Russian aircraft carrier off the Libyan coast and spoke to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu by video link (Libya Observer, January 11).
It was reported last year that the general had approached Moscow via Libya’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdel al-Badri, requesting military support (Moscow Times, September 28, 2016). Some say Russia has since agreed to use Algeria to skirt a United Nations arms embargo on Libya (Middle East Eye, January 25). Algeria, however, has maintained a longstanding policy of non-interference (see Terrorism Monitor, December 1, 2016). And both Russia and Haftar have denied any contravention of UN sanctions (New Arab, January 19).
Western diplomats, officially at least, are less enamored of Haftar, who opposes Libya’s UN-backed government of national accord (GNA) in Tripoli. According to certain indications, however, this view is changing. Some think the new U.S. administration will want to back Haftar, although others suspect it will grow less interested in the Libyan conflict.
Europe, on the other hand, can ill afford to disengage. With migrants continuing to travel through Libya, events there are of particular concern to Europe and have left many contemplating whether there might not be a benefit to having a strongman in place, with Haftar the obvious choice.
Weary of this, the GNA has tried to play up its own successes in Libya and offered the prospect of reopening the oil sector to foreign investment (Libyan Express, January 25). At a conference held in London this week, Ahmed Maetig, the deputy chairman of Libya’s Presidency Council, asserted that an area of the country spanning from Libya’s western border to Sirte — which government-allied forces recently liberated from Islamic State (IS) — is now “secure, with no obstacles or clashes whatsoever”(Libya Herald, January 26).
The implication is that such a claim cannot be made about the east, where Haftar’s anti-Islamist campaign continues. The LNA took a back seat during the liberation of Sirte, and has come under criticism from the GNA-allied forces, which say he has allowed IS militants to flee Benghazi and regroup in Bani Walid (Libya Observer, January 7).
Haftar still has work to do then; but his star, at least for now, is on the rise.