Syria-linked Brussels shooter raises fears of 'lone wolf' jihadists

As the danger of returnees from Syrian jihad to their countries of origin threatens Europe, lone wolves started to emerge and are executing attacks across countries, making it hard for security agencies to track them down.

al-monitor A police officer stands guard in front of the Jewish Museum in Brussels, June 2, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.

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terrorism, syria, jihad, europe

Jun 4, 2014

Mehdi Nemmouche went through the Beirut airport on his way to the Syrian jihad, via Istanbul and Antioch.

This simple stop in Beirut is likely to reshuffle many cards in Europe. It has sparked talks about restoring security cooperation between Europe and Damascus, which had stopped in the past years, and to continue to prioritize counterterrorism over bringing down the Syrian regime.

Many experts believe that an attack similar to Sept. 11, 2001, is very likely now with the return of European jihadists to their countries of origin. Jean-Pierre Filiu is one of the experts who is the most hostile to the Syrian regime and who continues to call for the support of the opposition as a solution to the problem and danger of jihad.

It is by sheer coincidence — and not thanks to vigilant French security services — that Nemmouche, who committed the assault in the Jewish Museum in Brussels last week, was arrested.

The young jihadist, who is French of Algerian origin, would have continued his jihad in Europe had the customs patrol not routinely searched the bus coming from Brussels to Marseille and stumbled upon the weapons used in the attack, an Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) flag and a camera containing a comment recorded in his voice on a 40-second video, along with the attack, which killed four, including two Israeli tourists and a French citizen.

Although French analysts say Nemmouche is a lone wolf for reassurance, the fact remains that in most of the European jihadist journeys, the returnees choose their operation system privately, while planning and implementing attacks without resorting to logistical support, or to sleeper cells, as was the case with jihad in Europe back in the 1990s. The exposure of [these sleeper cells] allowed the European security services, and especially the French ones, to penetrate and arrest many members of their networks.

As a “contemporary” jihadist, Nemmouche is coming up with a new course for jihad and is working as a lone wolf, away from his group.

What is worrying the security services is that Nemmouche did not leave a trace with communication devices, which prevented them from tracking him. Moreover, he did not use Facebook and social media, where the Syrian jihad members actively recruit Europeans and spread their ideologies in the virtual world. They shower them with photos of their predecessors in Idlib and Aleppo to lure them into the “Syrian paradise on earth,” before organizing their migration to the Syrian jihad way stations and fields.

In Europe, the journey of an individual joining the Syrian jihad usually starts in a prison cell of the marginalized European suburbs — with the individual usually descending from dysfunctional and poor families of Arab origin — and ends up under the flags of al-Qaeda or ISIS.

Nemmouche’s course intersected with “the lone wolf of Toulouse,” Mohammad Merah, among others who are still in the shadows. Nemmouche and Merah both served years in French prison on charges of theft. The former spent five years in prison for armed robbery before leaving for Syria upon his release from prison. He had returned to religion and started preaching Islam behind prison walls.

Similarly to Merah, Nemmouche was not known to be a jihadist and thus hadn’t raised any security alarm. Merah was not known to have enrolled in a group before he terrified all of France by filming his killings, as per the killing trend in Syria. In front of a camera hanging from his collar, he killed Jewish school students in the French city of Toulouse and then chose to fight to the death and martyrdom instead of turning himself in to the police.

What worries the French and European security services is the intriguing question of whether Nemmouche was at the forefront of those returning from Syrian jihad, or was tasked with taking the fight from Syria to France. They also raised questions whether ISIS, in whose ranks he fought for a year in Syria, had decided to transfer its battle to Europe, after shifts in the positions of the European security services, which started to work on opening a proactive front in Syria against the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. French and European security wonder if Nemmouche — and this is the other side of the question — was indeed a lone wolf who made the decision to hunt Jewish prey in Brussels by himself.

It is very important to know the answer to understand the depths of the universal future of jihad, and to see if ISIS has decided to open the battle in Europe, as the jihadist center — stretching from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad through Anbar, where there are thousands of foreigners — has 3,000 Europeans.

Anti-terrorism experts say 10% of those who returned from Syria to Europe are able to carry out terrorist acts in [Europe]. The French Interior Ministry counted the return of 120 French jihadists from Syria out of 700 so far who have gone there; 20 of those went to Syria were killed. The return of many trained lone wolves who are capable of hiding in European cities with a lone jihad mentor is not reassuring.

During the three years of media hype about tyranny and the need to overthrow the Syrian regime, from Paris and European capitals, the security services saw 3,000 Europeans rush to support the Syrian jihad without being able to stop their flow. They just prayed that the army of President Bashar al-Assad would kill their huge numbers in Syria.

The police complained about the justice system's inability to prove the jihadist intent of those who flocked to Syria. The security agencies are legally unable to stop these people from traveling to Syria, or prevent their departure from French territory. The British authorities’ threats to take away citizenship from jihadists did not prevent the latter from heading to Syria.

Given the great number of humanitarian societies that Europeans provide aid to, the Syrian jihad — apart from Salafists and their networks — now has a facade hiding numerous soldiers. Its prosperity nourishes the pretext of humanitarian work to cross the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings and the Turkish border to Syria, without the security agencies being able to prove the contrary, except in rare cases.

There is an evident desperation in confronting the jihadist wave. The call on parents to report on the disappearance of their children is the cornerstone of the French Interior Ministry's plan to stop the wave of migration to Syria, given that there is no legal way to prevent their departure to Syria.

This is not the only gap evoking despair and fear of a wave of returnees similar to Nemmouche. The big gap in facing those returnees is mainly political. Europe is trying to impose replacing the priority of toppling the regime with fighting terrorism, by conditioning the provision of any aid from Europe to the armed opposition on fighting foreign jihadists, especially Europeans.

But a bigger shift toward facing the lone wolves is still waiting for a clear European and political decision to reopen channels of cooperation with the Syrian security services. The European security agencies tried to resume cooperation with Damascus through frequent visits last winter. The last official visit was made by the head of French intelligence to Amman and a representative of the foreign intelligence who came from Paris.

However, those visits did not bear any fruit as the Syrians required the reopening of embassies before giving any security information about the European jihad members. The embassies are still closed and European jihad is still prosperous.

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