PARIS – Two French girls, ages 15 and 17, have been captured by a security net that authorities are using to ferret out citizens who are considering traveling to other countries to join jihads.
The action is one example of how France is taking judicial action against citizens suspected of seeking careers as foreign fighters, even if they have yet to leave French soil. Thousands of European citizens have made the trip to Syrian battlegrounds, but there is no unified plan of action in Europe.
France is leading the way in Europe in the battle against this problem. Its sweep could get even wider with a planned law that would allow passports to be confiscated from those suspected of planning to fight in Syria or Iraq and would create new measures to prosecute jihadi aspirants or returnees. France also is planning to join other European countries in blocking Internet sites that espouse the jihadi cause.
All of Europe is worried about the return of battle-hardened citizens looking to continue their jihad in their homeland.
The concern has grown acute with the beheading of American journalist James Foley by an executioner with an English accent. The group calling itself the Islamic State — now regarded by Western authorities as the most brutal among jihadi organizations — claimed responsibility this past week by posting a video of the slaying on the Internet.
France also points to the suspected killer of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May, Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche, who fought in Syria, as evidence of the need to prevent potential catastrophes.
“Must I wait for a new Mehdi Nemmouche to fire before I act?” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said in a recent interview with the online publication Mediapart. He was referring to the tough new measures to be debated this fall and contending they will not compromise civil liberties.
France, with a Muslim population estimated at 5 million — the largest in Western Europe — is particularly concerned about the flight of youths to the battlefields.
French authorities say there are some 900 people from France who have been implicated in jihad — meaning they have taken part in one, plan to join one or are returning from one. Several dozen have been killed.
The French measures would put it ahead of other countries in the effort to stop the problem, which some experts see as getting worse.
“It is impossible to quantify the risk of terrorist attacks by returning foreign fighters,” Nigel Inkster, a former counterterrorism chief for Britain’s M16 spy agency, wrote Friday on his blog for the International Institute of Strategic Studies. But he said those returning from Syria and Iraq “are likely to be better trained and motivated and more battle-hardened” than those who trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas over the past decade.
Britain has struggled to deal with home-grown jihadi fighters since four British men inspired by al-Qaida blew themselves up on the London transit system in 2005, killing 52 people. An estimated 400 to 500 Britons have fought in Syria, scores of whom have returned home. Police have arrested 69 people so far this year regarding suspected Syria-related terrorist offenses, compared to 25 in all of 2013.
Britain emphasizes a soft approach to routing out would-be jihadi fighters or those returning from such conflicts. Its Prevent program highlights outreach and aims to get institutions such as prisons — a known breeding ground for radicalization — and universities to watch for people at risk.
Germany also emphasizes outreach. It has about 400 citizens who have become jihadi fighters in Syria and elsewhere, a third of whom have returned. School counseling, emergency hotlines and programs to help find jobs for returning jihadi fighters are used. Returnees are kept under observation but can only be charged if there is proof they joined a terrorist organization.
In Belgium, some are calling for a “homeland security office,” but the current caretaker government has been unable to tackle the terrorism issue. Belgium, with a population of 11 million, has between 76 and 298 jihadi fighters, according to a study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization.
Farther north, about 300 people from Sweden, Denmark and Norway have traveled to Syria; most are believed to have joined the Islamic State group.
Could Foley’s grisly public murder become a deterrent to would-be jihadi fighters? Some think not. It is not the first time beheadings have been made available to the world via Internet.
The Islamic State’s pronouncement in June of a self-styled caliphate straddling the border of Iraq and Syria has energized some aspiring jihadi fighters, according to Peter Neumann, a King’s College London professor and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization.
“They are saying, ‘Maybe this is ugly, but there is a bigger cause that needs to be kept in mind, the creation of the caliphate. … This is the price you have to pay for a really historical project,'” Neumann said.
The unidentified French teenage suspects, one from Tarbes in the southwest of France and the other from Lyon, allegedly acted together. They are neither the first adolescents nor the first females arrested in France. Some were arrested after returning from Syria or being fetched by families at the Turkish border.
The girls are among some 60 people being investigated in France for criminal association in relation with a terrorist enterprise.