The EU cannot close Jihad’s bridge across Europe

The jihad has built its bridge across the European borders and is now influencing EU’s citizens and member states. The EU has to stand by and watch until effective counter measures have been developed.

Five or six experts are going to fight jihadist propaganda in the EU. Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, announced the new measure on January 3rd – four days before assassins with links to jihadist networks committed the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It is a pilot project: This expert group, based in Brussels, will advise the EU’s member states and support them with counter-narratives as reaction to jihadist contents.

The project has not been finalised yet. The European Commission aims to set one million euros aside to hire the experts. “We will see if it leads to something,“ Mr. de Kerchove was quoted as saying. If it works well, some states would borrow the idea and continue with their own means. Why is the EU setting up such measures and why is their effectiveness so uncertain?

In the fight against jihadist propaganda, the EU’s role is not an operational one. Counter-terrorism policies are in essence a responsibility of the member states. “The EU provides a platform to share and exchange experiences,“ Edwin Bakker, Director of the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism in The Hague, says. Still, in 2005, the European Union Counter-Terrorism Strategy was launched. In the last few months, this strategy has become crucial again. Due to an increased fear of terrorist attacks in the EU, Mr. de Kerchove has intensely worked on proposals and strategies to combat jihadism.

Jihadist propaganda has evolved too quickly

Pumped up with propaganda, some EU citizens decide to leave their countries and fight in the jihad. In the last months, 3000 so-called foreign fighters have already left for Syria and Iraq, where they support the Islamic State (IS) or its rival Jahbat al-Nusra. Extremists from far away, reach and radicalise Europeans more and more. The western world can not keep up with the fast development of jihadist propaganda.

“The propaganda has changed vehemently in the last years as the stakeholders have changed“, Nico Prucha, expert on the analyses and deciphering of jihadist propaganda, says. Since the wars in Bosnia in the 90s, jihadist media have started to use non-arabic languages. Content is available online in French, German or English. At the moment, the IS is greatly extending the linguistic borders. For instance DABIQ, a glossy propaganda magazine in Arabic, is published in different languages, ready to be downloaded as a PDF by everyone.

“It’s difficult to say whether the main targets are Muslims in Europe, who don’t speak Arabic or if the propaganda aims to reach Europeans in general who are easily influenced by ideology“, Christoph Günther, expert on Islamic extremism, says. Either way: The EU’s citizens are victims of jihadist propaganda and the EU has to react.

EU countries with the most foreign fighters
EU countries from which foreign fighters left for the jihad (the darker the red, the higher the percentage of foreign fighters based on the countries’ total populations)

“Through the increase of social media, persons who are radicalised online are likely to become suicide assassins nowadays,“ Mr. Prucha says. Extremists use violent videos that show explosions and executions, professionally filmed and cut in a Hollywood style. They upload fight ‘nasheeds’Islamic songs with an appeal to jihad, with English subtitles and share them on social media platforms.

In October 2014, the European Commission asked big internet platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter for help in the fight against jihadist propaganda. The EU plans to engage with the big internet companies to be more effective in removing illegal websites. In Britain a special unit already spots jihadist propaganda and reports it to the companies which delete accounts and contents. “This is pretty effective,“ Mr. de Kervoche says in an interview with France24.

It is quite late for such cooperation plans. Twitter was already discovered as an effective weapon for jihadist propaganda two years ago. It is the main platform for jihadist interaction and exchange. “We can not stop this through deleting accounts,“  Mr. Prucha says. As soon as one account is deleted, new ones are created immediately.

Moreover, jihadist propaganda is highly personalised on a small target group through links with current regional issues. This is why the propaganda is so successful and why counter-narratives developed by the EU cannot be successful. Current counter-terrorism measures are very static, trying to suppress something extremely mutable. A vast amount of jihadist narratives can be found everywhere throughout the internet. They spread and mutate within a short time. The reaction to a counter-narrative of the EU would be a batch of jihadist response to it. “The EU fixates on its counter-narratives. I honestly don’t think they will achieve anything,“ Mr. Prucha says.

Photographs used in the propaganda magazine DABIQ aim to generate sympathy for the IS
Photographs used in the English version of the propaganda magazine DABIQ aim to generate sympathy for the IS

The appeal of the Islamic State 

The threat of IS propaganda differs from al Qaeda’s. “Its practical usage of the theology as ideology makes the Islamic State attractive to many EU citizens“, Mr. Prucha says. IS has implemented what al Qaeda has talked about for a long time: It has already established a virtual caliphate in 2006. Now it seems to have established itself as a state. In addition, IS has military successes and knows how to make them viral. “The people are enthusiastic, because something is going on there,“ Mr. Günther says.

Understanding the theology to decipher the ideology

The IS has created a strict philosophy, which isolates itself from the rest of the world. Counter-narratives can hardly succeed when they come from the outside. “Only if the counter-narratives are theologically profound, they might be effective,“ Islam expert Mr. Günther says. While jihadist Twitter accounts often have 40,000 to 60,000 followers, US counter-accounts are only followed by 2000 people.

It is crucial to understand the theology first in order to decipher the ideology. The Arabic information should be seen in context. Based on this, content can be created to catch the people in a preventive way, not in a responsive one. The supranational EU has to find its legitimation for arguing in a theological way, before it is credible.

The EU reaps the fruits for a failed integration policy

“In the EU, politicians and the public sphere seem to be more commited to protest against Anti-Semitism than against Islamophobia,“ the Mr. Günther says. Populistic right wing parties and Anti-Islamic movements such as the German Pegida have a nutritious soil for their demands. “We reap the fruits of a longstanding failed integration policy throughout Europe,“ the expert on Islam says. Europe has to catch its citizens before they fall into jihadism. “There is no pure online radicalisation and a pure online de-radicalisation would be even more utopian,“ Mr. Prucha says. The jihad has an easy game in attracting EU citizens who feel excluded from society.

YouTube Video of an IS Bootcamp (Photo: Karl Ludwig Poggeman/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/hinkelstone/)

Returning fighters

Although the focus of counter-terrorism should be put on prevention, a more pressing issue is the handling of foreign fighters. The EU member states are afraid of returning fighters. Trained and coming directly from the battlefield, they might be a terrorist threat to the countries. Some of them actually are a national security threat, others turn to international terrorism.

A month ago, Mr. de Kerchove called for an EU-wide law that would criminally prosecute foreign fighters. The Counter-Terrorism Director also pressed for a greater collaboration with Mediterranean countries for evidence gathering and development of de-radicalisation programs as an alternative to prison.

Presuming the jihadists guilty unless proven innocent is a counterproductive way of dealing with them. One out of nine former fighters subsequently have been involved in terrorist activity – the majority is just tired and disillusioned. When European fighters don’t go back home, because there is a prison sentence waiting, they are trapped, in a war area, they go further on the path they have chosen and make jihadist extremist groups stronger.

Authorities in the Middle East such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia launched de-radicalisation programmes in the early 1990s. These managed to disengage jihadist movements from violence Now the EU has to take returned fighters by the hand and support them psychologically. Otherwise the jihadist bridge across Europe’s borders might bring a terrorist threat to the EU.

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