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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Foreign fighters may be staying to fight to the death in Syria: Europol

The expected flow of foreign fighters returning home to Europe has not materialised, said the agency’s chief

Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, the two surviving member of an ISIL murder squad dubbed The Beatles, were arrested as they sought to cross into Turkey. Syrian Democratic Forces/Handout via REUTERS
Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, the two surviving member of an ISIL murder squad dubbed The Beatles, were arrested as they sought to cross into Turkey. Syrian Democratic Forces/Handout via REUTERS

The anticipated return of large numbers of battle-hardened foreign fighters to Europe following the military rout of ISIL has failed to materialise, the head of Europe’s policing agency said on Wednesday.

European governments have been taking measures to prepare for a potential ‘blowback’ from indoctrinated young fighters returning home with the military skills and networks to carry out deadly attacks.

“Despite our concern for over 12 months about this threat, the general understanding is that the returning numbers are lower than expected,” said Rob Wainwright, the head of Europol.

An estimated 5-6,000 European nationals are believed to have travelled to join ISIL ranks, about a fifth of the total number of foreign fighters, Mr Wainwright told the UK Security Week conference in London.

Analysts were trying to work out the reasons for the limited returnees but theories included more fighters being killed than first thought while others had sought refuge in North Africa, the Sahel region and Sudan.

“Maybe that they are still there in larger numbers than we thought, maybe they’re truly committed to the cause and truly committed to becoming a martyr and standing to the last in a fight against the West,” he said.

Mr Wainwright told The National that he did not believe that they had returned home and evaded detection in large numbers. “I wouldn’t rule out that there may have been one or two,” he said.

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His comments come after a Paris court jailed a French-Tunisian man for ten years this week for travelling to Syria and taking his 18-month-old daughter with him.

Hamza Mandhouj was caught in Turkey when his ex-wife arranged a hotel meeting to hand over the child, French network RFI reported. Figures obtained by France Info TV suggested that some 1,700 people from France had travelled to Iraq and Syria in the last four years.

Around 300 have died and a similar number have returned to France, it said citing a presentation by the French domestic security agency.

Hundreds of foreign fighters have also travelled to the conflict zone from Belgium, the United Kingdom and Germany. About 300 of the 850 British foreign fighters are still believed to be in the conflict zone.

Governments face legal and moral difficulties over the handling of returning foreign fighters with many facing jail terms and others likely to be considered for de-radicalisation programmes.

However the long-term future of other ISIL volunteers remains unclear. Britain has stripped two members of an ISIL hostage-killing cell of their British citizenship and does not plan to bring them back to the UK to stand trial.

Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elshiekh were captured in Syria while trying to escape to Turkey. It’s not yet clear when and where they will stand trial.

Britain’s defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, has said that he wanted British ISIL supporters to be hunted down and killed. “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain,” he said.