24th Mar 2018

EU mulls response to Syria-bound fighters

Over 2,000 EU nationals are said to have left to fight in Syria raising concern some may pose a security threat upon their return to the EU.

“We've more than 2,000 Europeans who have been to Syria, or in the process of going to Syria or who have returned from Syria,” said the EU’s counter terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove earlier this week.

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  • Over 2,000 EU nationals are said to have gone to Syria to fight against the regime (Photo: Freedom House)

EU home affairs ministers are set to discuss the issue on Thursday (5 June) in Luxembourg as part of a broader effort to convince people not to take up arms alongside more radical rebels against Syria’s pPresident Bashar al Assad.

Kerchove noted most are unlikely to mount an attack in the EU, but the recent shooting in Brussels at the Jewish Museum by a Frenchman, who reportedly took up arms against Assad, has heightened tension.

Paris prosecutors point out the suspect was radicalised during his seven-year stint in prison, reports AP.

The counter-terrorism chief is set to present an internal document in Luxembourg on how to tackle what is perceived by the European Commission as a growing internal security threat.

Kerchove, for his part, anticipates more small scale attacks like the museum shooting in Brussels.

The Thursday meeting will likely see ministers adopt a commission strategy on how to prevent people from being lured into terrorism in the first place.

But the bulk of the meeting is set to focus on how to prevent people from going to Syria, how to slap criminal charges on them, how to increase co-operation with transit countries, and how to detect "suspicious" travel.

The EU’s police agency Europol says most people leaving to fight in Syria venture through its northern neighbour Turkey or go the longer route via Morocco.

Kerchove noted Turkey has stepped up controls along the Syrian border and made efforts to improve how they exchange information with member states.

“On the detection of suspicious travel we could do more in harmonising the information to share,” he said.

Among the recommendations is putting Europol and Interpol, the international police body, to better use.

Kerchove is also pushing for the EU to adopt the EU passenger records name (PNR) bill, which was blocked by MEPs in the civil liberties committee last year.

The bill entitles member states to use the data of passengers leaving or entering the EU to investigate crime and terrorism allegations.

An EU source close to the issue warned against drawing a link between the Brussels shooting and the bill but expects to see renewed calls for its adoption anyway.

Some EU ministers are already pushing for it.

On Monday, Belgium’s minister of interior Joelle Milquet said it should be adopted immediately, despite privacy concerns.

“Things have changed,” Milquet told Flemish daily De Staandard.

The parliament committee, for its part, rejected the bill primarily on privacy concerns.

They argued against the massive collection of personal data of people who aren't suspected of any crime.

At the time, Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in't Veld said the bill should not be revisited until the EU’s data protection reforms have become law.

The commission’s bill has not budged since.

Asked how the proposed system can detect a EU national who enters Syria via a neighbouring country like Turkey, an EU official said it would help police identify irregular patterns of travel.

“If you know where people are going, you can actually talk to your counter-part in the law enforcement agencies in those countries to see if they can identify other information about individuals you may be interested in,” noted the contact.


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