Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Opinion

Trump right for once: Europe should take back foreign fighters

  • Foreign fighters hide in small groups, waiting for a regrouping and a new strategy. Some of them already found a new war in Sinai, Egypt (Photo: Alisdare Hickson)

Six years ago, I walked into a dark room in one of the poor areas in Cairo. Two Syrian friends of mine had asked me to drop by to meet a special friend of theirs.

Through the twilight, I saw a rather corpulent, but friendly looking man in his 50s. My friends introduced me to Qassem, a soldier from the rebel group the Free Syrian Army.

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Nothing special, until my friends said they had convinced him to fight for a free, secular Syria, and no longer for the Islamist group Al Qaeda, its late leader, and Qassem's old friend Osama bin Laden.

I was surprised, but also curious to hear his story.

With a glass of raki (his first ever), Qassem told me how he, as a teenager, had joined bin Laden's Arab mujahidin in Afghanistan in order to fight the 'godless' Russians.

When that war was won, some of the foreign guerrilla fighters returned home, but others were not welcome back in their home countries. They were looking for a new jihad.

The next opportunity came in Algeria in 1991 when the government cancelled the electoral victory of the Islamist group FIS, prompting a civil war.

In 1995, Qassem took part in another jihad - the Bosnian war - to defend Muslims against Serbs and Croats. He showed me his gunshot wounds from the fighting to prove his words.

His initial plan was to fight again for Al Qaeda in Syria, until my friends showed him their vision of an alternative future for his home country.

Nomad fighters

Qassem's story is that of Al Qaeda and the story of the Islamist group ISIS and its fighters of today.

When the Afghanistan war ended, hundreds of Arab mujahidin fighters were blocked from returning home. That is why they decided to continue the fight, whereever and whenever they saw the opportunity to do so.

With this goal in mind, bin Laden, his so-called 'Afghans' and the Egyptian Islamist group Islamic Jihad started a new cooperation under the name of Al Qaeda.

At the beginning of the 1990s, bin Laden moved to Sudan where, under the protection of the ruling regime, he financed and coordinated road and other construction projects.

Bin Laden's cooperation with the leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al Zawahiri, became closer in Sudan, where their fighters also received military training.

But after a failed assassination attempt on the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, Al Qaeda had to leave Sudan. They moved back to Afghanistan and the rest of the story, including 9/11, is well known.

From mujahidin to ISIS

The history of the Arab mujahidin and Al Qaeda is essential to understanding the current situation of ISIS [the Islamic State in Syria] and its fighters.

The Syrian army is expected to shortly announce that ISIS has been defeated, following five years of warfare. Iraq has already announced that ISIS has been defeated there.

It would be a serious mistake to think that the danger was gone for good, however.

Estimates say there are still around 15,000 ISIS fighters, wandering in Syria and Iraq or in neighbouring countries.

They hide in small groups, waiting for a regrouping or another, new strategy.

Some of them have already found a new war in Sinai - to fight the Egyptian army of president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

We also know that hundreds of other ISIS fighters are hiding in Libya, hoping for the right moment to claim new territory there under the banner of the Caliphate of al Baghdadi.

A European problem

Some will say that none of this is a European problem. But that would be short-sighted. If the Arab world explodes, the shrapnel falls as far as London, Paris, and Brussels.

Without the war in Syria and the chaos in Libya there would not have been 1m refugees coming to Europe in 2015.

Whoever thinks that with the so-called 'defeat' of ISIS in Syria and Iraq stability will return to the Middle East should think again.

It will not be difficult for wandering ISIS fighters to find a new battleground in the near future. This is why we should take every opportunity to make this group smaller.

US president Donald Trump has asked "Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 ISIS fighters that we captured".

That will not be easy and it will cost money. We have to put them on trial and hold them in high-security jails.

Most of them will not, like Qassem, become defenders of a democratic, rules-based society. But if we, by taking people back, can weaken or even avoid a new Al Qaeda or a new ISIS, then this is the only reasonable option we have.

Koert Debeuf is a visiting research fellow at Oxford University and author of the book "Tribalisation. Why War is Coming" (ASP, 2018)

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