Return of jihadists: Europe's fears subside
By Elaine Sciolino
After the Paris police smashed a cell suspected of sending insurgents to Iraq early in 2005, the French authorities predicted a new and dangerous threat: would-be fighters lured to the Iraqi battlefields who would return to use their newfound battlefield skills in terrorist acts inside France.
Dominique de Villepin, as interior minister, singled out the cell in a speech two months later as proof of a risk that Iraqi-trained jihadists would "come back to France, armed with their experience, to carry out attacks."
Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, then France's senior counterterrorism magistrate, later warned that Iraq was a "black hole sucking up all the elements located in Europe." Some of them were coming back to Europe, he added, and some of those were armed with chemical and biological weapons training.
Now, as members of the cell are awaiting a verdict in their case, French and other European intelligence and law enforcement officials are adjusting their analysis. They say their fears of young would-be fighters from Europe traveling to Iraq and returning more radicalized and better trained were overblown.
The logistical challenges and expense of reaching Iraq have been one deterrent, they said, particularly since Syria has made episodic efforts to halt the use of its territory as a transit route. Compared with the thousands of European Muslims who joined the fight in Afghanistan in the 1990s through networks in Britain , the numbers of fighters going to Iraq has been extremely small, according to senior French intelligence officials.
Another factor, the officials say, is that European Muslims lacking military training and good Arabic-language skills are neither needed nor welcomed by Iraqi insurgents - unless they are willing to be involved in suicide missions.
The nature of the battle has also changed, making Iraq an alien destination for many would-be insurgents. The fight in Iraq is no longer a pure jihad against foreign occupiers, but also a confusing civil war pitting Muslim against Muslim. Many young people have family and ethnic ties to Pakistan or North Africa, making those places more attractive destinations and further advancing those regions' potential for recruiting and radicalizing young Muslims.
"At the moment, the major threat to Europe is coming from elsewhere - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," the North-African-based terrorist organization - said Bruguière, who now investigates terror financing for the European Union.
He and other law enforcement authorities, particularly in countries like France, Italy and Spain, are convinced that their sweeping legal authority to eavesdrop, make arrests, hold suspects for long periods of time and win convictions on the vague charge of association with a terrorist enterprise has made it easier to take preventive action.
"It's impossible to give numbers, but fewer young people are leaving Italy and other European countries to wage jihad in Iraq," said Armando Spataro, Italy's senior counterterrorism magistrate. "I'm convinced part of the reason is that we've been successful in arresting and prosecuting people, even before they go to Iraq."
Even France's domestic intelligence service, known as the DST, has altered its analysis.
"It's not easy to get to Iraq - it's expensive and they have no family there," said one French intelligence official. "We haven't seen the waves we expected."
By contrast, the DST took a more alarmist line when it first authorized the undercover judicial investigation of the Paris group, nicknamed the "19th arrondissement cell" after the working-class Paris neighborhood where most of the suspects grew up and lived.
"The return on national territory of jihadists, strongly indoctrinated and trained in the handling of arms and explosives, obviously constitutes a grave threat for the national territory" of France, the DST wrote in a sealed document in July 2004 made available to The New York Times.
It argued that the investigation of the 19th arrondissement cell would give important evidence of individuals going to Iraq and "presenting a threat after their return."
1) Return of jihadists: Europe's fears subside