The Caliph's Foreign Legion

Closing borders won't put an end to terrorist infiltration.

The Paris massacre and the terrorist attacks that followed in France and Belgium have brought some serious issues out into the open: namely, the safety of our society and the integration of minorities. Tackling both problems at the same time might lead to heavy-handed distortions, and keeping the balance right when facing tough decisions is not easy. With the help of the available data we can try and provide a useful contribution. The fact is that the data has been changing quickly and quite considerably since Paris. The investigation is becoming more focused and the unfolding events reveal that the dramatic situation is actually much worse than expected at the end of 2014. Our readers may recall that our January editorial discussed the foreign fighter phenomenon -- before the Charlie Hebdo attack -- pointing out the novelty they represented and the logistic and social difficulties encountered in attempts to integrate Islamic communities in a Europe burdened by years of economic and political crises. The globe shown on the next page provides details of the movements of the new legionaries, who have been won over by the Caliphate’s ideology. An estimated 15,000 militants from at least 80 nations have entered Syria to help topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, most of whom have then joined the ranks of the Islamic State (IS). The foreign fighters include some who believe in democratic, anti-dictatorship ideals and Islamic fundamentalists as was recently outlined in a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy based on the analysis of 280 ’martyr’ postings on jihadist websites, Facebook and Twitter. The postings were supposedly designed to urge potential emulators to follow the example of the heroes of this new holy war. The largest contingent of fighters come from North Africa and the Gulf States, mainly Libyans and Saudis (also present in Iraq). The influx of Tunisians is probably connected to the many issues raised in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings.

It might be worthwhile, in any case, to try and understand the extent of the phenomenon in Europe, right on our very doorsteps. First of all, how many Muslims are there in Europe? Apparently they make up 5.8% of the population, yet many believe there are many more. According to an Ipsos Institute survey among citizens of a number of EU countries (selected among the ones with the greatest population and thus representative of the Union), most of those surveyed have a mistaken perception of their country's situation. This misconception stands out very strikingly when addressing religious issues. In France, for example, the people interviewed believed that Muslims represent 31% of the population, whereas the exact figure is only 8%.

Another respected institute, the Pew Research Center, has published research which indicates that Italy, Greece and Poland are very averse to the integration of Muslims.

It’s worthwhile and somewhat paradoxical to point out that these three countries host fewer Muslims that Spain, Germany, France and Great Britain. France, which has the largest Muslim population, is also the one that voices the most favourable opinions on Muslim integration, further proof that ignorance is responsible for many barriers.

Lastly let’s take a look at what measures are being introduced. In recent weeks, Western governments have met a number of times in various formations to face the terrorist threat and stop the recruitment of foreign fighters. Among the hottest issues faced by Europe is the Schengen Agreement, which is central to the European policy debate. The French and Spanish Ministers of the Interior have asked for a review or even a suspension of the agreement, calling for reintroduction of border checks. This is a typically emotional reaction to a problem that has no easy solution and could endanger hard fought personal freedoms.

A look at the rationale behind the Schengen Agreement is all it takes to highlight how wrong this kind of action might be. The Schengen Agreement came into being in 1985 and has been implemented by 22 member states as well as Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Liechtenstein. Great Britain and Ireland have only partially accepted the Schengen Agreement, while Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Cyprus still have to complete the implementation. The stated purpose of the Schengen negotiations was to provide Europe with a single external border, abolish internal barriers between states and promote shared regulations concerning visas and rights of asylum, which was reinforced by a 2004 EU directive that requires airlines to collect and forward all data concerning their passengers (name, birthday, citizenship, passport number) to the customs authorities. However, this final tool does not help in the fight against terrorism; it was devised to fight clandestine immigration. Instead of suspending or revising the agreement, it might be more useful to consider improvements to deal with the present situation, such as strengthening controls over the external borders.

However, the project presented before the European Parliament by the Commission in 2011 is at a standstill. This was a directive on interstate transmission of sensitive data, namely passengers’ itineraries, tickets, forwarding addresses, travel agents, payment methods and luggage information. This kind of data enables potentially dangerous subjects to be identified through cross-checks before they are suspected of crimes and is an effective criminal intelligence and terrorist-fighting tool.

The EU Parliament, however, has not yet managed to reach an agreement over the directive. The bone of contention is the protection of personal privacy, but recent events might speed up work on this legislation.

The issue of safety thus appears divisive for European states at a time when a common stance and a jointly approved strategy are called for. This is reminiscent of the kind of emotional attitude in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis that led to the creation of useless barriers instead of promoting the integration process. Once again the answer is to establish a hub for the battle against terrorism centred in Brussels (just as the single supervisory mechanism for banks is hosted in Frankfurt) instead of fuelling division. Fear must not be allowed to interfere with European rights, the fundamental cornerstone of European civil society.

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