Radicalisation and counter-terrorism strategies across Europe

By Marjon Goetinck, MEDEA Institute

The international security environment has seen extraordinary changes over the last decades. Recent developments in Syria and Iraq, increasing numbers of foreign fighters, radicalization of certain communities, not only raise a number of security concerns for the West but also lead to an increased polarisation of the debates across our European societies. Needless to say, the issue of radicalisation and the return of European jihadists are high on the agenda of the EU. The challenge for European governments is how to prevent the young men and women from setting out on the path to war in Syria and Iraq and how to deal with fighters upon their return.

Proponents of crackdowns on returned would-be jihadists gained ground after Mehdi Nemmouche, who European authorities say fought with Islamic State in Syria, allegedly killed four people in May at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels.[1] The incident has led to increased efforts to counter the threat posed by these returned fighters with their improved battlefield experience and stronger ties with international terrorist organizations. European countries such as Denmark, the UK and Belgium are particularly concerned about their domestic security, since they joined the US-led international coalition against IS in Iraq. Without denying that there may be a risk of a terrorist nature linked to the foreign fighters, further scrutiny is required in order not to operate an almost mechanical link between an engagement in Syria and the likelihood of future terrorist actions in Europe.[2]

©Active Change foundation - "Not in my name" : It is the name of the online campaign organized by Active Change Foundation, a British organization that brings together young Muslims, to counter the propaganda of the Islamic state and the amalgam between Islam and extremism.

©Active Change foundation – « Not in my name » : It is the name of the online campaign organized by Active Change Foundation, a British organization that brings together young Muslims, to counter the propaganda of the Islamic state and the amalgam between Islam and extremism.

When we explore the different counter-radicalisation policies and measures that have been implemented across European countries, we observe that legal prosecution constitutes the central pillar of the prevention of radicalisation and terrorism in Europe. Notably, Belgium has its biggest trial against Islamist extremism currently, accusing 46 members of Sharia4Belgium of belonging to a terrorist group and of indoctrinating young men to join war in Syria.[3]

Despite the fact that over the years legal powers have been substantially been extended, there is a growing call in Europe for alternatives to punitive legal measures in the fight against radical Islam. In that sense, European countries have developed several prevention policies and rehabilitation programs. Germany, for example, funds a deradicalisation programme that seeks stopping or slowing down the radicalisation process, preventing the youngsters from leaving for Syria, bringing them back into work or education, and reconciling them with their parents.[4] This programme called Hayat is based on the principle that Europeans who intent to join the ranks of radical groups fighting in Syria will more likely reassess their decision based on the influence of their next of kin, rather than of threats of politicians or the force of law. It is designed to work as a bridge between security authorities, civil society and local communities. This successful program has also found admirers in Britain. U.K. officials are now debating whether to also implement Hayat’s methodology to deradicalise young jihadists through community support. In terms of rehabilitation of returned fighters, Denmark has launched an innovative programme, offering Danish Muslims in Syria an escape route from the conflict zone and help getting their lives back on track without the threat of prosecution. Returnees are offered medical and psychological help, as well as job-search aid and assistance to pursue their studies.[5]

In addition to prosecution, the counter-terrorism apparatus of most EU member states has developed a broad range of administrative measures, such as stop and search powers, passports confiscation, deportation orders, fundraising offences and asset freezing. Many of these practices affect more particularly a large section of the Muslim population in Europe and heavily contribute to the escalation of resentment and possible violence between communities and the state.[6]

A review of the broader social and political effects of these counter-radicalisation policies highlights the ambiguous nature of pro-active administrative practices and exceptional counter-terrorism legislation and their potentially negative impact on fundamental rights. Furthermore, in terms of efficiency, these measures have in some cases resulted in slowing down the stream of persons travelling to Syria or Northern Iraq. That being said, all in all, Western countries have not yet found an effective tool to stem the continuous flow of foreign jihadists heading off to the Middle East.

   © Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images | A Syrian Kurdish woman wipes during the clashes between jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish fighters.

© Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images | A Syrian Kurdish woman weeps during the clashes between jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish fighters.

Perhaps we need to reframe our thoughts and bear in mind the broader context of the radicalisation process. First of all, domestically, youth radicalization cannot be disconnected from the economic deprivation of youngsters with a migration background, indoctrination or social exclusion, though it cannot be directly and simply linked to it. Secondly, the situation in the Middle East is extremely complex, to say the least. The region is polarized by the increasing Sunni-Shiite divide. As to the civil war in Syria, Western foreign policy failed in terms of action which certainly led to more bloodshed and escalation of the regional conflict. The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has created a continuing humanitarian crisis, with millions of people fleeing for their lives ad hundreds of thousands being killed. Across our European societies thoughtful discourses and balanced analysis of the socio-political context of radicalisation are key to move away from polarisation of the debates and eventually to the spreading of antagonistic positions which might damage social cohesion.


[1] More information on French and Belgian jihadi’s can be found through this link: http://www.medea.be/2014/06/les-djihadistes-francais-et-belge-en-syrie-trajectoires-communes-et-specificites/

[2] This was one of the key findings of a report of the European Parliament entitled « Preventing and countering youth radicalization in the EU«  (2004): http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/etudes/join/2014/509977/IPOL-LIBE_ET(2014)509977_EN.pdf

[3] http://online.wsj.com/articles/can-deradicalization-stem-flow-of-european-jihadists-1411958283

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/aug/27/crackdown-british-jihadis-youths-german-hayat-home-office

[5] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/09/denmark-introduces-rehab-syrian-fighters-201496125229948625.html

[6] More information on legal prosecution, administrative measures and prevention and “early detection” is to be found in the report « Preventing and countering youth radicalization in the EU » (2004): http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/etudes/join/2014/509977/IPOL-LIBE_ET(2014)509977_EN.pdf