Commissioner Warns that EU Should Prepare for Return of Jihadists as Iraq Launches Operation on MosulOctober 31, 2016 in Europe
The European Union’s (EU) commissioner has warned that the EU should be prepared for returning jihadists if the so-called Islamic State (IS) is driven out of its Iraqi stronghold, Mosul.
Julian King has told Germany’s Die Welt newspaper that even a small number of militants would pose “a serious threat that we must prepare ourselves for.” The comments come after Iraqi forces on 17 October launched what is expected to be a lengthy offensive on Mosul. Officials believe that as many as 5,000 IS fighters are believed to remain in the city.
King, a British diplomat who was recently made the EU’s security commissioner, told Die Wel that the threat of IS fighters returning to Europe after the fall of Mosul was “very serious.” He disclosed that there were currently about 2,500 fighters from EU countries in the combat zone, stressing however that it was “very unlikely that there would be a mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe.” He noted that similar cases in the past had shown that “only a few fighters come back.”
On day one of the offensive, a coalition of some 34,000 Iraq security personnel, Kurdish fighters, Sunni Arab tribesmen, and Shia military forces, backed by the US and other nations, took control of a number of villages and districts located in the south and east of Mosul. On the ground sources have reported that the strategy is to encircle the city before moving in on the centre itself. Late on 17 October, US Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook disclosed that the campaign was “ahead of schedule,” warning however that it was early days and it was not yet known whetehr IS fighters would “stand and fight.” On 18 October, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that “it could be a long battle” lasting several weeks, if not months.
In other reports, the Syrian army has accused the US-led coalition of planning to allow IS fighters in Mosul to flee into Syria. The army, which has no control over Syria’s border with Iraq, was quoted by Reuters news agency as stating that it would resist any attempt by fighters to cross. The commander of Iraq’s Counter-terrorism Service, Maj-Gen Fadhil Jalil al-Barwari, has been quoted by the New Arab website as saying that IS fighters are being offered two corridors “to go to Syria.”
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Europe’s toughened borders are prompting migrants to switch their focus to the United States however their trek is being thwarted in Central America, where a bottleneck has formed.
The IOM has reported that in Costa Rica, a makeshift camp has sprung up, housing hundreds of Africans and Haitians. Elsewhere in the country, smaller numbers of Afghans and Pakistanis are biding their time to head north, with officials estimating that there are now 2,000 such migrants in the country. They are being stalled by Nicaragua, which eight months ago strictly closed its border to migrants without visas. The move was carried out in order to mainly stop the flow of thousands of US-bound Cubans through its territory. That closed-door policy however has also trapped what are being called “extra-continental” migrants – effectively meaning those who are coming from outside Latin America.
In the wake of the March 2016 agreement between the European Union (EU) and Turkey, which aims to send back migrants trying to reach Europe through Greece, coupled with eastern European states building barriers across their borders, the number of migrants in Costa Rica has increased. The IOM’s representative in Costa Rica, Roeland de Wilde, discloses that “we have documented cases of people telling us they chose this route to the United States or Canada because they felt that getting to Europe was too dangerous, that it was too difficult to enter Europe or the conditions in Europe weren’t what they hoped for,” adding that most of them seem to be coming through from Brazil and other South American countries that are facing declining economic situations.” Wilde further reported that the Pakistanis and Afghans, who account for around 10 percent of the migrants, are well-organized and often lay up in basic hotels, adding that most who states that they are from Africa are making do with plastic sheets strung up as shelter by the roadside.
The IOM however notes that not all of the latter are “extra-continental” migrants, although many pretend to be. According to Wilde, “more than half” of the migrants who present themselves as Africans are from Haiti, an impoverished Caribbean country with a predominately black population that speaks French. He adds that “they say they are Congolese, but when questioned they don’t know form which part of Congo they come from,” adding, “sometimes they say Kinshasa or Brazzaville, mixing up one Congo for the other. When asked which ethnicity they belong to, they have no idea.” The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), whose capital is Kinshasa, and the Republic of Congo, ruled from Brazzaville, are neighbours located in central Africa. While both use French, the former is riven by deadly ethnic violence in its east, increasing the odds of emigrants from there receiving asylum.
The United States government on Tuesday 31 May warned Americans travelling to France this summer that stadiums hosting matches in the Euro Cup 2016 Tournament as well as other affiliated venues likely to draw large numbers of fans could be vulnerable to becoming terrorist targets. The advisory however stops short of telling Americans to stay away from Euro 16 host cities.
On Tuesday, the US State Department issued a new Europe-wide US travel advisory. In it, it highlighted concern about the potential for terror strikes aimed at the European Soccer Championships, which are due to run from 10 June – 10 July. It included venues where large numbers might gather to watch the games on jumbo screens, for instance in outdoor squares or parks, amongst the sites at risk. The advisory indicates that “we are alerting US citizens to the risk of potential terrorist attacks throughout Europe, targeting major events, tourist sites, restaurants, commercial centres and transportation.” IT states that “France will host the European Soccer Championship from June 10 – July 10…Euro Cup stadiums, fan zones, and unaffiliated entertainment venues broadcasting the tournaments in France and across Europe represent potential targets for terrorists, as do other large-scale sporting events and public gathering places throughout Europe.” It adds that “France has extended its state of emergency through July 26 to cover the period of the soccer championship, as well as the Tour de France cycling race, which will be held from July 2 – 24.” While the advisory stop short of telling travellers to stay away from areas of potential risk, it does recommend that they “exercise vigilance,” monitor local media nad law down plans to stay in touch with family in case of an emergency.
The advisory comes as French authorities are already bracing for a possible resurgence of hooliganism at some of the venues. Matches that have already been identified as having the potential for fan violence include England v. Germany and Russia V. Wales. With twenty-four teams competing, about 2.5 million fans, most form other countries, are expected to converge on France over the next month. The French government has conceded that the fear of new terror attacks, potentially carried out by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, is a reality, with Patrick Calvar, head of the DGSI intelligence agency, telling the French parliament’s defense committee in May that “we know that (IS) is planning more attacks…and that France is clearly a target.” While he did not mention the Euro 16 specifically, he added that the French police “may be coming face to face with a new type of attack – a terrorist campaign characterized by planting explosive devices where where large crowds are gathered…to create as much panic as possible.” He went on to state that “the question, when it comes to the threat, is no ‘if,’ but ‘when’ and ‘where.’”
The US travel advisory also noted that France, where police resources have been stretched since the November 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, also must contend with the staging of the annual Tour de France bicycling race, which will take place throughout July.
The US advisory also singled out the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day festival, which is set to take place for five days starting on 25 July in Krakow, Poland. It notes that this event will likely trigger unusual levels of security vigilance and associated complications for travellers. The US State Department travel advisory will remain in effect until 31 August.
The last year certainly seen an increase of military activity in Eastern Europe. Both Russian military exercises, and joint NATO military exercises have been carried out in different places. On top of exercises, NATO continues to boost its military bases and troop presence in the eastern allies. The latest such addition is a new deployment of four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland and the three Baltic States. From the Russian perspective the NATO build-up is an aggression in itself, something Moscow officials are not too happy about. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained that Russian manoeuvres are only close to NATO borders because NATO has let its border creep closer and closer to Russia. Previously Russia has accused NATO of using the situation in Ukraine as an excuse to move closer to Russian borders. From the US perspective, additional presence will increase US ability to conduct military exercises in the region. The Pentagon has announced plans to quadruple its budget for European defence in 2017. Russian aggression isn’t increasing in Easter Europe alone, but the Baltic Sea has seen a fair share of it as well. Russia’s more direct neighbours, the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, are concerned about what recent developments mean for their security. This has, among other things, led the Swedish military to revive an old military outpost on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a battlegroup is to be fully set up by the end of 2017. The Baltic Sea tension doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Cold War realities, but it causes a certain nervous atmosphere. Sweden and Finland are not member states of NATO, but debates have been going on in both countries, with Russia behaving in an increasingly aggressive and provocative manner. The Swedish defence minister is concerned with what is unknown. It is one thing to see what the Russians are doing, and quite another to know what it all means. An unprovoked attack on Sweden is certainly unlikely, but Moscow seems increasingly unpredictable. This has prompted a larger defence budget and a shift of focus to regional security after 20 year of focus on international operations. It has also fuelled the debate about NATO membership. According to polls, almost half the population favour a membership, with a slightly smaller number being opposed. The military’s ability to defend Swedish territory has been poor for a long time, but the Swedes have seemingly not cared too much about this, until recently. For Sweden it is a question of whether the long tradition of non-alliance can be set aside, and whether or not the alternative is better. It is the opinion of many that the country has been free-riding for too long, feeling safe because of its close cooperation with NATO, but feeling free without its obligations. If the Swedes are fed up of letting the security of Swedish territory depend on other states’ ability to deter the Russians, perhaps a NATO membership will be realised. Military chiefs are still embarrassed by the 2013 Easter incident, when Russian planes carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm, and the Swedish air force failed to scramble any of its jets, relying on jets from NATO’s quick reaction alert, deployed from Lithuania. In Finland, pressure to join NATO or find other ways of securing the nation’s borders has grown over the past several years, but recent polls show that roughly half the population would be opposed to the country joining NATO, with just 22 percent saying they would support it. Russia has made claims over the waters in the region, and last year they finalised the set-up of a military base in the Arctic. However, Finland has not been attacked by its neighbour since WWII, and both political and trade relations between the two have long been stable and prosperous. NATO has remained open to the idea of Finnish membership, but Helsinki has been reluctant, and has contented itself with close cooperation with the alliance, bearing in mind though that if Sweden was to join it would leave Finland even more exposed. However, the other way around – Finland alone joining, but Sweden staying out – would create an awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial contact with NATO, experts have said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Sweden in an interview with Swedish media, that technical-military measures will be deployed as a reaction, should any military infrastructure draw too close to Russia’s borders. Finland and Sweden must be ready to apply for NATO membership should it be absolutely necessary. For now there is a promise between the two to not surprise one another with a sudden membership. A membership would be a provocation. The question is whether the advantages of a membership could outweigh the negative aspects of such a risk.
Xenophobic tendencies have been growing for a long time across Europe with race-hatred related crimes being reported frequently and an increased support for anti-immigration parties, especially since the influx of migrants increased to extreme numbers and it became an issue. An upswing of these tendencies in everyday life, incidents of discrimination and general behaviour towards strangers of different cultures has been noticeable after the terrorist attacks in Paris in November. It appears Muslims are taking the hardest blow because there is a tendency to link terrorism to Islam. Tell Mama, a project recording anti-Muslim crimes in the UK, published reports in November revealing a 300% increase of hate crimes directed at Muslims since the Paris attacks. Perhaps this, if anything, confirms the theory that people tend to fear what they don’t know. The question is where does it stop? How much discrimination can be accepted because people are afraid after 13th of November? Early in December a Moroccan man who was praying and watching a religious movie prior to the take-off on a Paris-bound Air France flight from Copenhagen’s airport was forced to leave the aircraft due to a complaint by another passenger. The man had to take another flight to his country after having his luggage search by airport police, upon which nothing suspicious was found. In Northern Ireland, journalist Angela Rainey conducted a social experiment after having noticed the high number of hate-crimes aimed at Muslim women. A mother in Antrim, reportedly told her child that nightmares would follow if looking at women wearing burqa, and referring to them as “mental”. Rainey has described incidents where she was called a “terrorist” and told she was “not in [her] own country now”. She also noted how security guards and policemen were suspicious towards her, while others accused her of trying to break into cars and told her to take her veil off. In early December, in southern England, a Muslim man was asked to leave National Express coach following a complaint from a fellow passenger, who said she would feel “uncomfortable” travelling with him because of his religion. A staff member is then said to have stepped in to ask the man to get off the coach service. A spokesperson for the National Express said: “We categorically deny an incident in which a passenger was asked to leave one of our coaches was in any way Islamophobic”, claiming that the man was asked to leave because of a dispute over his luggage. However, fellow passengers who witnessed the incident claim to have overheard the conversation between the woman and the driver, and insist that the man was asked to leave because of his religion and not because of his luggage. The xenophobia doesn’t just show in incidents of discrimination, but also in crimes. A man in Leeds allegedly tried to buy pigs’ heads and feet from a butcher because he wanted to desecrate mosques. According to the Armley butcher, a smartly-dressed man walked in saying he wanted to buy all the pigs’ heads and feet that he could, and when asked why, he said: ‘Because I want to desecrate as many mosques as possible’. In other European countries anti-immigration marches have been taking place in protest against the influx of refugees. In Finland demonstrators have even been seen wearing Ku Klux Klan masks while marching in the area of Kempele, a small town that was shook by the rape of a teenager, allegedly carried out by man from a migrant centre. Locals in the area have said that they have changed their behaviour since the incident, and out of fear have started escorting their children to school even though they never did in the past, while others say they are avoiding unknown areas after dark. In some, the fear has clearly turned into rage, and refugees have been compared to the Finnish deserters during wartime, whom normally ended up getting shot. Others have said young men should be swapped for refugees who need the help more, like families, women and children.
Hate crimes and acts of discrimination signal a growing popular discontent with the influx of migrants and it is equally clear from the political opinion as the support for anti-immigration- and far right wing parties across Europe have increased steadily. In October Poland elected one of Europe’s most right-wing parliaments, kicking out the long ruling centrists. Earlier on last year the anti-EU, anti-immigration People’s Party in Denmark gained huge support, while in neighbouring Sweden the Sweden Democrats, a party started in the late 1980s as a white supremacist group, has steadily risen in polls, and become one of the country’s most popular parties. In Austria the far-right Freedom Party came second during regional elections in the summer. These political parties have had a tendency to speak of the consequences the influx of refugees will have on their countries, fuelling the already lit spark of fear. In Poland Law and Justice party figure and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned that Muslim refugees would bring parasites and diseases, while in the Sweden Democrats’ leader Jimmie Åkesson stated last year that “Islamism is the Nazism and Communism of our time.” Hungary’s Viktor Orban has said that the refugees entering Europe “look like an army.” These are just some examples. The long-term discontent with the influx of migrants has been fuelled by the fear of terrorism since the Paris attacks and it is to a larger extent considered a realistic threat that hiding among refugees is a way for terrorists to enter Europe. This has led countries to oppose the quota system, some have altered it and suggested only Christian refugees are welcome, while others have built walls and closed borders. Some are convinced the far-right parties are here to stay, that this is their time.