Mehdi Nemmouche and Syria: Europe’s Foreign Fighter Problem


The capture of Mehdi Nemmouche in France alongside his apparent videoed confession claiming responsibility for a shooting last month at a Jewish museum in Brussels offers the first example of deaths in Europe linked to the battlefield in Syria. EU Counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has spoken of his expectation of more such small-scale attacks, while European security services grow increasingly concerned about the potential scale of the blowback they might expect from Syria. The key problem that has yet to be grappled with is the necessary community messaging that will persuade people of the negative consequences of joining the fight in Syria.

Threats coming back

Nemmouche may be the first successful politically motivated murderer to come back from Syria, but he is not the first plotter who tried. Back in October 2013, British police arrested a pair of men who were allegedly involved in planning a “Mumbai-style” terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. Currently facing an ill-advised, closed-door trial, little information has been released about the men and their plot beyond the fact it was an active plot and involved potential bomb making and fraudulent identification. This was followed in November by the arrest in Kosovo of six of seven members of a cell that was allegedly planning an attack and had gathered guns and explosives. Two of the men were reported to have spent some time fighting in Syria. In January, Italian police arrested and extradited to France a man accused of having fought in Syria and of being part of a larger cell of extremists that was disrupted in France in 2012, had undertaken robberies, and had thrown a grenade into a kosher deli in Paris. In the deported man’s temporary accommodation at Mandelieu-la-Napoule near Cannes, police found 900 grams of TATP explosives fashioned into devices. His intended target was not identified. Reflecting a potentially equally menacing, but slightly different threat, Dutch authorities in Delft have made two sets of arrests of foreign fighters who have been linked to attempted armed robberies. The first arrests came in January, while in mid-May a man was detained as he went about trying to hold-up a yacht marina in The Hague’s suburbs. Authorities believe the money was being used to fund travel to Syria.

So far, none of these have materialized into actual attacks, with vigilant authorities disrupting plotters before they took action. But Nemmouche offers an example of how this threat might eventually materialize, with his criminal history and prison radicalization all echoing aspects of these and other networks linked to Syria. Coincidentally, his place of origin in Roubaix, France, offers an earlier illustration of how terrorist plots linked to foreign battlefields can express themselves at home. Back in 1996, as the war in Bosnia wound down, an Algerian linked to the Groupe Islamique Armee who had fought in Bosnia persuaded a group of French foreign fighters in Bosnia to return home and launch attacks. The Gang de Roubaix went on to terrorize France in early 1996 with a series of heavily armed robberies and attacks that culminated in a massive car bomb being left outside a police station in Lille. The device failed to go off, but the Gang de Roubaix is an archetypal example of how a foreign fighter network can turn into a domestic terror problem.

Trend towards small attacks

The style of attack that Nemmouche is accused of undertaking is one that has become progressively more typical of jihadist-inspired attacks in Europe. Increasingly, plots do not seem to be aimed at large-scale coordinated action like the July 7, 2005 attacks in London or the disrupted 2006 plot to bring down a number of flights on transatlantic routes. Instead, attacks are much smaller in scale, like Mohammed Merah’s murderous rampage in Toulouse in March 2012 in which he killed off-duty soldiers and Jewish children, or Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale’s murder of Lee Rigby in May last year. These attacks were much smaller and less ambitious in scale, but were nonetheless able to cause death and inspire fear. The choice of domestic soft targets emblematic of a more universal jihadist message has the effect of both advancing the narrative of a global struggle, while also hugely expanding the potential target base. Nemmouche’s choice of both tactics and target echoes Merah’s, as does the fact that both men spent some time training or fighting alongside radical groups abroad (in Syria for Nemmouche, in Waziristan for Merah).

What is worrying is that these plots all demonstrate some level of connectivity abroad. A key question, however, is the degree to which these individuals have been directed into action. Thus far this aspect has remained unclear, something accentuated by the lack of clarity as to why groups fighting in Syria would want to launch attacks against the West, while they’re currently preoccupied with toppling the Assad regime. But this might change. Both Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat al Nusra have some level of connectivity with al Qaeda and its global message and might therefore eventually decide to take things in a global direction, while the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) might decide that it needs to make a big splash if it seeks to continue on its current path that might see it displace al Qaeda as the main locus of global jihadism. And all three might blame Western governments for insufficient support in the event that the rebellion fails. Under any of these scenarios, foreign fighters offer a perfect vehicle to launch an attack.

Community messaging key

The dilemma about what can be done to stem the tide of foreign fighters going to Syria, and how to ward off threats associated with their return, is a nettlesome one atop most European security services’ agendas. But in the Nemmouche plot there is the possibility of the beginning of a way through. The appearance of a lethal plot with links to Syria provides an opportunity to lay out the case clearly and cogently with evidence about why foreign fighters going to Syria pose a direct threat to European security and why, therefore, communities should work to dissuade their young men and women from going. With the decision to conduct a closed trial of the two men arrested in October, the U.K. is about to potentially miss such an opportunity, something that will do little to try to warm Britain’s communities to the government’s aggressive messaging that people who go to Syria will be arrested when they return. The key message that needs to be countered is that people are going only to participate in a noble struggle against an evil dictator. The reality is that they are going to join in a fight that is increasingly about internal squabbles on the rebel side (many reported foreigners dying in Syria are dying fighting other rebel groups rather than the regime), and they are going to encounter people there whose goals go far beyond Syria and may ultimately end up with terrorist attack plotting back home. This is a difficult and complicated message to sell, but open courts and transparent cases are the most convincing means that Western authorities have to demonstrate to the public the menace that is faced and get them onside to help counter it. Mehdi Nemmouche may well be the first of a number of plotters to come back from Syria, but the flow is only going to be stemmed when those communities within Europe from which foreign fighters originate are convinced that their young men and women are doing something that they should not be doing.


Raffaello Pantucci is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, where his research focuses on counter-terrorism as well as China’s relations with its western neighbors.  He is the author of “We Love Death as You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen.


Photo credit: abdullatif anis