The threat of 'foreign fighters' is all too familiar to European countries, but responses have been different and there are many lessons for the UK to learn. It comes as no surprise that the UK's Counter Terrorism and Security Bill is being fast tracked in response to the growing recognition that something needs to be done to address the security concerns. To date this something has largely focused on police-led and security measures such as TPIMS, temporary exclusion orders, and passport removal. Although these tougher measures may be one way of dealing with the threat posed they are not enough. The UK is taking steps in the right direction but our European counterparts are already strides ahead in taking a more holistic approach to tackling the issue.
This week the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) launched a report that offers a range of examples to draw from to guide the prevention of radicalisation and travel to Syria.
The report draws from these European examples to provide insights into countering and blocking extremist messaging. More importantly, we outline innovative ways that families and communities - the individuals closest to those at-risk - have helped to minimise the risk of people leaving for Syria and the threat posed when they return.
We identify four main community-based measures that should encourage government to re-think dealing with the issue: telephone hotlines, family support programmes, and disengagement and de-radicalisation programmes.
In France a national support hotline specific to the issue has encouraged families to come forward and flag concerns about relatives they suspect may be preparing to travel to Syria. Since it was set up in April this year the hotline and accompanying online submission form has received around 400 reports from members of the public across France. Although the UK's Metropolitan Police encouraged launched a women's 'Syria Awareness Campaign' around the same time, they urged those with concerns about a relative traveling to Syria to call the general non-emergency 101 hotline.
However, many communities that foreign fighters come from have a troubled relationship with the police and a mistrust of the government. In response to this there have also been a number of civil society-led hotlines to report prospective travellers without the need to involve law enforcement.
Germany's Hayat is one of the most established and varied support services in Europe. They work directly with families that are worried about a loved-one travelling to Syria. It is part of a German-nationwide counselling network on radicalisation and draws on the expertise of the Exit and deradicalisation of neo-Nazis. From its launch in 2011 until December 2013, Hayat had already handled a total of 53 cases with families. Increasing numbers of friends are being recruited into extremist networks and travelling together. Hayat's counsellors equip families to understand the signs of radicalisation and strengthen positive networks to counter recruitment-messages. One of the most challenging aspects of their work relates to the support and advice they provide to families who are still in touch with their relatives who have travelled to Syria.
Both Hayat and Denmark's 'Aarhus Model' realise that people returning from the conflict in Syria have a complex set of needs that can't be met through a criminal-justice response. The 'Aarhus model' is a cooperation between the police district and Municipality. Coming from the ground-up, not the government, local authorities made a local solution based on existing networks. Their services are as advanced as providing medical and psychological treatment for returnees that really need it and advice on education and employment to aide their successful reintegration back into their communities.
Preventative and remedial measures are essential alongside repressive ones. Those at risk of travelling and those that have returned need to build networks of trust and confidence to establish supportive bonds with their families and communities. The measures outlined here will help to stem the power of the often compelling recruitment narratives that drive people to go to Syria.