AJC Berlin and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Host High Level Conference on Foreign Fighters
Summary of Conference Proceedings
Foreign fighters and homegrown terror have become two of the most salient political concerns in Europe this year. European Islamists – both those who have travelled to fight in Iraq and Syria and then returned to their countries, as well as radical al-Qaida and ISIS sympathizers who never left home – present an ever increasing and more difficult to control danger to homeland security. The growing debate on how to address this phenomenon in Germany and Europe more broadly has raised questions of extreme relevance not only to security authorities, but also politicians and civil society: What motivates young Europeans to join the so called “holy war” in the Middle East? How can authorities prevent more and more jihadists from leaving Europe to travel to Syria and Iraq? What mechanisms can be put in place to effectively monitor those fighters who return, in order to prevent terror attacks on European soil? How can government and civil society work together to defend the safety and values of Europeans against radical Islamist terror?
To discuss these pressing issues and more, AJC Berlin and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation hosted a conference called “Foreign Fighters – A New Challenge for Europe” on March 24, 2015. The high-level meeting – one of the first of its kind in Germany – brought together top experts, German government officials, international diplomats, and key civil society actors from Germany and across Europe to exchange and strategize regarding best practices for combating this unique threat to Western democracy and, often, as recent events in Paris and Copenhagen have shown, Jewish life in Europe.
What motivates the transition from prejudice to violence, and what can governments, politicians, security authorities, and members of civil society do to help avert this critical tipping point? Throughout the day, this central thread was thoroughly explored through a variety of lenses and perspectives. The rapidly changing nature of terrorism was repeatedly invoked as a complicating factor. Features characterizing this new wave of terrorism include: a shorter radicalization process, a “pop” factor enhanced by the viral impact of social media and more professionalized propaganda, an element of self-redefinition and the appeal of extremism to young people searching for purpose or a direction in life, and variability in allegiances, given the frequent change in fronts in the region.
The confluence of these factors has produced a unique threat to Western values and democracy. The impact on Jewish life has been especially profound. Although the Jewish community in particular faces acute danger, society at large does not yet possess a sophisticated or comprehensive enough understanding of the dynamics and mechanics of contemporary Islamic extremism to mount a successful response.
Recommendations revolved around both better analyses of the motives of (potential) perpetrators and the identification of more lasting long-term de-radicalization approaches. In this regard, suggested solutions emphasized the importance of incorporating elements of increased public awareness and engagement, as well as the necessity of developing integrated networks and partnerships across social strata.
Coordinated, concrete political response was identified as integral to addressing the challenges presented by the phenomena of foreign fighters and homegrown terrorism. Conference speakers and attendees highlighted the need for more public-private partnerships, which would connect government officials, security authorities, civil society organizations, and engaged citizens in the fight against violent extremism. Data banks, for example, can be used as a crucial tool in the surveillance of suspected terrorist elements, but ensuring the accuracy of these systems requires advanced intelligence and vigilant maintenance that can best be achieved through cooperation amongst a range of actors. On the governmental level, there should be a greater degree of coordination amongst German states to ensure the best use of existing resources on the national and EU level. German participants called for the development of a united national strategy against anti-Semitism to attain this end.
In the realm of international politics, cooperation on concrete goals was stressed. A central aim is the importance of EU and Western nations joining forces to cut off illicit financing of terrorist organizations and to devise strategies to respond to the political unrest in Syria and the Middle East in general. Achieving these goals will require a recognition that these complex and interwoven issues are of continuing global concern, and may take a generation or more to solve. Examples of successful programs developed in specific national contexts should be exported and adapted internationally in order to maximize the potential for long-lasting, significant results.
On the level of civil society, increased public awareness and engagement is urgently needed. Training and education therefore take up a central position in developing a thorough response to these pressing threats. Emphasis should be placed on prevention programs that are designed based on the latest understanding of the push and pull factors that influence would-be radicals and terrorists. More work should be done with parents, who are often the last line of defense, and female community members should be targeted in particular. Prevention work should be integrated into educational curricula and geared towards assisting Muslim students in finding ways to meaningfully explore questions about religion and identity without turning to extremist ideology. Within the Muslim community, moderate German-speaking Muslim theologians should be supported in their challenges to strict fundamentalist interpretations of religious doctrine. Young people should be prepared to engage in arguments resisting radicalization and civil society actors should be dedicated to the goal of creating an affirmative environment for Muslim students, so that “Salafists are not the best social workers.” Conference participants criticized existing programs for being superficial and insufficient, suggesting that pedagogical initiatives should more deeply explore the prevalence of conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism, as well as the complexities around the conflict in the Middle East.
One-size-fits-all approaches to prevention and de-radicalization were decried as never satisfactorily commensurate with the diverse backgrounds and circumstances of the target group. As a counterpoint to overly simplistic understandings, conference participants referenced the “3 D’s model,” which distinguishes among disillusioned, disturbed, and dangerous returning jihadis. Responses should be developed with a preemptive appreciation for the fact that not all (potential) radicals are the same; therefore, tailored approaches and methods are required.
The recent spike in homegrown terror and the increasing number of Westerners joining the so-called “holy war” in Syria and Iraq have presented a plethora of troubling new challenges to security in Europe, as well as democratic values. The “Foreign Fighters – A New Challenge for Europe” conference, hosted by AJC Berlin and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, helped to elucidate the dimensions of the issue and serve as a forum for the exchange of expertise to devise strategies to confront these evolving challenges with all due diligence.