On Tuesday, the European Union (EU) discussed measures to combat the rise of extremism that leads to violence in Europe. The meeting, held in Brussels, was headed by Swedish politician Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, and attended by representatives of all EU member states. The meeting comes on the heels of reports coming out of Lebanon that Hezbollah has been helping to bring European mercenaries to the war in Syria.
There are estimated to be around 5,000 European mercenaries fighting in Syria, many of whom have joined the hard-lined Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) currently fighting in Iraq. In February, there were reports that many of them came from Eastern European countries and had experience fighting in places like Chechnya. One of the principal goals of the meeting in Brussels was to discuss strategies to prevent Europeans from joining the conflict, and to give aid to families whose sons have been radicalized enough to be recruited by extremists to travel to Syria. Malmström noted that many European families are facing this problem and have nowhere to turn for help.
The return of radicalized soldiers to Europe from Syria has proved to be a troubling concern as well. European Union officials believe that the deadly attack in May on a Jewish museum in Brussels that killed three people and injured a fourth was the result of such radicalization and combat training in Syria. The European Commission has been tasked with developing strategies to combat the cycle of violent extremism from recruitment to possible return to Europe, and to aid national law enforcement agencies in understanding the process of radicalization. The meeting noted that violence perpetrated by extremists in Europe is currently more likely to be done by individuals than by groups, which makes their tracking difficult.
To this end, the European Union last year proposed a framework to aid in the detection and de-radicalization of possibly violent extremists called the Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN). The purpose of the framework is to help national law enforcement agencies identify individuals who might be susceptible to extremism, recruitment and violent acts, and to provide resources to aid them though field workers, ministers and local authorities. One of the policy proposals of the RAN framework is the establishment of positive counter-narratives on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter that would combat the black/white thinking, distance, alienation and dehumanization common to the violent extremist mindset. The proposal also takes care to note that offline activity such as community mobilization and activism should go hand-in-hand with online messages and that de-radicalization is not a process of winning but of producing a gradual shift in thinking.
The European Union is taking the RAN proposals one step further with the establishment of an intelligence forum that will collect, discuss and disseminate best practices on the combat and prevention of radicalization and violent extremism throughout Europe. The forum, called a Knowledge Hub, is expected to be ready by 2015. The European Commission has earmarked €16 million for its development. With European mercenaries fighting in Syria and the recent attack in Brussels, the social issues of violent extremism have once again fallen on the doorstep of the European Union in Brussels.
By Steven Killings