Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great privilege to be opening today's launch event for the RAN handbook on returnees. I am pleased to see the rich diversity of participants. I understand that we have practitioners and policy makers from across the EU but also from some of our important international partners. So, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here today.
Although the focus today is the challenge of returnees, I believe that it is also important to recognise that most of the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have been carried out by home-grown perpetrators, who became radicalised jihadis without travelling abroad to conflict zones. This phenomenon raises its own unique challenges and demands specific actions from Member States and support at EU-level. As well as looking to conflict zones, we must also work to tackle radicalisation at home and reinforce our resilience as societies.
Just over three years ago, Mehdi Nemmouche, launched an attack against the Jewish Museum of Belgium, located just a few kilometres from where we are today. This abhorrent attack was significant for a number of reasons:
Sadly, the threat posed by what we commonly refer to now as 'Foreign Terrorist Fighters' is not new. In the years following 9/11, many Member States had citizens depart for terrorist-held territory in parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen to attend terrorist training camps.
Some of these individuals returned to EU shores, intent on murdering innocent civilians, as we witnessed in the London Bombings of 2005, and Mohammed Merah's attack in the south of France in 2012.
Whilst the returnee phenomenon is not necessarily new, its scale is - the number of EU foreign terrorist fighters who have embarked for Syria and Iraq is estimated to be 5000.
Some who initially departed for Syria claimed to have done so out of a sense of moral obligation to "defend" innocent Syrians against the brutality of the Assad regime. Some were lured by the sense of adventure, or the search for identity, and community.
Some went with the specific intent to join terrorist groups – which – in the absence of any governance - were able to take root and spread, leaving unspeakable human rights abuses and destruction in their wake. Whatever their original justification we have to be alive to the potential threat should they return to the EU.
That challenge is both direct and indirect – not only the risk that they commit attacks in Europe but also that they radicalise others.
And the problem is not just confined to young men. Never slow to exploit a situation, Da'esh has gone to exceptional lengths to lure women and entire families from Europe to Syria.
According to Europol, women account for approximately 20% of those from Finland and Germany currently in the conflict zone in Syria and Iraq. Women constitute 11% of Dutch returnees, which perhaps underlines how difficult it can be for women to leave Da'esh territory.
Danish women account for nearly an eighth of the number who have travelled to Da'esh-controlled territory – but it's also believed that women play a more active role within jihadist circles in Denmark, and may consequently have an increased radicalising effect on their associates and families.
Belgium has also reported that returning women (and children) are of concern, due to the apparent involvement of female activists in the preparation of attacks.
In 2015, there was also an increased flow of Swiss women and children responding to the call of violent jihadist organisations. Poland on the other hand has stated that all of their departing citizens are under 22 years old.
We also believe that hundreds of children may have been born there to European parents. Some 460 French minors are currently living in the Syrian-Iraqi zone. This group presents a particular challenge.
Although many of these children are too young to pose an immediate threat upon their return, they will have spent their formative years in conflict zones. Many of these children will have adhered to strict military regimes and some may have been encouraged to carry out violent acts. Most will have suffered some form of mental or violent abuse.
So, if not identified and given appropriate psychological support, in the medium term they too could pose a serious challenge.
Protecting the safety and security of our Union is the first priority of the Juncker Commission and let me assure you that we are taking action across the board to help strengthen the Union's counter-terrorism capability focussing in particular on enhancing our capability to identify and deal with the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon:
• We have adopted the Directive on Combatting Terrorism so as to ensure the criminalisation of terrorist training and travel as well as their financing.
• We have reinforced our security at the EU's external borders by making compulsory the systematic check of EU citizens in the Schengen Information system , established and reinforced the European Border and Coast Guard Agency
• We have deployed officers from both the European Border and Coast Guard and Europol to the "hotspots" in Greece and Italy to support the systematic registration and fingerprinting of all migrants, as well as secondary security checks, where necessary.
• We have established and subsequently reinforced the European Counter Terrorism Centre at Europol which serves as an information hub and provides operational support to Member States' investigators.
• We have set up the EU Internet Forum to work with the industry in preventing their online platforms from being exploited by terrorists.
• We are also working closely with our counterparts in neighbouring countries at every level to help enhance the security of both their citizens and EU citizens.
In terms of returnees, different interventions will obviously be required depending on individual circumstances. But all will require some form of initial assessment to determine the risk they pose, which in turn will help determine the most appropriate form of intervention.
For some, there might be sufficient evidence to warrant conviction and imprisonment. For many however, evidence of criminal activity may be lacking or indeed absent. Regardless of where these individuals end up, there has to be some form of long-term, sustainable Prevent intervention.
The ultimate goal is to minimise the returnees' risk to society. In general, prosecution and imprisonment on their own, are not enough; we also need to look to tackle the root of the problem.
Foreign fighter cases must be dealt with in a coordinated cross-disciplinary fashion, including mental health treatment, education and re-integration.
As you know one key element is to work to ensure that convicted individuals do not influence or radicalise their fellow prisoners, or indeed pose a threat upon their release.
And therein lies the second challenge – how to stop returnees from targeting and radicalising the vulnerable or those susceptible to their destructive ideology.
Preventing radicalisation has been and remains at the forefront of the EU's counter-terrorism response.
We need to build on the good work already done, consolidating existing initiatives, involving the broadest possible range of stakeholders and bringing EU-level work on counter-radicalisation closer to the policy-making level in Member States.
As a first step the Commission will set up a High Level Expert Group on Radicalisation to allow for a more structured and institutionalised exchange between practitioners and policy makers.
In taking this work forward the Radicalisation Awareness Network is central.
The rationale of the RAN- to serve local practitioners, to help equip practitioners with the necessary skills and confidence to identify the early warning signs of radicalisation, and to ensure the necessary intervention – has never been more important or more vital.
Reintegration and de-radicalisation will be challenging and I look forward to hearing more about your ideas on reintegration and rehabilitation programmes in relation to returnees. I am also keen to hear your advice on how to ensure that the children of returnees are prioritised and protected.
I wish you a thought-provoking and productive day and I count on your support to promote and disseminate the handbook - which we are launching today - across your respective networks and administrations.