safe from harm: a spate of syria-related arrests and operations

Midnight rockers, city slickers/Gunmen and me yeah/On a feature on the freak show/And I can’t do nothing ’bout that, no no/But if you hurt what’s mine/I’ll sure as hell retaliate

One of the contributions of social movement research to the study of what Della Porta terms ‘clandestine political violence’ is an emphasis on the role of the state and particularly the police and that the response of the state to political violence influences the development of movements and opportunities for escalation or de-escalation. What the state does or does not do in relation to clandestine political violence matters. The absence of action being as important as over-reaction. States have all manner of choices and numerous avenues open to them that run across a spectrum from prevention programmes, administrative sanctions, arrest and prosecution to kinetic options. The choice of appropriate and proportionate measures is often made amidst pressures from above (political) and below (the people) as well as from media and external parties ranging from allies to human rights groups or other transnational actors.

Each country has its own culture of response to terrorism and political violence and law enforcement or judicial cultures vary greatly; some countries tend to wait and see, others arrest larger numbers of individuals, while some prefer to arrest only a few individuals at a time.  Frank Foley has written a book which deals with some of these issues, Countering Terrorism in Britain and France.

In recent weeks numerous states have moved against foreign fighter networks or small peer-to-peer clusters involved in the Syria conflict. Recent operations and arrests have taken place in:

Albania: In the second week of March, Albania arrested 7 persons linked to Syria-related travel activities and issued warrants for 6 others. The Albanian investigation led officials to estimate that there are some 70 Albanians fighting in Syria with 8 believed dead. One of the individuals involved in the network traveled with his 6 year son to Syria in February 2013.

Belgium: In the last week of February, the Belgian authorities carried out a series of raids that lasted three days. The operation involved 48 house searches and resulted in 17 persons being charged.

France: In the first two weeks of March the French authorities arrested 8 persons in one operation and then another 3 in another investigation. French press report that the French authorities have 40 odd investigations on-going into Syria-linked travel and travel facilitation.

Serbia: On March 9, Serb media reported that two men from Novi Pasar had been arrested for Syria-travel activities. The same report indicated that 30 persons have traveled from the Sandzak region and that 5 have been killed in Syria.

Spain and Morocco: On March 14, 2014, the Spanish authorities carried out an operation against a Syria-linked network with connections to Morocco, Belgium, France, Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, and Indonesia. Seven persons were arrested. The investigation into this network began in 2010 almost 4 years ago.

The United Kingdom: In late February, the UK authorities arrested three persons and in mid-March, four more people were arrested, one for the second time, three were released while one was charged.

It is interesting to note differences in the size of networks or clusters (3 persons, 7 persons, 8 persons more than 10 persons), the duration of operations (hours or days), the level of internet visibility (none, to multiple blogs, websites or Facebook accounts) the level of connectedness of a network (none to half-a-dozen other countries) and as always the fact that an arrest does not always translate into charges.

At about 2 years into the foreign fighter mobilization, it is not surprising to see a increase in law enforcement operations. During the Iraq mobilization there were some early operations against networks, for example the Mullah Fuad network in Italy, and the Aquadulce Operation in Spain in August 2003 but there was an increase in operations from 2005 onwards – the 19th in Paris, Kari in Belgium, and Tigris, La Union, Chacal, Suez, Sello II etc in Spain. Operations elsewhere also occurred in this period with the Reha/Azig group in Morocco dismantled in November 2005 as well. Possible reasons for this pick-up in operations at about the 2 year period are:

  • States have become aware that there is a new foreign fighter destination through there own monitoring or through liaison. The Albanian authorities are reported to have become aware of the activities of some of the individuals through foreign intelligence service liaison.
  • States have been able to identify who has traveled and they have a sense through intelligence investigations of the scale and scope of the situation.
  • Based on these investigations, determinations about priority targets and networks can be made and potential law enforcement targets are identified.
  • States have had the time to investigate and generate information for judicial procedures. It is obvious but sometimes forgotten that law enforcement investigations require significant investments in time and resources to reach a point where arrests are possible and the enough evidence is available for a successful prosecution.

While this might seem obvious, the assessment procedures and the nature of bureaucracies require time before action occurs. Further factors influencing the lag between initiating processes and taking action can also be internal discussions about what strategy to apply to a given conflict or how much external pressure is being applied.

In the case of recent foreign fighter destinations like Iraq and now Syria, it seems that it can take up-to two years before processes which have been initiated much earlier become apparent to the wider public.

An example of the types of discussions that could occur with-in states about how to treat a given situation is a French TV programme where, Marc Trevidic,  a French investigating magistrate responsible for counter-terrorism investigations made a number of interesting points about the ‘judicial dilemma’ with Syria. He suggested that prior French practice with “filieres” [networks] was to monitor the departure and return of individuals and to build a case against the individual that would allow for a long prison sentence. Trevidic emphasized the period after the return of an individual as particularly important to the case as extensive and at times extended periods of monitoring would allow authorities to build a case based on ‘plotting’ by the returnees. This type of activity drawing a longer sentence than just travel.  This strategy was possible when the numbers of persons traveling were relatively limited. Trevidic indicated that this strategy has now changed with Syria, and there is now a move to stop people from traveling. This change is because the resources required to monitor returnees are not infinite and the absolute numbers of travellers are now so high it will be difficult to conduct investigations as in the past. The judge acknowledged that the risk with preventative strategy was that the sentencing was likely to be lighter given the possible absence of elements like plotting terrorist acts. The discussion also included comments from an Anthropologist involved with families of some of the minor who have traveled, this person emphasized the need for earlier interventions and more preventative work from a range of entities.

Responding to political violence and terrorism requires a range of measures but there is often a significant time lag between the choice of measure and the eventual impact of its application, this can often be complicated by choosing measures which were appropriate for the last threat but not for the current or emerging one.