From Damascus to Brussels, a new chapter in the Syrian war begins
The Jewish museum shooting could prove to mark the very beginning of a deadly new chapter in the Syrian conflict
In what increasingly appears to have been a lone-wolf type al-Qaeda inspired attack, French national Mehdi Nemmouche walked into the Jewish Museum in the Sablon area of Brussels armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and opened fire, killing three people instantly and critically injuring a fourth person, who later died, on 24 May. If the attack had gone precisely according to the attacker’s plan, it would have been videotaped. The assault was quick and could be replicated easily - especially in the United States. When French security officials arrested Nemmouche nearly a week after the attack, he was in possession of at least one automatic weapon and a revolver; notably, according to the Associated Press, one of the guns was found covered in a sheet displaying the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the main radical rebel groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
While the extent to which Nemmouche was involved in the Syrian conflict remains unknown, French officials have confirmed the suspect was associated with other radical Islamists while imprisoned in France and went to Syria for a little over a year beginning in January 2013 where he then reportedly kept company with ISIS militants.
The tragic attack against the Jewish museum represents precisely the type of threat security analysts have increasingly indicated the West must now actively confront: radicalized Westerners who’ve fought in Syria and returned back to their home countries, trained and emboldened. Days after the museum shooting, reports surfaced that American citizen Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha (AKA Abu Hurayra al-Amriki) from Vero Beach, Florida carried out a suicide bombing on behalf of Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria - the first such recorded incident of an American dying while fighting in Syria. And in yet another recent report, the FBI indicated it was investigating whether or not an undisclosed number of young Somali-Americans were recently recruited by Syrian rebels.
The Jewish museum shooting could prove to mark the very beginning of a deadly new chapter in the Syrian conflictBrooklyn Middleton
Four years in, how to best confront the security issue of Western fighters in Syria remains debated. In the recent term, European security and government officials have significantly stepped up efforts to diminish the threat brought back with fighters’ return - by preventing them from ever actually returning. In 2013, British officials formally stripped at least 20 dual-nationals of their citizenship while they were fighting in Syria. The move is bold and could be highly problematic; moreover, with passport forgery rampant in Syria, it remains unclear the degree to which this will even prove effective. At the very least, closely monitoring the movement of radicalized Western fighters in Syria could prove virtually impossible. Perhaps more effectively - and likely less prone to criticism from human rights advocates - security officials have also been increasingly detaining would be rebels en route to Syria at the airport prior to their departure.
Likely fall far short
Ultimately though, these measures will likely fall far short of comprehensively diminishing security risks associated with the scores of foreign fighters returning or attempting to return to the West. It would seem then that focus must be equally given to recruiters - those within Syria and abroad who zero in on potentially vulnerable targets and actively attempt to recruit them to fight.
With at least several thousand Westerners currently fighting in Syria - a figure political scientist Thomas Hegghammer indicates is “alarmingly high and historically unprecedented” - the likelihood of fighters slipping through security cracks and making their way back into Europe and the United States is only likely to increase. This proves, unfortunately, that the Jewish museum shooting could prove to mark the very beginning of a deadly new chapter in the Syrian conflict: spillover that extends far beyond the Levant.
Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.