Shia Militia Fighters in Europe: a dormant Threat?
The post-Iraq invasion sectarian conflict in the Middle East is fuelling a bloody wave of ethno-sectarian terrorism across Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Millions of civilians have been displaced both internally and externally. For various reasons, refugees find Europe as their best destination to seek refuge and start a new life away from the war-ridden Middle East. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, however, prompted fears across Europe that a small number of the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists might have slipped into the EU disguised as refugees. The first evidence came from Hungary. A suspected ringleader Salah Abdeslam visited Keleti station in Budapest and ‘recruited’ a team from unregistered refugees[i]. This gave rise to a common concern all over Europe and gave an incentive to control the external borders with special focus on identifying Sunni radicals who might pose a security threat. EU Member States are also working on improving proactive intelligence sharing on terror suspects within the EU and with other international allies.
Among the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to the EU, there are members of Shia militias who fled Iraq and Syria to retire in Europe. These are typically young men who served within the ranks of Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and Assad’s regime militia so-called Shabiha. They are accused by locals and international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, of committing war crimes in Syria and Iraq. Typically, these militiamen are not profiled by the EU security services. Officially, EU security services do not have a list of radical Shia militiamen who came to Europe who are highly trained to use military-grade weapons and explosives. As it stands now, they do not pose an immediate threat to EU security. However, this could change.
We know from the existing academic literature that the path to radicalisation goes through three main stages as shown in the diagram below: Grievances, Ideology, and Mobilisation. Generally, the process of radicalisation starts with grievances (real or perceived). A person is touched by an ideology (religious/non-religious) which could help him make sense of his grievances to channel his anger at a person or a group (such as the government). The anger/frustration and the ideology are then mobilised by a radicaliser (such a preacher – in real life or cyberspace) to possibly terrorist action.
Awakening the dormant threat?
Just like Sunni extremists in the EU, Shia radicals who have participated in the sectarian conflict in Iraq and Syria, under certain circumstances, might go through the same process of radicalisation. Shia radical preachers are already voicing frustration with the US/Coalition. They accuse US army of air-dropping weapons and food to ISIS. This is one example of how radical Shia preachers are trying to mobilise Shia against the Coalition. It might sound absurd that Shia militias accuse US government of assisting the Islamic State, however, it is an allegation often made in the Middle East especially in Iraq.[ii] The fact that these radical militiamen are not posing a threat at the moment does not mean these radicals would not pose a threat to the EU in the future.
It is argued here that these war-hardened young militiamen who came to the EU might, under certain conditions, pose a serious security threat. Al-Qaida, Islamic State, and other terrorist groups targeting Western states are typically ‘Sunni’ groups who perceive Western polices as unjust or aggressive against their sect/religion. Al-Qaida and other Salafi jihadist groups usually ‘justify’ their terrorist attacks against Western civilians citing Western state’s policies against Islam – implicitly referring to their radical version of Sunni Islam. In the case of Shia militiamen, perception as a radicalisation trigger could be applicable to those Shia militiamen who retired in the EU once they perceive Western Foreign Policies as ‘aggressive’ towards Shia in the Middle East.
Furthermore, the Islamic State radicals and Shia militiamen radicals might bring their sectarian conflict to the EU. The Islamic State supporters in the EU used to post pictures of the Islamic State flag to demonstrate their reach. Recently, as shown in the pictures below, purportedly, a militiaman from Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) shows off his militia’s flag in the vicinity of the Eiffel tower – Paris. If these elements are left unchecked, the possibility of the Islamic State versus Shia militias attacks in the EU cannot be ruled out.
Closing Security Gaps
Due to the fact that most EU Member States do not have effective military/intelligence presence in Iraq, the United States and the United Kingdom are the only two Western states with extensive intelligence on Shia armed groups operating in Iraq and Syria. Therefore, EU Member States are recommended to request relevant intelligence information on radical Shia militias from the US and the UK. This would not only enable security officers better screen new refugees but also verify the names of those already processed/registered as refugees. EU Member States have a moral commitment to help civilians from the Middle East seeking refuge. However, this moral commitment should not be abused to become a retirement zone for war criminals.