The map of the Middle East lying on the desk of Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in the weeks before he left his position as head of Military Intelligence to become head of Israel Defense Forces Northern Command appeared at first glance to be covered in coffee stains.
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On closer inspection, the blotches spattered across the map weren’t the result of Kochavi’s clumsy cup control; they illustrated the growing and alarming new presence of thousands of armed foreign jihadis flooding into the Middle East to join Islamist fighters in an arc as lethal as a scimitar – from Libya, through Egypt, to Syria and Iraq. By far the largest stain was in Syria, which has replaced Afghanistan and Iraq as the go-to destination for the modern Islamist warrior with wanderlust.
Two years ago, as the civil war against the murderous regime of President Bashar Assad escalated, Kochavi wrote to his counterparts at the head of Western intelligence agencies, predicting that within a couple of years, as many as 20,000 foreign fighters might be in Syria.
Kochavi warned that the country risked becoming the next base for jihadi training and attacks directed not only at Israel, but the wider Middle East and Europe as well.
Just before he left Military Intelligence, Kochavi admitted that his prediction had been way off. There aren’t 20,000 foreign jihadis in Syria today, he now says; there are 30,000, and the number looks set to grow.
Last week, with the cold-blooded attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Frenchman Mehdi Nemmouche proved Kochavi’s timely pessimism correct. Nemmouche, 29, a native of Roubaix on the French border with Belgium, apparently returned to Europe only a few weeks ago, after more than a year training and fighting with one of the more notorious jihadi groups in Syria. He also appears to have spent some time in Britain before the attack.
“In his bag, there was a large quantity of high-caliber munitions and a Kalashnikov carrying the markings of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a group operating in Syria,” said Frédéric Van Leeuw, the Belgian Federal Prosecutor.
“He also had a video tape in which he says he committed the Brussels murders,” said Van Leeuw.
At least two major attacks in Europe by Syrian-based jihadis have been either foiled or cancelled, but Nemmouche got through, allegedly murdering three people, and leaving a fourth clinically dead, in the shooting attack. He evaded capture for a week and, if reports from France are to be believed, he might have got away with it altogether if he hadn’t boarded a bus home to Marseille from Amsterdam still unaccountably carrying the weapons and clothes he used in the attack.
By chance, we are told, the bus was subjected to a routine narcotics search by French police because of the Amsterdam embarkation point, and Nemmouche was caught in the drugs dragnet.
It would be foolish to hope that Nemmouche, who appears to have been acting alone – at least in Belgium - is the only wannabe European terrorist nurtured and armed in the deadly Syrian circus. Thousands of radicalized, trained and deadly warriors are returning to Europe after gaining their spurs in the war against Assad.
Current European attitudes to law enforcement, in which the rights of terrorist suspects are championed way ahead of the rights of their potential victims, suggest that there will be no wholesale round-up of these potential crazy killers.
There is no political will to detain them without charge, and there aren’t enough resources in European police and intelligence services to keep track of them all.
Even after Nemmouche was arrested, the Belgian official in charge of demanding his extradition from France for the murders was at pains to stress his right to due process.
“He has a right to be presumed innocent and I cannot guarantee absolutely, at this stage, that it his voice” on the video tape, said Van Leeuw.
It’s one thing to capture a killer in a lucky drugs sweep a week after the crime. It’s quite another to prevent the next killing spree before it occurs. As long as European citizens continue to visit the jihadi training grounds in Syria and elsewhere unhindered, and European officials focus on protecting the killers instead of their victims, the next attack, unfortunately, is just a matter of time.