In Wake of Brussels Attack, EU and Arab League Join Forces Against Jihadi Threat

The two regional groups agree to cooperate as an estimated 2,000 European citizens join extremists in Syria.

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Belgium's foreign minister Didier Reynders speaks during a press conference on March 27, 2012.Credit: AFP

European Union and Arab League countries agreed Wednesday to cooperate against the terror threat posed by home-grown radicals who return home from conflicts in the Middle East, following a deadly attack on a Jewish site in Belgium by a suspected jihadi.

Foreign ministers from the two regional bodies, meeting in Athens, said in a joint statement that their efforts would also address radicalization, recruitment and travel of foreign fighters — and "dealing with" those who return home.

Many European authorities fear that home-grown jihadists who travel to Syria and other conflict zones will come back with skills and the will to carry out terrorism. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders described returning foreign fighters as a "huge challenge."

"They have become very dangerous for our societies," he told reporters. "There is a risk of terrorist attack in our countries."

Last month, a gunman killed four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A French suspect arrested over the attack had allegedly spent about a year in Syria after joining an extremist Islamic group fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Reynders said the shootings were "probably the first terrorist attack perpetrated by a foreign fighter" returning from Syria. He said some 2,000 European citizens are believed to have joined extremist Muslim groups fighting the Syrian government.

"They have established networks and acquired experience in the use of weapons and explosive devices," said Reynders. "It's highly probable that the threat from those returnees will persist well beyond the end of the Syrian conflict."

Wednesday's one-day meeting, the third in a series between Arab League and EU foreign ministers, also focused on the situation in Iraq, Syria, Libya and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The joint declaration also criticized this month's presidential election in Syria, in which Assad won another seven-year term, according to authorities there. It said any election "in the midst of a conflict and with millions of Syrians displaced from their homes is an obstacle to the efforts aiming at a political solution."