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Most of EU militants in Iraq, Syria from 4 states: Study

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
This December 17, 2015 file photo shows militants, hiding in a concrete pipe in the area of Marj al-Sultan's military airport, three days after it was recaptured by the Syrian troops in the militant-held region of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. (AFP photo)

Four European Union member states have been branded as the largest source of European militants fighting in Syria, a new study suggests, warning governments that they put more efforts to prevent deadly terror attacks by people returning from the conflict zones in the Middle East.

The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, based in The Hague, said in its report published on Friday that Belgium, Britain, France and Germany contributed to the militancy in Iraq and Syria by having 2,838 of their nationals traveling to those countries for joining terror groups.

That is more than half of a total of 4,294 foreign fighters who have left the EU member states for those two Arab countries over the past few years.

The independent think-tank, which has used data supplied by 26 EU countries, said that about 30 percent of those European militants have since returned home, while about 14 percent were killed on the battlefield. It said 17 percent of the group were women, and up to 23 percent were converts to Islam. Most of those militants came from urban areas or peripheral suburbs of the European cities.

The research wrote that Belgium has been the largest contributor to the number of European militants fighting in Iraq and Syria. The small western European country has the highest number of Iraq, Syria militants per capita in the European Union, sending 41 fighters per million population. Belgium has been home to the attackers in the Paris shootings of November 2015, which killed 130 people, and last month's Brussels bombings, which left some 35 dead. The report also said that only 18 percent of the Belgian nationals have returned home, the least among the EU countries.

The largest source country by absolute terms, the study said, was France, which saw 900 people leaving to fight alongside the Takfiri group Daesh in Iraq and Syria. Germany and Britain have also sent hundreds. The lowest figures belong to the eastern European states, although the researchers were unable to find data for Greece and Hungary.

The study warned the European governments about the risks associated with the return of those citizens, saying the states have lacked the proper policies to counter the flow.

“Experts and government officials have increasingly warned of the potential security threat this phenomenon might also pose to Europe and beyond,” the report said.

Elaborating on the weak countermeasures, the study said few European countries have any kind of reintegration program for those returning from the conflict areas. It said only nine have made it a criminal offence to become a foreign fighter. It also recommended that EU should move to establish an effective and centralized monitoring and evaluation framework to analyze the impact of existing policies.

Estimates suggest that some 30,000 foreign fighters from about 104 countries were fighting in Iraq and Syria between September 2014 and September 2015.

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