For economist Loretta Napoleoni, specialist on terrorism and how it is funded, the Islamic State (IS) does not pose a direct threat on the European continent, but Europeans are not financially and legally equipped to fight young radicals and former fighters returning from the Middle East.

What threat does the IS pose for Europe?

The threat is essentially represented by European jihadists who have gone to the Middle East and returned to Europe to carry out attacks, a relatively recent phenomenon. For a long time indeed, the foreigners fighting in the ranks of the IS in Iraq and Syria came from the Arabian Peninsula and Africa. However, since it declared itself a caliphate in June 2014, the IS has recruited a number of fighters from Europe, due in large part to a formidable recruitment campaign consisting of videos – such as that of three young British men [in the above photo] vaunting the merits of jihad and showing support for Islamist fighters – in addition to lauding its advances in Iraq and Syria. The Western media has exacerbated this effect, having functioned – whether consciously or not – as a sounding board for jihadist propaganda. In the media, the IS appears to be an established power, making it all the more fascinating to young European candidates for jihad.

Do we know how many jihadists have returned to Europe from Syria and Libya?

The exact figure is not known, but the greatest proportion of jihadists who have returned from Syria are in the north. This is particularly true for Belgium, where an estimated 120 have either returned or wish to return, but are blocked for one reason or another in the Middle East.

For the moment, the returning fighters do not pose a huge problem, and not even the main problem. The IS’s primary concern is the conquest of Baghdad, and as long as they have not secured the Iraqi capital, the returning European jihadists will remain a secondary concern. On the other hand, once the IS considers itself to have attained its objectives in terms of territorial expansion, the problem will grow depending on how dull European jihadists find life in the “caliphate” to be, when they also have a real plan to “export” jihad to Europe. Much as in Saudi Arabia, life in the self-proclaimed caliphate is rather tiresome for these youth who grew up in the West: there is virtually no social life beyond their private lives, men are strictly separated from women, and most entertainment is banned. For the same reason, one must not believe that the prospect of finally living according to a “true” Islam is what motivates them: the young European jihadists are not ascetics, who refrain from drinking and smoking, for example. They are attracted to the idea of a struggle against an oppressor – such as the regimes in Syria, Iraq and Libya – and the establishment of an Islamic political utopia as formulated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently by al-Qaeda, and so on. But once this utopia is established, it is highly likely these youths will want to return to Europe.

To do what?

Certainly not to live in peace. Marginalised in their countries of origin, they are still driven by a strong desire for vengeance, as shown by the sadly famous case of “Jihadi John”, the radicalised former British student responsable for several decapitations of hostages filmed by the IS. It is thus highly likely they will seek to continue the fight at home. There are also those who went abroad only to decide they have made a mistake, and who will likely return to a normal life once back in Europe.

How are European countries reacting to this perspective?

Very poorly, for the simple reason they have no money. The problem of European counterterrorism is essentially economic: human means go far beyond the capabilities of available technologies to monitor the numbers and activities of European jihadists. European security forces are trying to stop them before they return to Europe, but doing so poses legal and political problems: it is nearly impossible to prevent citizens with valid passports from returning to their country of origin, or to prove they were in Syria, Iraq or Libya to fight. On top of that, for the moment, several European countries are arming groups who are supposed to be fighting against the IS in Syria, but how to distinguish them? The question requires a political solution: revoking citizenship is only possible under certain conditions, notably when the individuals in question have another nationality. The most likely outcome for them is to become stuck in Syria.

For this reason, there is a need for an international agreement on a procedure to allow a safe return for those who wish to reintegrate in their home countries – these sorts of “repentent” jihadists. On a recent trip to Belgium, I had the opportunity to discuss with political representatives who told me that most Belgians who return from Syria – most of them very young adults – realised they had made a mistake and regretted it. But they are also afraid of coming home. In order to encourage their reintegration, a procedure aiming to facilitate their return is indispensable.

And what of those who wish to return to Europe in order to carry out attacks?

Those who are convinced they made the right decision to go and fight in Iraq, Syria or Libya do not plan to return. And those who do return are closely monitored. The real danger comes rather from individuals like the attackers in Copenhagen and Ottawa, who have not gone to the Middle East. There is no trace of them until they carry out their acts. They are often radicalised in universities or in small mosques, off the radar of security forces. Radicalisation also happens in prisons, as was the case for the suspect in the Copenhagen attacks. The real danger comes from this mass of youth of Muslim cultures born and raised in Europe and who radicalise via social networks, videos, Skype and Islamist websites. And who each act for different reasons, as we saw in the Paris and Copenhagen attacks, where each suspect claimed his own loyalties, from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the IS and to Gaza. What they all have in common is their frustrations with their living conditions, which they perceive as inferior to that of their compatriots. They also share their admiration for the IS, which has a powerful allure through its through military victories in Syria and especially in Iraq, and through expertly orchestrated propaganda. The IS has shown itself to be aware of Westerners’ weaknesses and how they tend to react. The emotion stirred in Europe by the destruction of archeological treasures in the museum of Mosul and the remains of the ancient sites of Nimrud and Hatra are the clearest examples. The mystery surrounding the IS’s leaders, as well as its finances, contributes to myths of its hold and influence, which in turn contribute to the group’s fascination for radicalised youth.

How much is known about the IS’s wealth and where it comes from?

We know very little, because the IS works in a closed economy. Between trafficking and the money pillaged from the banks of Mosul, its annual “GDP” could be estimated as $2bn to $5bn [about €1.8bn to €4.6bn]. And this is a matter of calculation based on IS document that, in my view, have been purposely left to be found. That appears enormous, but consider that the CIA has estimated in the 1990s the “GDP” of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), considered a terrorist organisation at the time, to be $8bn to $12bn [about €7.5bn to €11bn]. Compared with the PLO, the IS is far less corrupt and much better organised.

Do their financial networks also concern Europe, or are they limited to the Middle East and the Arab world?

The IS received funds from around the world, in particular from the Gulf States. Foreign fighters receive money from their close relations, such as parents, friends and sympathizers, but these are small sums. Lower than 300 dollars, the exchanges are not followed. They most likely come through Western Union or hawala, the Islamic transfer system. This money does not go to the IS, but to the jihadist, who spends it within the IS, which then give it back in the form of payments, albeit modest ones.

Can European countries continue to work with countries that finance the IS?

They have to change their foreign policy. The map of the Middle East must be redrawn, because it belongs to a world inherited from the Cold War and that no longer exists. The failure of the “Arab Spring” and the Western intervention in Libya show the map will be redrawn with blood. The greatest danger for Europe is not the jihadists that return from the Middle East. It is the end of trade with the south and east banks of the Mediterranean and with Asia, if Yemen, which controls access to the Red Sea, falls to forces hostile to the West. There is also piracy: amateur sailors and ferries that circulate in the Mediterranean are vulnerable to pirate raids from Libya.

In Libya, the IS appears to be present several hundred kilometres from the European coast.

The IS as such is not established in Libya: it has sent a small group to open political relations with jihadists who are active there. Until now, the IS’s relations have essentially been based on the arms trade, because Iraq and Libya have the largest arsenals that have fallen into the hands of jihadists these recent years.

The situation in Libya, where there are more than 1700 armed groups of all types, is very different than that of Syria or Iraq. The IS could be expected to apply the same strategy used in Iraq between 2011 and 2013: to subjugate or to destroy different groups one by one until there remains a sole organisation present on the whole territory. But it is a long-term task that is far more complicated in an essentially tribal and divided country like Libya.

It is more likely that Libya will become a “failed state” like Somalia than an ersatz one in Syria, with each faction controlling a part of the territory.

Recently, El País published an article claiming that jihadists planned to take advantage of the situation in Libya to cross the Mediterranean by mixing with migrants in boats in order to carry out attacks in Europe. Does that appear plausible?

No, because the voyage by sea with the migrants is extremely perilous and, once in Europe, they would be confined in detention camps. Furthermore, there is also the problem of transporting weapons, which cannot pass unseen. And why would they need to come to Europe, which already has a number of potential terrorists? What need is there to send a Libyan jihadist across the Mediterranean to plant a bomb in Madrid? It makes no sense. What interests the jihadists is taking over the natural resources of their countries and to establish their own law there.

Does that mean that IS propaganda is more oriented towards recruiting Western fighters for Syria, Iraq and Libya than exporting jihad to the West?

Absolutely. And it works, as the growth in the number of fighters who have left Europe in recent months shows. IS propaganda also serves to terrorise us. The latest attacks were not as spectacular or deadly as those of 11 September 2001, but they had the same effect on our collective imagination and our societies. The impact of the Charlie Hebdo attack on public opinion was intensified by exaggerations in the media, which was often unscrupulous or on the lookout for sensational news, often at the expense of the truth. And for uneducated and frustrated youth, the effect is even greater.