Think of a “foreign fighter”. Are they a young male, aged 19-29, probably, of Middle Eastern origin, and possibly a Muslim? Are they associated with the concern and debate over Syria and Iraq? To most people, it’s more than likely that this image comes to mind. This isn’t necessary wrong, but it’s definitely not completely accurate. Yet, we must raise a question… are extremist Islamist fighters the only foreign fighters Europe should worry about?
The answer is no. Currently, returning Far Right fighters from the Ukraine is a threat most overlook. The conflict in the Ukraine provides an environment where foreign right-wing paramilitary groups form without any opposition. Both pro-Russian and Ukrainian Nationalists have operational paramilitary groups that hold extreme rightwing views, ties to neo-Nazism, and welcome foreigners as fighters. The Azov Battalion stands as a prime example of a violent rightwing group that attracted foreign volunteers. This neo-Nazi group boasts a number of foreign participants, including “Russians, Swedes, and a Canadian“. Their emblem includes the “Black Sun” occult symbol, used by the Nazi SS during World War II. The unit’s founder, Andrei Biletsky, also heads “two other neo-Nazi groups“. Most worrying is their polished social media page with powerful Far Right ideological material in English. This makes recruiting more accessible for any potential fighters who wish to join.
Foreign fighters operating in Eastern Europe aren’t a new phenomenon. During the Russo-Chechen conflict in 1995, there was a heavy influx of foreign fighters into the region. Therefore, why should we be concerned this time around? Arguably, the danger from a returning Far Right fighter from the Ukraine is no different from that of a returning fighter from Syria. An individual with radical views with good training could commit or help in committing a violent attack. Currently attached to the Azov Battalion is a Swedish national, named “Mikael Skillt“, a trained sniper with 7 years’ experience in the Swedish Army. Currently, he has a “7,000 USD bounty” on his head, due to the danger that he poses to [Novorossiyan forces]. A man with his skills, who describes himself as an “ethnic nationalist”, who holds extremist views, has the potential to be very dangerous.
The conflict’s brutality could also have an effect on a fighter. A group of rightwing Ukrainian nationalists, who refer to themselves as the Aidar Battalion, reportedly have committed war crimes. The reports from local media suggest widespread abuse from “abductions, unlawful detention, and beheadings“. It’s possible that PTSD could affect any returning fighter. Without treatment, it leaves open the chance that a person, with military training, who’s already committed violence, could snap under the right circumstances and commit a random attack. There have been some cases across Europe were people with mental health issues embark on violent sprees. Also, there’s a very serious possibility that a foreign fighter in the Ukraine may have a radicalising impact on others when they return.
It’s completely understandable that the issue of returning Islamic fighters has taken precedence. Attacks in Paris pushed the issue to centre stage. The high volume of traffic to Syria and Iraq from Europe outweighs that of people going to the Ukraine to fight. However, it only takes one returning Far Right fighter to commit an attack causing utter devastation. Anders Breivik was a lone violent Far Right actor, yet, he was responsible for one of Europe’s most horrific terrorist attack. Imagine a returning fighter from the Ukraine, with military training, who’s experienced combat, and has access to connections and weaponry doing the same thing. One can hope that some attention shifts towards Far Right fighters in the Ukraine, even though the conflict has mostly dropped out of the mainstream attention. However, as long as there are organisations willing to raise the issue and attempting to counter the Far Right narrative, then, there’s still hope. The threat is there and it’s very real. Let’s all just hope that we don’t learn this lesson the hard way.
23 January 2015