U.S. aids countries in legal fight against extremists

WASHINGTON — Justice Department lawyers are coordinating with foreign governments in North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East to deal with the problems posed by foreign fighters flowing to the conflict in Syria, Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday.

The goal is to aid those countries in bringing criminal prosecutions against individuals who return from Syria and ensure that they have the necessary laws to do so, such as one routinely used in the United States that makes it a crime to provide material support to terrorist organizations, Holder said.

“Our goal in all of these efforts is to build the capacity to fight foreign terrorist fighters within the rule of law so we can stop the stop the flow of fighters … and aggressively combat violent extremism,” Holder said.

The Justice Department has for years maintained an overseas presence, including to aid national security investigations, and already has lawyers on the ground working in foreign countries. But following meetings with European Union ministers, Holder disclosed publicly Thursday how Justice Department lawyers are working in more than a dozen countries to assist in terrorism prosecutions.

The plans discussed Thursday also include the assignment of a regional counterterrorism adviser in the Balkans.

Western officials have for months expressed concern about citizens traveling to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State, fearing they could be trained in terrorist tactics that could be implemented if they returned to their home countries. A new United Nations report says the challenge has reached an “unprecedented scale,” with about 15,000 foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq alone.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Congress on Thursday that the United States and coalition force were making progress in the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, but that the struggle will be long and difficult.