The increase in radicalised individuals returning from foreign terrorist conflicts is a phenomenon that should concern Malta and the whole surrounding region, according to the head of a Malta-based counter-terrorism institute.

Robert Strang, interim executive secretary of the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law (IIJ), told The Sunday Times of Malta criminal justice systems across Europe were having to adapt quickly to sort through thousands of returning fighters and tackle increasingly sophisticated recruitment techniques.

He said prosecutors were facing challenges in considering new forms of evidence, including the internet, collaborating with military and intelligence services and addressing gaps in juvenile justice systems.

“One of the goals of the IIJ is to strengthen the criminal justice system to ensure our efforts against terrorism are consistent with the rule of law, but that we’re not fighting terrorism with one arm tied behind our back,” he said.

The fact that Malta puts such an emphasis on its neutrality has also been a positive for us

“We need to use all the tools at our disposal and bring them together in the criminal justice system to achieve prosecutions wherever possible.”

Mr Strang, a United States prosecutor who has worked in Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines, was speaking on the one year anniversary of the establishment of the IIJ, an international training institute for counterterrorism based in Valletta.

With 12 founding members from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, the institute provides training in the justice sector on counterterrorism issues, aimed at MPs, prosecutors, judges, investigators and other criminal justice professionals.

Since its establishment, over 450 professionals have received training in Malta on topics ranging from foreign terrorist fighters to kidnapping for ransom and countering violent extremist elements in civil society.

Mr Strang said the institute would soon be taking up in permanent residence in the Birgu Armoury, a historic building which the IIJ will be renovating as part of an agreement with the Maltese government.

“The fact that Malta puts such an emphasis on its neutrality has also been a positive for us, since holding programmes here is seen as neutral ground,” he added.

Malta’s geographical location also puts into focus some of the emerging issues the institute addresses, according to Mr Strang, from the challenges posed by migration to how to respond to kidnapping.

“For people working in Libya, kidnapping for ransom is not only a realistic possibility but actually a probability over time,” he said.

“Countries are being called upon to develop strategies – from broad political concerns to how to manage the media and civil society in such a situation – to ensure that the kidnapped person does not become a victim.”

In the coming months, the IIJ will be putting together a series of counterterrorism guidelines specifically for parliamentarians, including good practices for legislation, overseeing law enforcement agencies, and coordinating with foreign counterparts.

It is also organising the first training programme on foreign terrorist fighters specifically for investigators, highlighting the preventive roles of the community and intelligence services, as well as evidence gathering.

“It’s true that the criminal justice system doesn’t change rapidly but sometimes that patience pays off,” Mr Strang said. “Other approaches that seem like a quick fix can often turn out to be dead ends.”

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