London, Asharq Al-Awsat—More than 2,000 Muslims from the United States and Europe have joined armed groups fighting in Syria, an increase from 440 such fighters at the end of 2011. Despite that 355 percent increase, foreign fighters from the West still represent no more than 11 percent of non-Syrians fighting against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, though their presence in Syria is the cause for a great deal of concern on the part of governments in Europe and elsewhere.
According to a report published recently by King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, the number of non-Syrian fighters in the country has reached 11,000. The report, which is based on more than 1,500 sources, says those 2,000 Western fighters include 412 from France, 366 from the United Kingdom, 296 from Belgium and 240 from Germany. There are also thought to be one Swiss citizen and one Luxembourg national fighting in the country. In total, combatants holding 73 nationalities, including 15 Europeans, are thought to have travelled to Syria to fight. (The government of embattled President Bashar Al-Assad puts the number of nationalities slightly higher, at 80 or more.)
In contrast, the United States government has not estimated the number of its nationals fighting in Syria. The type of information coming out of the US involves reports of isolated incidents, such as in November 2013, when an official in the National Security Agency announced that three US citizens were facing charges relating to plans to travel to Syria to join the Al-Nusra Front.
The concerns raised by the number of Westerners fighting in Syria are perhaps best illustrated by Adam Gadahn, otherwise known as Abi Azzam Al-Amriki (Azzam the American). Gadhan converted to Islam when he was 17 years old and eventually moved to Pakistan to join Al-Qaeda. In 2004, ABC news channel aired a video in which Gadhan threatened to carry out terrorist attacks on his native America, where he has long been a wanted man for his involvement with Al-Qaeda.
With the story of Europeans fighting in Syria gaining widespread attention in the Western press, officials from the European Parliament have been forced to comment on the dangers of taking part in the fighting, as well as the ramifications for the security of Europe. There are particular fears regarding what will happen if these foreign fighters return to Europe and their potential participation or involvement in suicide operations.
There and back again
Noman Benotman, the president of the UK-based counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, told Asharq Al-Awsat that what pushes European Muslims to take part in the fighting alongside armed groups in Syria is the pictures of dead bodies and scenes of daily bloodshed disseminated online and in the media. But he added that the nature of the enemy this time is different to when Muslim groups fought non-Muslims, as was it was in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or in Chechnya and Bosnia.
It may be that those previous brushes with jihad could teach Europe lessons on how to deal with the current situation. “Past experience has demonstrated that it is possible to contain these kinds of young people, as those who fought in Bosnia or Iraq were subjected to surveillance and many of them were able to re-integrate into their original environment, Salahuddin Jourchi, and expert on Islamist groups, told Asharq Al-Awsat.
But the situation in Syria is different, says Benotman, and there might be more emotion involved. “At the beginning of the crisis the number [of European Muslim fighters] was very small, and it has increased to the extent now that the latest figures suggest that the number of European Muslim fighters in Syria is approximately 2,000. They have turned into individuals within armed groups that fight each other and share the same religion rather than groups that fight a non-Muslim government.”
He also echoed EU concerns about domestic security, pointing to a security study on European Muslims fighting in foreign battles from Afghanistan to Iraq. “One in nine Europeans could carry out a suicide operation or terrorist attacks after returning to his country,” he says, referencing he study. “This is a dangerous prediction. For example, if there are around 400 Britons fighting in Syria now, then 40 of them could carry out a suicide operation or terrorist attacks after their return.”
Benotman explained that one of the most important and dangerous factors facing European Muslims heading to Syria, even to participate in charitable or humanitarian work, is to find themselves unexpectedly recruited into a militant group. “For example, somebody might go as part of body providing relief or to carry out charity work to help those affected [by the fighting] and suddenly find himself in a trench supporting a particular ideology against a particular group.”
Of particular concern in the case of European Muslims fighting the Assad regime is the possibility that some of them may be radicalized by their experiences, and adopt extremist and sectarian ideology. “The issue is not about their return [to their countries] and whether or not they might carry out suicide operations,” says Benotman. “Rather, they are tools in a new sectarian conflict in environments where there is a lot more to it than just sectarianism.”
Last May, EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Jill de Kirchoff expressed concern about the growing number of European fighters in Syria, emphasizing the importance of putting a stop to the increasing number of Europeans going to Syria and describing the phenomenon as a “serious problem” for European security. Belgian Senator Filip Dewinter expressed a similar concern to de Kirchoff, saying: “If they come back to our country they will fight jihad not in Syria anymore, but on European soil, and this is a very, very big threat for all European countries, not just for Belgium.”
In early August 2013, nine European countries—France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom and Sweden—asked the European Parliament to create a database that would allow European fighters in Syria to be tracked. There have also been numerous statements issued by European Parliament members and officials from some of the concerned countries, including France and Belgium. And in December 2013, de Kirchoff emphasized the necessity of taking real action, including monitoring airline passenger lists to keep track of people travelling from European countries to Syria.
Speaking about how some European countries have dealt with—and will continue to deal with—the increasing number of their citizens fighting in Syria, Jourchi stressed: “It is unlikely that the Syrian case will close soon, and the issue of fighters from Western backgrounds will remain open.”
In saying so, he underlined the long-term plans that will be needed to ensure these radicalized fighters do not return to commit attacks on the continent, but stressed that some plans had already been put in place to deal with the issue. “Contrary to what some people think, European governments in particular are trying to carefully track their nationals who are implicated in the Syrian quagmire, and they know the approximate number [of fighters from their countries] and are continuously investigating them.”
“In fact, numerous European governments are presently seeking to reconnect with the Syrian regime in order to cooperate with it regarding the fighters from their countries,” Jourchi said, echoing claims made by Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Miqdad earlier this month that some Western intelligence experts had travelled to Damascus to discuss fighting radical Islamists with President Bashar Al-Assad.
“There are calls in Europe today to withdraw citizenship from those who have taken part in the Syrian civil war in order to prevent them from returning to their countries—but this view is still considered unusual and has not been adopted formally. The prevailing view is that these people should return and reintegrate, though there should be continuous caution and a distinction between those who believe that their battle ended when they left Syria and others who believe in the strategy of perpetual war and work towards transferring armed violence to the European sphere . . . This is why the case will remain open for a long time and be used in more than one context and to achieve more than one goal,” Jourchi said.
Despite Benotman’s assertion that some Europeans may find themselves taking up jihad after travelling to Syria for other reasons, there are still many who find themselves radicalized by the active presence of Islamist militant groups online before leaving for Syria.
Dr. Fayez Al-Shahri, a researcher of electronic and new media, told Asharq Al-Awsat that online recruitment via social media, blogs or websites on the Internet had become much easier than before. “So much so that the so-called third generation of fighters within the armed groups grew up with technology and are more associated with it especially as smart devices and social media websites have become widespread,” he said.
Online recruitment campaigns appear to have been effective enough that some governments in the West—particularly the United States—have launched counter-campaigns in response. On December 4, 2013, for example, The New York Times published a statement by a US State Department official who said that a pilot program would respond to tweets and translated video clips broadcast by Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups.
With regards to how easy it is for Arabic-speaking armed groups to recruit Westerners, Dr. Shahri said: “Recruitment is built on the basis of emotion first and the attempt to generate the sympathy of European Muslims, depicting them as if they live in isolation from the social fabric of the European countries in which they live. That is what motivates them to escape and live in an environment of ‘Islamic brotherhood,’ as some like to portray it.”
The dream of the Caliphate
In an analysis of the reasons behind the flow of European fighters to Syria, Jourchi believes that the issue of European fighters in the Syrian crisis is “normal” for a number of reasons: the resurgence of Al-Qaeda-linked groups, in addition to Syria’s becoming semi-open to fighters, especially the liberated areas to which many are flocking in order to realize the dream of an “Islamic Caliphate,” and to experience different lifestyles as some kind of experiment or adventure.
Jourchi told Asharq Al Awsat that Syria had now become “completely opened up” to those wishing to realize this dream or hoping to support a nation that is fighting a violent regime. “The issue is not just about small groups here and there involved in skirmishes and limited operations that aim to weaken regimes, as was the case with more traditional forms of the Al-Qaeda organization in the past; rather the situation has moved on to the formation of real armies that have power, capability, excellent training and professionalism and a concentration of large geographical spaces,” he said.
The financial and military aid these armies enjoy, he says, allows for expansion in numbers and the allocation of positions to people able to adapt to different roles, enabling them to engage in significant battles with Assad’s forces.
Jourchi explained the problem from another angle. The liberated areas “have provided what seems to be a suitable climate for different life experiences for those coming from other countries Some say that there are at least 70 different nationalities that the battlefield has brought together in some kind of utopia where they dream of entering heaven or changing history.”
“Open” land such as this is what attracts anxious young people from Western countries encountering difficult social, economic and cultural problems in search of a different lifestyle and seeking a model that liberates them from the identity crisis from which they suffer in in the West.
Jourchi concludes that the experience of safety is another motive for fighters to go to Syria, as “this adventure is to some degree considered to have secure outcomes. That is not just in reference to the ease with which one can enter Syria via Turkey, which is against the Syrian regime, but also in relation to the European countries themselves turning a blind eye to the networks facilitating joining the Syrian front during the previous phase of the conflict.”
This growing concern, and the precautions that Western countries—and European countries in particular—have started to take in order to reduce the growing numbers of Western Muslims going to Syria to join armed groups, sheds light on the inability of counter-terrorism apparatuses and specialists in many of the countries affected by violence and extremism to stop online recruitment campaigns, and the failure to track those who intend to travel to countries bordering conflict zones. All this raises questions as to the extent to which the number of Western Muslims in those groups will increase, and whether this will mean that in future there will be Western nationals leading the Al-Qaeda organization and its various affiliates.