French intelligence agencies have been airing warnings about the particular allure of the Syrian war for aspiring European radicals since they first identified French recruits joining anti-regime Islamist militias nearly a year ago.
In many ways, Syria has a lot of what Afghanistan had to draw extremist volunteers – including gruesome video footage and photos of slaughtered Muslim civilians and mutilated mujahedin (used to enflame and mobilize budding radicals in Europe to join the fight), and international transportation networks ready to ferry them to the battlefield.
In contrast to the murky, informer-ridden paths to jihad strongholds in Pakistan and Afghanistan, European recruits to Syria can reach combatant Islamist corteges in just a couple of days. Often undetected amid the flock of visa-free vacationers from Europe to Turkey, they arrive and slip illegally over the Turkish-Syrian border.
“We know there are at least 80 French [fighters] among jihadi forces in Syria, and the Belgians have similar numbers, so it’s clear if we’ve got over 150 between the two countries alone, the European total must be far higher,” says a senior French counterterrorism official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“There’s only one reason that those figures could be so high: extremist militias and their support networks in Europe are already capable of dealing with that many recruits. And those will only grow as the fighting continues, and their organization becomes even more efficient.”
That scenario poses two different security threats, the official notes. In muscling up with fighters from Europe, Islamist militias seek to both topple the Assad regime and make themselves capable of crushing other opposition groups in the aftermath of a regime fall.
There is then the possibility that, as with similar jihads in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, fully radicalized European recruits could return home to the continent with instructions to organize extremist activity and extend the jihad to Europe.
“If you’re ready to leave your comfortable home and calm life to get training and experience the kind of hardship and horror extremists encounter in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, you’re clearly hard core going into the deal,” the official says. “If you’re that committed going in, chances are you’ll be obsessed with jihad coming out. Virtually all returnees are.”
Despite the potential threat that movement poses, European governments find themselves hard-pressed to respond. The direct military intervention that occurred in Libya and Mali is unlikely to happen in Syria, and Western nations are split on whether to supply weapons to anti-Assad forces.
“We’re all officially anti-Assad in the West, so how is a government going to argue its citizens mustn’t aid in Assad’s ouster?” the French official asks. “It’s a gray area, both legally and ethically.”
Similar haziness is apparent elsewhere in Europe’s otherwise staunchly anti-Assad public opinion. Anecdotal evidence abounds that though most Europeans support the Syrian opposition, views differ strikingly on how reliable insurgent groups are – or what kind of help they should get.
A recent poll in the Netherlands brought those contrasting sentiments to the fore by showing how far apart Muslim and non-Muslim respondents were on issues related to Syria. Nearly 75 percent of Dutch Muslims considered countrymen who’ve gone to fight in Syria “heroes”, while 43 percent of non-Muslim respondents said those same recruits should be stripped of their citizenship for joining Islamist ranks.
Just over 60 percent of non-Muslims said recruitment to jihadi causes should be banned by law, with 40 percent of those respondents predicting that volunteers to Syria will become terror threats once they return home.