It also led to further concerns that the influx of foreign fighters into Syria could translate into a major security threat to the West once those fighters, having acquired skills on the battlefield, return home.
We asked Shiraz Maher, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at Kings College London who studies Syria’s armed opposition with a focus on foreign fighters, about the scope of the impact.
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Syria Deeply: How many fighters are in Syria from the U.K. and Europe?
Shiraz Maher: We’ve been tracking foreign fighters going to Syria from around the world for a while, but we’re very focused on Europe and North America. In April, we estimated that around 10 percent of the overall foreign contingent in Syria were Muslims from Europe. We currently believe that there are around 200-350 individuals from the U.K. who have participated in the conflict.
SD: Why are they going?
SM: It’s the same general motivation that you’ve seen over much of last decade with regards to conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s the idea that Muslims are united in an Ummah, and that Muslims in one part of the world should unite to support other Muslims in other parts of the world. In Syria that message resonates loudly, given the perceived severity of the government crackdown on its opponents.
Once they get there and join up with a group, they fight. They also engage in social activism, sweeping the streets, making sure people have electricity, food and water, and other basic staples that are needed. They’re providing these services to the civilian population in areas they control in order to gain popular support.
SD: What is the reaction to Western fighters from Syrian civilians?
SM: These fighters get two reactions from Syrians: some are grateful because they think at least someone came to help them when everyone else in the world abandoned them. The other reaction is that jihadis represent as evil a face as Assad. The Western jihadis have told us they’ve occasionally faced hostility from people on the ground saying “this isn’t your county, get out.” There’s a sense among these Syrians that jihadists have usurped their uprising.
SD: Have any of them started returning home?
SM: These are generally young men from 18 to 24. At the moment none express a desire to return to the West — they want to stay in Syria and be martyred there or create an Islamic state. But it’s short sighted on their part, particularly if this goes on for a decade. The euphoria and sense of adventure and self-proclaimed “five star jihad” will start to wear thin after a while. These groups look after your food, clothes and shelter, tell you where you can go and where you can’t, and that’s eventually gong to wear thin. That’s when I think you’ll see people getting fed up and starting to return home.
SD: What’s the real threat when they do?
SM: When they return, in the short term, there will be a number of issues to contend with. Not everyone returning will be an immediate threat. That was what we saw in the 1980s — many of those guys who who came back from Afghanistan went on to lead normal, integrated lives. But the global jihad movement has changed since then. It’s now far more nihilistic and far more confrontational towards the West, more disrespectful; it wants to fight everyone. These guys returning from Syria won’t show the same restraint and discipline that guys in the ’80s did.
Another thing to consider is that professional soldiers in a normal army are given psychological support and training to help cope with the trauma of warfare. These guys going into jihad are young and are given no support. They’re just being thrown into one of most brutal conflicts in the world. So you’re going to have individuals who have been damaged psychologically, and they will struggle to adjust back into normal life.
That’s particularly dangerous when you consider they’ll have had military training, they’ll have been handling explosives, they’ll know how to build improvised explosive devices. In essence, they’ll be returning with a skill set we wish they didn’t have.
At the moment, people aren’t too worried about them doing much damage in the West. Al-Qaida recruiters are telling young Muslims to come out to Syria, not to do things back at home. That’s going to become a much bigger issue for us to look at in the future.