PARIS – Western nations have long known their unwillingness to intervene in Syria’s civil war could only mean mounting death and destruction for Syrian civilians. Now those countries are getting dismal reminders of the grave consequences the enduring conflict is having on their domestic security as well.
According to counterterrorism officials and independent experts, the number of newly radicalized European Muslims flocking to fight with jihadi militias in Syria more than doubled in 2013, as the war ground toward its fourth year.
Though figures vary significantly, specialists’ estimates indicate between 2,000 and 3,000 Europeans are currently acquiring combat and explosives skills as part of their anti-Assad fighting. Virtually all are considered a formidable potential terror threat whose eventual return home is just a question of time.
“Whatever the exact numbers are, what we’re hearing from other [European security] services are in line with the big increase we’ve seen of French radicals joining the Syrian jihad,” says a senior French counterterrorism official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It’s now gone into another dimension, different from anything most countries have seen before. Bigger than Iraq, Yemen and in many ways even bigger than Afghanistan. The risks are already big, and they’ll just keep growing as the Syrian war continues.”
French authorities say the surge in budding extremists going to Syria to join radical forces over the past year has climbed from 500 to 600. Earlier this year, a top French government official put the number closer to 700.
Those figures are in line with estimates obtained from UK security services by The Telegraph, which reported that around 500 Britons are currently fighting in Syria. There are also known to be large groups of recruits from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. Even countries that had never registered significant outward-bound radical migration, like Finland and Switzerland, count their nationals among foreign fighters in Syria.
Europeans make up but a portion of that foreign jihad legion. Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, who studies the Syrian jihad, calculates that between 3,300 and 11,000 foreigners have traveled to Syria to aid anti-Assad militias since 2011.
He estimates the number to have climbed above 8,500 (though a number of that total are believed to have returned home to the West).
Europeans represent nearly 20 percent of Zelin’s estimate of foreign recruits to Syria. And French authorities suggest Europe’s representation may be even higher, placing the current number of Europeans thought to be involved in the Syrian war somewhere above 2,000.
The relative proximity of Syria, and ease of travel via a popular vacation destination like Turkey, was destined to make Syrian jihad alluring to young European radicals. And those volunteers are already proving different from earlier generations of battle-bound extremists.
“These people are coming from every social, economic, educational, ethnic and even religious niche, and defy most standard profiles we previously had of potential jihadi,” the official says.
“Yes, the usual suspects of alienated, radicalized Muslim men are still in the mix. And yes, we’re seeing more converts to Islam radicalize themselves – often through web resources – and join extremist groups as we increasingly had in recent years. But we’re also seeing women leave to join the fight – some with small children. We’ve seen entire families. It’s getting hard to be surprised at seeing who turns up in Syria, because volunteers are coming from just about every social category and background.”
French authorities say recruits to Syria aren’t adopting the low profile of European radicals who went to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. Once in country, the French official notes, most Europeans broadcast their activities and exploits via social media or in calls to family and friends back home, in part to encourage other potential jihadi to follow their example.
“It’s an insouciance that traditional, core al-Qaida leaders would have never tolerated, because it compromises the potential of those same fighters returning home to mount terror activity undetected,” he says.
“As things are now, it’s easy enough identifying just who is in Syria – or returned and are urging others to join the fight. But that’s bound to change when jihadi leaders in Syria and elsewhere decide to internationalize their fight, and order recruits to mask their identities and movements even before they leave to join Syrian militias.”
According to the French official, security forces across Europe anticipate jihadi leaders will instruct European fighters to take their holy war beyond the borders of Syria, once they return home from fighting Assad.
“Under most scenarios, they’d have little to lose by unleashing terror operatives in Europe, and would tend to view such activity as logical within their wider worldview,” the official says. “That’s the one very bad way we don’t expect Syria to be much different from Afghanistan – except in possibly being an even bigger threat.”
Bruce Crumley is the former Paris bureau chief of TIME magazine and a contributor to Syria Deeply.