An expert's point of view on a current event.

Europe’s New ‘Time Bomb’ Is Ticking in Syria

Hundreds are joining the fight against Assad. Will they return as terrorists?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

They come from the suburbs of Paris, from the East End of London, from the cities along Germany's Fulda River, and even from the small towns of Ireland: a small army of up to 1,000 European irregulars joining the Syrian civil war to help rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.

They come from the suburbs of Paris, from the East End of London, from the cities along Germany’s Fulda River, and even from the small towns of Ireland: a small army of up to 1,000 European irregulars joining the Syrian civil war to help rebels topple President Bashar al-Assad.

But while ministers from these irregulars’ governments say they too are in favor of toppling Assad, these same officials are doing everything they can to stop these fighters — or at least develop new laws to criminalize their activities. The reason: fear that these irregulars will one day return to Europe, equipped with deadly military skills, trained in the tradecraft of international terrorism, and steeped in the extremist anti-Western ideology of al Qaeda and its Syrian brethren, the al-Nusra Front. On a single day in April and in a single country, Belgium, the authorities launched 48 raids on suspected jihadi recruiters believed to be luring Belgians to fight in Syria.

"It is a ticking time bomb," French Interior Minister Manuel Valls told Foreign Policy at a small press breakfast with American reporters in New York. Tallies of these European fighters vary. But by Valls’ count, there are more than 600 of them involved in the Syrian war, including 140 French citizens, 100 Brits, and 75 Spaniards. This new generation of fighters forms a kind of European Union of jihadists, hailing from the traditionally Christian cities and villages of Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Most are young men from Muslim families, about 80 percent, with the remainder being French converts to Islam. "Some go for humanitarian reasons," he said. "Some go to fight against Bashar."

Whatever the fighters’ motivations, European officials are trying to dissuade these militants from taking up arms — or, failing that, trying to gather as much intelligence in order to monitor them if they return home.

European, U.S., and Turkish intelligence agencies have been working together to try to track the individuals seeking to cross the border into Syria from Turkey. In some cases, the Turks have turned them back. Belgium has grown so alarmed about the prospects for blowback that it has already launched raids on suspected fighters in an effort to gather intelligence, according to a confidential internal memo obtained by Foreign Policy.

But they face rising calls from radical clerics and fighters to join the holy war. In June, 86-year-old radical Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, speaking at rally in Doha, Qatar, issued a call to arms: "Every Muslim trained to fight and capable of doing that [must] make himself available" to support the Syrian rebels, he said. "Iran is pushing forward arms and men [to back the Syrian regime], so why do we stand idle?" Reflecting the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict, Qaradawi also denounced his former ally Hezbollah, which means the "Party of God" in Arabic, as the "Party of Satan."

Germans were invited to join the struggle in their own tongue. Hajan M., a former resident of the German town of Kassel, produced a YouTube video inciting "every brother who hears me" to "wage jihad," according to Der Spiegel. Hajan M. — who is married to a German woman and serves as a neighborhood commander in Homs — addresses a German-speaking audience from a sofa, his right leg amputated as a result of a battle wound. "You can fly from Germany to Syria," he says. "You can come here to wage jihad."

Dozens of German nationals have gone to fight in Syria. And that has Peter Wittig, Germany’s U.N. ambassador, calling the "reports of European citizens fighting alongside with jihadists in Syria a cause for great concern." However, he added, "Let us not forget that the involvement of jihadist groups in Syria is ultimately the result of Assad’s intransigence and the war he is waging against his own people."

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich told a gathering of regional interior ministers in Nuremberg, Germany, on July , that there are as many as 60 young Germans in Syria. "Our fear is that they are being radicalized in training camps by organizations close to al Qaeda," he said, according to the DPA (German Press Agency). The camps, he said, provide training in weapons and explosives, making the young Germans a threat upon their return to Germany. "We therefore have to ensure that these individuals are treated and monitored appropriately after their return."

The perceived threat of the returning jihadists varies from country to country. The Netherlands, for one, has designated Syrian blowback as among its top international security threats. On July 1, the Netherlands’ National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, which claims that 50 to 100 Dutch jihadists has traveled to Syria, warned in a statement that "one of the most salient potential threats to the Netherlands is posed by jihadist[s] travelling to Syria and their potential return to the Netherlands."

"The threat level in the Netherlands remains ‘substantial’, which means that the chance of an attack is real," the advisory stated. "Although not every person to return from a jihadist conflict zone poses a threat, it should be remembered that these people are not only coming back with radical ideas; they are also traumatised and fully prepared to use violence."

In Belgium, law enforcement authorities have set up a network of national and local security units to track returning jihadists. "The Belgian authorities have lately been confronted with the departure of Belgian citizens — or people residing in Belgium — who go to Syria in order to join the armed opposition," according to a confidential memo sent by Belgium to the European Union’s 28 member states and obtained by Foreign Policy. "It has appeared that many of these individuals join radical Islamic groups."

In response, Belgium has established a national task force to develop "an action plan aimed at preventing — by means of taking preventive, proactive or repressive measures — the expression and spreading of subversive, racist, anarchist and extremist ideas."

The memo noted that Belgian law enforcement authorities carry out raids on suspected extremists and that they’re establishing Syria cells in each of the country’s main police zones. On April 16, police carried out "48 searches and several arrests," the culmination of a yearlong anti-terrorism investigation. "At the end of this investigation indications appeared that young Belgian citizens were incited to go to Syria to fight against the regime."

European officials and independent experts say the flow of European fighters to Syria far outpaces the path of earlier generations of youth who went off to fight in previous wars in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Somalia.

"Syria is a very profound game-changer," said Charles Farr, Britain’s director general of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, according to the Daily Telegraph. "The blunt truth is there are more people associated with al Qaeda and al Qaeda-associated organizations now operating in Syria than there have ever been before and [they are] close to Europe and operating with an intensity that is unparalleled since events in Iraq in 2006. They are much closer to us, in much greater numbers, and fighting with an intensity that we have not seen before."

The greater numbers reflect the proximity of Syria, which can be reached easily through Turkey. Many Europeans don’t even need a visa to get to Turkey. Nor does they need to have a pre-existing relationship with a militant group to cross the Turkey-Syria border and enter Syria.

The profile of the fighters changes from country to country. In Ireland, Muslim leaders have compared the country’s fighters to the international brigades that fought the Spanish fascists in the 1930s. Valls, the French interior minister, has portrayed his country’s fighters as social misfits, "marginalized … juvenile delinquents. It’s often people who were criminals before."

For the time being, said Valls, there is no legal basis for arresting the European jihadists or barring them from leaving or entering France — but France is weighing draft legislation that would criminalize French citizens’ links to terrorist groups like al Qaeda and the affiliated al-Nusra Front, which have both been named on U.N. terrorism lists. "The fighters in Syria are not fighting France or Europe; they are fighting against the Assad regime," Valls said. "It’s not against French law to fight in a war, but it is a crime to participate in a terrorist organization."

But some Islamic leaders have criticized the response as excessive, saying it unfairly portrays the European fighters as anti-Western extremists bent on attacking European targets.

"They are wrong. All these kids who have gone over, we know them well, and they were very nice kids," Ali Selim, a senior staffer at the Islamic Cultural Center of Ireland, said in a telephone interview from Dublin. "They were motivated by a desire for justice." If they were such bad people, he added, "Why would they go to Syria? Why would they choose to go and support a fair cause over there? They are very innocent kids." European security elites, he said, "are haunted by Islamophobic views."

Selim said that no Irish mosques have urged young Muslims to travel to Syria and that efforts to discourage them from doing so have picked up following the death of four Irish citizens, including Shamseddin Gaidan, a 16-year-old schoolboy from the town of Navan. "Nobody encourages these young lads to go over there." Selim said. "We understand that sending them to be involved in this battle … is basically sending them to die."

Mary Fitzgerald, the foreign affairs correspondent for the Irish Times, who has documented the role of Irish Arab fighters in Libya and Syria, said that Ireland’s community of more than 40,000 citizens of Muslims has never embraced the more extremist tendencies that have taken root in more militant mosques on the continent. The returning fighters she has interviewed have not been radicalized. "The question of blowback," Fitzgerald added, "is less pertinent in Ireland than in other countries, where they have joined more hard-line groups."

The European fighters participating in the conflict in Syria bear similarities with the international Arab fighters who supported the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s in Afghanistan, the birthplace of al Qaeda. At the time, Osama bin Laden and other Arab fighters’ interests coincided with those of the United States and its Western allies, which were seeking to drive the Soviets back. Over time, however, their interests diverged, and those close networks that were established in Afghanistan — and that received political, military, and financial help from the United States — went on to form the backbone of a global battle against the West.

Similarly, European officials fear shared interests will split once the focus on Syria ebbs. Already, Western efforts to put down Islamist insurgencies in places like Somalia and Mali have served to highlight those differences. Egypt’s recent military coup, which marked the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsy, may ultimately provide a point of friction between young European militants fighting alongside Islamists groups in Syria and their Western governments, which have done little to support Morsy’s claim to the presidency.

"Not all foreign fighters returning from Syria will be an immediate threat; this is not in a sense like the Boston bombers," said Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. "This is a much more long-term, a much more slow-moving threat, but it will leave an enduring and deep network" of former fighters who can be potentially turned to terrorism.

Maher said that though the United States and Europe support the jihadists’ aims of removing Assad from power, their inaction on the military front has fed a narrative that the West doesn’t care about Syria’s victims and is "happy to let Muslims die." That view, he said, can plant the seeds of alienation from Western society, a key psychological precursor to embracing a more radical view toward the West.

Maher and Peter Neumann, a professor of war studies at King’s College London on leave at Georgetown University, carried out a yearlong study on the flight of European fighters to Syria. The scholars monitored more than 200 online death announcements on jihadi websites and hundreds of Arab and Western news reports. Their conclusion: There are as many as 1,000 European fighters from 14 European countries, representing more than 10 percent of foreign fighters in Syria.

"Not everyone goes with a fully-fledged jihadist mindset; not everyone goes wanting to support al Qaeda. The question is whether they will return with that mindset," Neumann said. "There is a greater degree of mobilization than all of the previous conflicts of the past 10 to 15 years," he said, citing wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. "In that sense this is almost unprecedented."

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.