A report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at King’s College, London, estimates that as many as 600 Europeans have gone to Syria, representing between seven and 11 percent of the total number of foreign fighters.
Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are among the countries accounting for the fighters, according to the study, based on more than 400 Arab and Western media reports, as well as “martyrdom notices” posted on jihadist websites.
The ICSR says that not all foreign fighters in Syria are jihadists, or motivated by a jihadist outlook when they go, although it says in many cases they fully adopt the ideology once on the ground and among “hardened fighters.”
Just because not all are extremists, however, that does not mean that those who have trained and fought there do not pose a potential threat upon return to their countries of origin, said researcher Aaron Y. Zelin.
“Numerous studies show that individuals with foreign training and/or fighting experience have featured prominently in European based terrorist plots,” he said.
“Based on the sheer scale of recruitment that is currently taking place, European security services are well advised to monitor the situation closely and adopt an intelligence led, highly discriminate approach towards dealing with returning fighters,” Zelin said.
In recent weeks reports have emerged across Europe about Muslims heading to Syria to join the rebels.
In a speech last February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that “Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today.”
“[Those going from Europe] may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive, some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives,” he said.
A recent United Nations-commissioned report highlighting the “the proliferation of foreign fighters and extremist groups” in the conflict focused on reports on foreign fighters mostly from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, and listed as main countries of origin Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
It also said the al-Nusra Front – which the U.S. has designated as a foreign terrorist organization, describing it as a Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda in Iraq – stood out due to a “superior level of operational effectiveness and its use of more aggressive tactics.”
Dutch media reported last month that the many of those heading for Syria from the Netherlands were linking up with al-Nusra.
So concerned is the Dutch government that in mid-March its National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) raised the country’s threat level from “limited” to “substantial” – defined as meaning “there is a realistic possibility that an attack will take place in the Netherlands.”
The NCTV, which falls under the justice and security ministry, attributed the decision to “the increase in the number of jihadists travelling to Syria and signs of radicalization among young people in the Netherlands.”
“In conflict zones like Syria, jihadist travelers acquire knowledge and combat experience and can pose a threat to Western interests,” it said in a statement. “There is also a risk they will inspire others in the Netherlands to follow in their footsteps. These jihadist travelers can return to the Netherlands highly radicalized, traumatized and with a strong desire to commit violence, thus posing a significant threat to this country.”
The NCTV also cited the impact of the so-called “Arab spring” on the growth in the extremist threat.
“[N]ascent democratization in North Africa and the Middle East has resulted in greater freedom for these jihadist networks,” it said. “The security organizations in these countries are no longer willing or able to offer resistance to these networks. It is easy for jihadist networks to establish themselves there. Some would like to attack Western targets, including in Europe.”
Getting to the Syrian jihad is as easy as taking a scheduled flight to Turkey or Lebanon and then crossing the border. The Dutch authorities have stepped up efforts to try to prevent people from traveling abroad to wage jihad, and to identify and reduce the risk posed by returnees.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked during a press briefing Wednesday about the various fighting groups in Syria, including some with names like Islamic Liberation Front for Syria.
“We are working very hard both with our Syrian opposition contacts and with our partners in the region to try to ascertain who is who and to make sure that support that the United States is giving, that support that we are seeing our partners give is going to moderate opposition, and that extremists and al-Qaeda affiliates are isolated to the maximum extent possible,” she replied.
“With regard to what some of these groups call themselves, if they are not actually affiliated and if they are espousing and fighting for the defense of the Syrian people – all the Syrian people – and a democratic, open, pluralistic future for that country, and they can demonstrate that and they are acting in a manner that’s consistent with international human rights standards, then they deserve our support,” Nuland added.
“But obviously, if they are affiliated with al-Qaeda, if they’re trying to exchange one dictatorial family for an extremist future, that is not something that we are prepared to support, and we’re working hard to isolate them.”