A detailed new report in the Parisian daily Le Monde, based on sources inside France’s foreign intelligence service (DGSE), paints a dire portrait of the rising number of Westerners going to wage jihad in Syria. I’m providing the highlights of this important assessment.
The jihadist routes to Syria have expanded significantly just since the summer. The unexpected resistance of the Bashar al-Assad regime has exerted a “power of attraction” in France and other countries. “Nothing like it has ever been seen before, even for Afghanistan,” a senior French intelligence official noted.
Western diplomats and spies have noted the steep rise in the number of mujahidin headed to Syria coming in from the Caucasus, especially Chechnya. Two transit points have been identified in Europe. The Austrian capital, Vienna, is a major junction for volunteers from the Caucasus who are traveling on to Syria via Turkey.
French intelligence has uncovered another route passing through Nice in southern France. Experienced fighters find refuge there in a Chechen community of over 10,000. They are believed to stay in France while their applications for political asylum in France are processed, and then leave for Turkey. They are cagey targets for French counterintelligence, which has difficulty tracking them in Nice.
Australia is another important source for mujahidin headed to Syria. Even more than Canada, which has witnessed many of the same trends recently, Australia’s cities have seen big increases in recruitment activities since this summer. Most of the Australian volunteers are children of immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, mostly dual nationals; there is a certain number of Australian converts among them.
Italy is another source for mujahidin headed to Syria. But countries which before this conflict had sent few, if any, fighters to wage jihad abroad are sending them too, such as Luxembourg. France is a major source, with the number of French nationals in Syria having doubled just since May, with some 400 in various forms of transit and over 200 actually in Syria as of the beginning of October.
The profile of mujahidin headed to Syria has also shifted lately, according to French intelligence. Back in the spring, there were lots of teenagers and men in their fifties – basically jihad tourists – headed to Syria for short stints of fighting. Now, however, the fighters headed to Syria’s battlefields are more dedicated, aged mostly between 20 and 35, and they are more committed to the struggle, even though most lack combat experience. This lack of experience means that many encounter significant obstacles getting to the war zone.
Western intelligence services have noted recently that men from the Netherlands, France, and Belgium, previously unknown to each other except virtually in extensive Internet discussions about jihad, met up in Brussels “IRL” prior to setting off for Syria, as always via Turkey. French officials expressed frustration that Turkish police and intelligence are doing little to inhibit the movement of mujahidin to Syria, despite repeated warnings and detailed information provided by Western security services to Ankara.
Much of the information French intelligence has about would-be mujahidin headed to Syria is coming from their relatives who, fearing for their sons and brothers, have informed the authorities about their movements. Many families worry that their relatives will return to France as dangerous, even criminal, types.
To meet this rising threat, DGSE and other French security agencies involved in counterterrorism are expecting a significant increase in staff and budgets in the year ahead, as the specter of veteran mujahidin returning from Syria has caused alarm in Paris.