One of the highest-priority issues at present among European intelligence and security agencies is how many young men from Europe have gone to Syria to wage jihad against the Assad regime. As this blog has expressed more than once, it’s correct for European spooks to be worried, since the large number of foreign fighters in Syria – the greatest jihadist surge in the history of Al-Qa’ida (AQ) – is an ominous portent, making Syria’s fratricide something of a jihadist Super Bowl.
Although some of the volunteers will achieve the martyrdom they pine for, most will not, and thousands of young men someday not far off will return to Europe, with improved combat skills, ready to unleash jihad at home. Some of the volunteers are maladjusted immigrants, some are malevolent converts, all seem to be young, motivated, and angry. Given the enduring security problems that resulted from previous jihadist magnets like Bosnia, whose 1992-95 civil war helped birth AQ as a global terrorist movement, European security experts have every reason to fret over mayhem emanating from Syria’s seemingly endless conflict.
Just how many Europeans have gone to Syria to wage jihad is a difficult question to answer with any precision, despite the fact that quite a few of the volunteers enjoy posting their exploits on Facebook, because it’s a politically touchy subject that not too many security officials speak about openly.
Germany is one of the European countries most worried about its nationals in Syria, not least because numbers are rising fast. Recently, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV, German’s mouthful domestic intelligence agency, admitted that, according to his agency, which tracks the problem closely, sixty more German passport holders had gone to Syria since June, for a total of 240 Germans that the BfV believes have left home to wage jihad against Assad. Maassen said that BfV analysts believe that deaths among Germans fighting in Syria have risen too, with the number killed now in “the low two digits.” He also previewed the BfV’s forthcoming unclassified wrap-up report on extremism in Germany for 2013 by adding that it’s “worrying” that Salafis, whom he described as “the fastest growing Islamist grouping in Germany,” have increased their numbers by a thousand over the last twelve months, for a total of 5,500 Salafis in the country.
If that weren’t worrying enough, a new report out of Belgium on Europeans fighting in Syria paints an even more dire picture. The report entitled “Syrian Networks: Risk Exacerbated,” in today’s La Libre Belgique (which, let is be noted, is a respected center-right Walloon daily, not a supermarket tabloid), includes several jaw-droppers. Citing an apparently classified counterterrorism assessment by the Belgian security service, it includes several assertions, including that approximately 200 Belgians are or have been combatants in Syria, of which at least 20 have been killed in action. Faced with these numbers, Belgian intelligence and police are “overwhelmed” trying to track the problem.
Moreover, at least twenty Chechens who have Belgian residence and/or citizenship have gone to wage jihad in Syria, and some have moved on to commit acts of terrorism in Iraq. Of greatest concern, La Libre Belgique states, “According to a Belgian security source, at this time, ‘Al-Qa’ida has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country’.”
The figure of 4,000 to 5,000 EU passport holders fighting in Syria is a shocking one and quite a bit higher than anything previously seen in the European media. However, I’m not ready to discount it out of hand, as I’ve worked with Belgian intelligence on counterterrorism matters in the past, and I’ve found them to be professionals who have a good understanding of the serious threats they’re dealing with. Additionally, the figures I’ve been given on European jihadists fighting in Syria by intelligence officers and counterterrorism experts – not always what they tell the media, mind you – is not much out of the range cited today by La Libre Belgique.
Time will tell; it always does. It’s certainly possible that Europe is facing a bigger extremist and terrorist threat, thanks to the Syrian jihad, than we’ve previously been told publicly. I’ll be staying on top of this and sharing my findings on this important issue as more information becomes available, so watch this space …