Syrian conflict tests European policy on violent jihad

As increasing numbers of Europeans leave their home countries to fight with Islamist forces against the Assad regime in Syria, there is a risking risk that some of these fighters will eventually return to Europe as jihadists there. At the same time, current European policy (and US policy, for that matter) favors the Syrian rebels, who have openly espoused a leading al Qaeda affiliate. How does this policy square with the need for Western countries to ensure that those who travel to Syria to fight the Assad government, especially those with native backgrounds and passports, do not become violent Islamists bent on jihad when they return home?

Earlier this week, German authorities banned three radical Islamist groups — DawaFFM, Islamic Audios, and al-Nussrah — and and raided apartments belonging to some of the groups’ members. The three groups all encourage fighting against those who do not follow the Salafist version of Islam. No one was arrested, but one of the groups was believed to be collecting funds for Islamist fighters in Syria. It is possible that one of the three banned groups, the Al Nussrah, is related to the Al Nusrah Front, the Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda in Iraq which predominates over all the other groups among the rebels.

Also this week, a senior British official stated that more British jihadists are going to Syria than to all the other areas of conflict combined, and warned that Syria could become “the crucible of trans-national terrorism.”

And in France, a top counterterrorism judge, Mark Trevidic, warned earlier this week that some 50 to 80 French citizens are believed to have traveled to Syria for jihad, a number much higher than authorities have acknowledged, and he cautioned that these experienced fighters could later return home to mount attacks in France. He also pointed out the relative ease with which the fighters could travel to Syria through Turkey, which does not require visas for them.

Trevidic touched on a key issue when he observed that “no one is stopping them” from going to Syria because the French government officially supports the Syrian rebels. Indeed, France and the UK recently said they were willing to arm the Syrian rebels even if the European Union was not. Britain and France are pushing the EU to lift its arms embargo on Syrian rebels, and say they are prepared to arm the rebels even without unanimous EU support.

All of this raises the question of what, if any, measures are being taken to ensure that the aid to Syrian rebels goes into the “right hands” and stays there, and also to prevent the emergence of a new crop of seasoned jihadist fighters who will return to attack their home countries. The UK, France, and the US have all said they are ‘monitoring’ the situation to make sure the aid of various kinds, including military equipment, goes to moderate groups. But as recently pointed out here at The Long War Journal, the aid the US recently promised to send will go to the two principal Syrian rebel organizations, the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Opposition Council, both of which support and fight alongside the al Qaeda-linked Al Nusrah Front.

European security authorities may be simply, and naively, hoping that the European jihadists just go to Syria and don’t come back. But that strategy is likely to fail. For example, just yesterday, the leader of the banned German Islamist group Millatu Ibrahim released a video threatening attacks against Germany, Austria, the EU, and the US. And according to a Spiegel article, the first German-language video from the Syrian war zone recently surfaced on the Internet; it features a Syrian-born jihadist who invites German Muslims to participate in the “holy war” in Syria. The article notes that Millatu Ibrahim militants are already fighting in Syria. And it says the Federal Criminal Police Office is concerned about the estimated 250 people in Germany identified as having “Islamist terrorist potential” who have already completed paramilitary training abroad.

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  • mike merlo says:

    a big part of this problem stems from the fact that the Europeans have yet to articulate a cohesive strategy that clearly ‘states’ measures to be taken & standards to be adopted. Their failure to honestly & openly acknowledge the threat(s) in opposition to their own ‘well-being’ will continue to bedevil them.
    Also decades of singling out Israel as one the principal Cause & ‘Effects’ of what ails the Middle East is a Policy that has since been overtaken by ‘other’ realities that for whatever reason(s) the Europeans are struggling to keep up with.

  • Slow POKEY says:

    I think there backing the wrong side. Assad wasn’t that bad was he. I think mike merlo in the above comment is correct, we have yet to see what will come out of Libya and Syria looks like it could be a far worse outcome.

  • Jack Barclay says:

    Hello Lisa,
    Thanks for your article. You’ve described the problem well enough. Any suggested solutions? I only ask given that it seems likely we will be steadily increasing our material support for the Syrian insurgency in the months ahead? I appreciate that may or may not involve provision of weapons systems at this stage.
    PS – You mention that Syrian rebels have ‘openly espoused a leading Al-Qaeda affiliate’. Source?

  • Lisa Lundquist says:

    Jack, I don’t see easy answers to the problems raised in the article, but increasing vigilance at least is a starting point. As for your question about ties between the Syrian opposition and al Qaeda, see for example Bill Roggio’s Threat Matrix post from December 2012, Syrian National Coalition urges US to drop Al Nusrah terrorism designation,

  • Lisa Lundquist says:

    Jack, here’s another thought. There is a need for better reporting on the Syrian rebel forces from the authorities allegedly monitoring the aid and training being given these forces. For example, before its December 2012 designation of the Al Nusrah Front as an affiliate of al Qaeda in Iraq, the US had largely maintained that there were few extremists among the Syrian opposition.

  • Jack Barclay says:

    Thanks for the clarification.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Matt says:

    You can see the change of the battlefield when the FSA was patched over. The weapons that came in the fighters the gains in the war by the opposition. That is why it is Jihad, no moderate fighters. Religion these people with limited resources fight to the death. No defectors from the armed opposition, like from Assads side. That is why the Jihadist are doing the fighting. That is who they send.


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