As the two-year Syrian civil war grinds on, Sweden has joined the ranks of countries concerned about the increasing number of Syria-bound jihadists who may cause problems when they return home. Like many of its European neighbors, Sweden is finding itself unable to control the flow of jihadist fighters between their home country and Syria.
Jonathan Peste, the chief analyst at Säpo, the Swedish intelligence agency, said today that “[w]e can rarely stop” Swedish jihadists from traveling to Syria, according to The Local. Once in Syria, he said, they acquire more training and experience, and are “dangerous” and have even attacked civilians.
Among those jihadists known to have gone to Syria are some who planned attacks in Sweden and “have been part of this violence-endorsing Islamist, or al Qaeda-inspired, environment for quite some time,” he stated. At least 30 fighters have traveled to Syria, he said, and “many return to Sweden.”
When asked what Sweden does to discourage this process, Peste said simply: “We look them up and try to talk to them. We tell them it is dangerous to go and that we cannot help them if someone catches them. But then they don’t have to meet with us if they don’t want to.”
Sweden is not alone in this quandary, but the government has recently recognized that Sweden lags “far behind” some of its European counterparts in addressing militant Islamism [see Threat Matrix report, Danish jihadist killed while fighting for Muhajireen Brigade in Syria]. Professor Magnus Ranstorp of Sweden’s National Defence College observed that while Germany has a program for ex-jihadists, not a single person in Sweden had defected from jihadism, so far as he knew.
In early April, Agence France-Presse reported on a study by the UK-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, which found that between early 2011 and the spring of 2012, as many as 600 European jihadists had traveled to Syria, from 14 countries. According to AFP, some there were 134 fighters from Britain, up to 107 from the Netherlands, 92 from France, 85 from Belgium, and others from “Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Spain, Sweden, Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, and Kosovo.” Many of these fighters have joined the “Muhajireen Brigade” (“Emigrants Brigade”), which is linked to the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria [see LWJ report, Swedish jihadist killed in Syria while fighting for the Muhajireen Brigade].
European countries with somewhat more advanced programs to counter Islamist terrorism at home, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, are nonetheless at a loss as to how to deal with the flow of jihadists to and from Syria. In early March, a top French antiterrorism judge remarked that “no one is stopping them” from going to Syria because the French government officially supports the Syrian rebels. And the same is true for Britain, where a senior 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.” [See Threat Matrix report, Syrian conflict tests European policy on violent jihad.]
In mid-May, German Interior Minister Hans Peter Friedrich estimated that most of the roughly 700 Europeans fighting the Assad regime in Syria are militant Islamists, and warned that they could return as “homegrown terrorists,” The Guardian reported. Security forces were unable to prevent the fighters from leaving Germany because it was impossible to prove they were headed for Syria. Friedrich planned to ask the European Union to consider adopting a two-year re-entry ban to the EU for suspected Islamists, but even that legislation if adopted could be difficult to put into practice.
Although a number of foreign jihadists have died in Syria, the number of fighters flocking to the battlefields there continues to rise. In fact, jihad in Syria has been such a popular draw that Islamist groups in North Africa have begged jihadists to stay in their home countries. In mid-March, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb released a message on jihadist Internet forums telling aspiring jihadists to avoid unnecessary emigration so as to not “clear the field for secularists,” according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which obtained and translated the statement.
AQIM declared: “The front of the Islamic Maghreb today is in direst need of the support of the sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Mauritania, to thwart the attack of Crusader France and defeat its agents in the region, and empower the Islamic project. Emigration and jihad are more important in this front, due to the aggression on their land and the need of this front for these people.”
A recent report in The Daily Beast on European jihadists in Syria notes that some are fighting in alliance with the Al Nusrah Front, and that some of them claim to have raped and murdered while in Syria. According to the article, the Dutch government is investigating the issue of jihadists traveling to Syria, and is considering confiscating their passports.
Last week, European Union justice ministers met to discuss the problem of jihadists returning from conflict zones such as Syria. According to The Copenhagen Post, strategies discussed included stressing the tough conditions of combat and offering social support to returning fighters.
As the Daily Beast article notes, “[d]etailed information about the young European men is often scarce.” But it is perfectly clear that this conflict is producing a growing cadre of battle-hardened jihadists with Western credentials and connections.
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