The U.S. and European Union are seeing an increasing number of radicalized young Muslims going to Syria to fight, a development that raises the danger that they will return to conduct terrorist attacks at home.
The war is providing both a rallying point and a training ground for radical Islamists from other nations, according to Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. Their numbers are increasing and the radicals, such as those joining the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, are now “the most capable fighting force within the opposition” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said.
“Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world,” Olsen said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. “We see foreign fighters going from Western Europe and, in a small number of cases, from the United States to Syria to fight for the opposition.”
Olsen and other forum speakers highlighted terrorism as part of the growing stakes in the Syrian civil war, which threatens to destabilize the region. Efforts by the U.S. and European countries to promote peace talks have stumbled, and President Barack Obama has balked at deeper American involvement, citing concerns that some rebel groups may have terrorist links.
About 600 fighters have gone to Syria from Europe, according to Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counter-terrorism coordinator. That number grows to the thousands if fighters from the Balkans and North Africa are counted, he said.
“The scale of this is completely different from what we’ve experienced in the past with Afghanistan, Pakistan, with Yemen and Somalia,” de Kerchove said at the forum yesterday.
Most of those from Europe are self-radicalized and traveling on their own initiative, as opposed to being recruited by a radical network, de Kerchove said.
He called it “at bit surprising” that they are going to Syria, to fight other Muslims, rather than going the Mali, where France has intervened militarily to push back advances by Islamic radicals. That may be the case because travel is easier to Syria, through Turkey, and because many of the young radicals are more attuned to fighting in urban conditions rather than in Mali’s vast desert territory, he said.
Those men may pose a threat in their home nations if they survive and return home, he said. European governments lack the capabilities to monitor all of them around the clock, he said.
Olsen declined to disclose U.S. estimates of the numbers, though he said the pace has been increasing recently.
“The concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States,” Olsen said during a panel discussion July 18.
Richard Barrett, former coordinator of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda Taliban Monitoring Team, said the risks are real. At the same time, he said it is important to recognize that not all who return home will be inclined to conduct terrorism.
The UN estimates that more than 93,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war, which began with peaceful protests in March 2011. The fighting has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing into neighboring countries such as Jordan.
In recent weeks, fighting has broken out between radical and mainstream elements of the Sunni-dominated opposition as they compete for power in a country increasingly splintered among warring factions. Meanwhile, Assad holds on to Damascus and has gained momentum in the fighting.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if Syria were to break up as a result of what is going on there now,” said John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The turmoil in Syria is destabilizing an already volatile region swept up in the Arab Spring movement. Tensions have spilled into Lebanon, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq has revived, and Jordan faces a flood of refugees straining its ability to handle them.
At the same time, Shiite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, which the U.S. and Israel regard as a terrorist group, have sent fighters to aid Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Persian Gulf Arab nations, which are Sunni, as well as the U.S., U.K. and France are supporting the mainstream opposition.
“We have a perfect witches’ brew evolving in Syria which, I think, is going to explode out and affect the entire Levant in ways that are detrimental to U.S. interests,” said Charles Allen, a 40-year CIA veteran who is now at the Chertoff Group, a Washington-based global security advisory firm.
Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has long sought to gain control of territory as the terror group had in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion, said McLaughlin. One of al-Qaeda’s stated goals is the re-establishment of a caliphate across the Mideast and North Africa as there was in the early days of Islam.
“Wherever he’s hiding right now, he’s probably looking at Syria and saying ‘this is my dream come true,’ because probably one part of Syria is going to end up in the hands of people like that,” McLaughlin said, referring to Zawahiri.
Touring a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan on July 18, Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. was concerned by the involvement of Hezbollah and Iran and that the administration was considering a buffer zone and a no-fly zone. The Obama administration has so far resisted such deeper involvement.
“A lot of different options are under consideration,” Kerry said. “I wish it was very simple.’‘
Obama has authorized providing small arms to the Syrian opposition. U.S. plans in conjunction with Russia for peace talks have stalled for months as Assad’s regime and opposition leaders jockey for stronger positions.
Allen and Olsen also expressed concern that Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons poses a threat, with Allen wondering who would gain control of those arms if Syria breaks up. U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague announced this week that his government will send the opposition’s Supreme Military Council some defensive chemical weapons equipment following evidence that Assad’s forces have used chemical agents against the opposition.