A historically unprecedented number of foreign fighters have gone to Syria. Some have joined extremist factions. EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator Gilles de Kerchove estimates that over 2,000 Europeans have gone to Syria to fight, mainly from Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. Many are now returning home posing an increased threat to Western countries. Norwegian academic Thomas Hegghammer found on average one in nine foreign fighters returned home to take part in a domestic terror plot.
A dark side is evidence that some of the foreign fighters in Syria have been involved in brutal atrocities. A highly graphic video was released in 2013, a prisoner is shown being beheaded with a knife, some of the perpetrators speak Dutch (Flemish) and French.
In March, French counter-terrorism police arrested 23-year-old Ibrahim B., a returning fighter from Syria, who was preparing to strike in the southern French region of Côte d’Azur. Some 900 kilos of explosives were found in the suspect’s temporary apartment near Cannes.
The Long War Journal lists a sampling of the terrorist activity outside Syria from returning fighters, fighters from over 70 countries are now fighting in Syria.
Why are so many foreign fighters streaming to Syria?
It is easy to get to Syria. There is diversity in the population going to the war zone in Syria. The militant population is young men but there are also young people, older people, and women traveling to the war zone in Syria. In May 2013, the Detroit Free Press reported that Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a convert to Islam, was killed in Syria while fighting for opposition forces. Record numbers of foreign fighters have gone to Syria because it is easy to get there. Almost all of the foreign fighters contributing to Syria’s opposition in northern Syria traveled there via Turkey. The debacle of Turkey turning a blind eye to streams of foreigners traveling through Turkey to Syria was stated in a Washington Post interview with a Syrian facilitator:
It’s so easy,” said a Syrian living in Kilis who smuggles travelers into Syria through the nearby olive groves and asked to be identified by only his first name, Mohammed. He claims he has escorted dozens of foreigners across the border in the past 18 months, including Chechens, Sudanese, Tunisians and a Canadian.
For example, someone comes from Tunisia. He flies to the international airport wearing jihadi clothes and a jihadi beard and he has jihadi songs on his mobile,” Mohammed said. “If the Turkish government wants to prevent them coming into the country, it would do so, but they don’t.
Shite Prophecy. The war in Syria is also viewed in end-of-the-world Shite prophecies, the FrontPage article Shiites: Syria War Will Ignite End Times gives an overview of end-of-the-world Shite beliefs, that radical Sunnies will conquer Syria for a short time and then Iranian forces will intervene and lead in an end-of-the-world great battle. Syria is also seen as a different conflict because of hadiths about Sham (greater Syria) in end-of-the-world predictions.
Caliphate (original Islamic state founded by Mohammad)
Restoring the caliphate, some believe chaos in the Middle East can be used by jihadis to restore the caliphate.
Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) portrays itself as “the new Islamic state”, the reemergence of the original Islamic state and its leader adopts the title amir al-mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful). ISIS a brutal terrorist group.
ISIS “considers themselves the embodiment of the Islamic state already,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a scholar studying Syria’s jihadist groups and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Accordingly, ISIS acts with a sense that divine authority makes it infallible, while al Qaeda favors a more incremental approach, building popular support before declaring the establishment of the Caliphate.
In a perverse turn, as violence in Syria has given even more radical groups the chance to seize power, al Qaeda has become the moderate voice among jihadists. But for ISIS, there have been benefits to fanaticism.
“The fact that ISIS openly declares the project of the Caliphate and the global nature of the struggle makes them more appealing to foreign fighters,” said Al-Tamimi. The group, he added, attracts “jihadist fanboys” who eagerly tweet the latest ISIS images of beheadings and pronouncements of Sharia law.
Many Western foreign fighters in Syria are recruited via twitter by the radical group ISIS.
What To Do?
Foreign fighters in Syria that return to Western countries are a serious concern. The returning fighters with European passports once in Europe can easily move across borders and easily travel to the United States.
Western countries are taking a variety of measures, ranging from confiscation of passports, arresting those suspected of recruiting fighters for Syria, to arresting those planning to travel to Syria to join terrorist groups. Criminal measures, non-criminal measures, and anti-radicalization strategies over concern of the threat of returning foreign fighters have been implemented by Western countries.
Mohamed Hersi is the first person in Canada to be convicted of trying to join terrorist group. Canada also seeks to prosecute returning foreign fighters.
France arrested four people in Paris and southern France on suspicion of recruiting militants to fight in Syria. France also seeks to prosecute returning fighters.
In the U.K., new rules make it easier for British authorities to confiscate the passports of Britons suspected of terrorist-related activity. Mashudur Choudhury was the first British person convicted of a terror offence for arranging to Syria to join a jihadist training camp.
In Denmark recruiting to fight in Syria is against the law. Also Denmark has extensive counter-radicalization efforts directed at returning fighters.
Three Norwegian young men, two born in the former Yugoslavia and one originally from Somalia, were arrested in May on charges of inciting terror and posing a threat to Norway and its allies for
allegedly violating Norwegian law against participating in or supporting a terror organization.
German has implemented varies measures to prevent aspiring fighters from leaving the country. Individuals suspected of planning to leave the country to become fighters in a foreign country are approached by German security services. The person receives a “hazard talk”, that authorities are aware of their plans and the implications of their actions. Germany citizens can have their passports taken away if they pose a threat to German security. Those who have engaged in terrorist-related activities can be prosecuted.
Australia prosecutes Syrian related crimes of recruting, traveling, and providing support. Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop warned that those who join ISIS and return to Australia could face a 25-year jail term. Australia is vigilant about Syria/Iraq fighters. An unprecedented security intelligence-sharing arrangement between spy agencies and customs will lock down Australia’s borders to potential jihadists either trying to return to Australia or leave Australia to join Syrian and Iraqi terror groups…Already more than 50 passports have been cancelled. DailyTelegraph
U.S. authorities prosecute potential foreign fighters and the penalties usually are severe. The laws used to disrupt and deter foreign fighters are the same used to combat terrorism: conspiracies, act of terrorism overseas, providing material support to terrorist organizations, receiving
training from foreign terrorist organizations….