Syria: The New Jihadist Training Ground

By Di Giovanni, Janine | Newsweek, October 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Syria: The New Jihadist Training Ground


Di Giovanni, Janine, Newsweek


Byline: Janine di Giovanni

When Sir Andrew Parker, the newly appointed head of the U.K. Security Services, gave his first public speech this month in London, he issued a stern warning: Jihadi fighters migrating to Syria are a major security threat to Britain, Europe, and beyond.

It was making the world a more dangerous place. "It's more complicated," Parker told the Royal United Services Institute in Whitehall, the heart of the British government. "More unpredictable."

As the bloody war nears its fourth year, with over 100,000 civilians dead and more than 2 million refugees displaced, it has another, fatal and more realistic consequence: More foreign fighters are being indoctrinated to fight for the Sunni cause, opposing the Shia-backed Bashar al-Assad regime.

"There is good reason to be concerned about Syria," Parker said. "A growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the U.K. who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so. Al Nusrah and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries."

Parker warned that thousands of Islamic extremists operating in the U.K. see the British public as a legitimate target for attacks. Around 330 people were convicted of terrorism-related offenses in Britain between September 11, 2001 and March 31, 2013. Four British trials have been related to terrorism plots, including an intercepted plan to repeat the July 2005 "7/7" backpack attacks on London that killed 56 and injured 700.

The foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria is clearly a major threat, leaving European governments jittery. It was "one of the things that most worries a number of European government agencies," according to Italian Defense Minister Mario Mauro. The FBI estimates that as many as 700 American Muslims are fighting in Syria.

Syrians and foreigners, full-time and occasional fighters, are thought to number tens of thousands. Estimates range from above 60,000 to below 100,000, according to the online news source ProPublica. As more Sunni foreign fighters converge from across the Muslim world to fight Assad's powerful Shiite allies - Hezbollah and Iran - foreign fighters now make up to 10 percent of the rebels.

The Syrian civil war is the third-largest foreign mujahideen mobilization, following the gathering in Afghanistan in the 1980s to rid the country of Soviet invaders and Iraq in the past decade to torment the American occupiers. There are more foreign fighters in Syria than took part in the wars in Somalia, Afghanistan, or Yemen.

The accumulation of fighters has happened quickly. "The mobilization has been stunningly rapid," says the ProPublica report. "What took six years to build in Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation may have accumulated inside Syria in less than half that time." Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Aspen Security Forum in July that Syria has become the predominant jihadist battlefield of the world.

"There are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States," Olsen said. Intelligence estimates the number of fighters from North America, Australia, and Europe who went to Syria to fight to be somewhere around 600 - about 10 percent of the total number of foreign fighters in the country - the others coming mostly from the Middle East and North Africa.

It is easy for Syria to become the new land of jihad. The Turkish border with Syria is porous and hundreds cross overland to join rebel battalions in Aleppo or Idlib. Turkey and Syria are easily accessible from major European airports. The Internet - including seductive Facebook pages and recruiting sites - makes it tantalizing for young Muslim men who want to help the suffering people of Syria. …

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