A Quiet Wave Of European Muslims Sets Out For War In Syria

Authorities worry for the safety of the mostly young sign-ups, but also the risk that they return home radicalized -- and set on striking targets in Europe.

Regents Park Mosque
Regents Park Mosque
Jean-Pierre Stroobants

BRUSSELS – Counter-terrorist experts in Europe are growing alarmed at the number of European youths joining the ranks of Islamist combatants in Syria.

They say that these – mostly inexperienced – youths are taking huge risks by joining an extremely violent conflict. They are also worried about the security risk these young combatants could pose for European countries when they return after being indoctrinated and trained by al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria.

A recent report from the British Home Office estimated that between 70 and 100 British citizens had joined al-Nosra, one of the best organized, most radical and well armed combatant groups. Some of the youths have already joined the front lines in Syria.

The Netherlands believes that three of its citizens, who were most probably recruited in a mosque, were killed in combat. Belgium estimates that 50 to 80 Belgian combatants are already in Syria, including two youths who are believed to have been recruited by banned group Sharia4Belgium, whose leader Fouad Belkacem, is under house arrest.

The parents of Jeroen Bontinck, 18, and Brian de Mulder, 19, say that they didn’t know about their sons’ conversions to Salafism and their departure to Syria.

“What is most concerning is how these young people become radicalized within weeks,” says Erwin Bakker, a counter-terrorist expert from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. The report from the British Home Office speaks of these recruits as a “European problem.”

Aaron Zelin, a researcher from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a U.S. think tank, estimates that there are from 2000 to 5000 foreigners in Syria. Among them hundreds of Europeans, mostly from the Balkans, the UK, France, Germany and Spain, according to Gilles de Kerchove, a European Union counter-terrorism coordinator.

Used for propaganda

Their profiles are not identical. “There are ideologists, idealists, but also some who just want to show their support for a rebellion that – don’t forget – we support officially,” says Kerchove. It seems that the most active recruitment channels, however, are linked to the most extremist movements. “And if all the youths who go to Syria do not go there initially to become combatants, they risk being influenced by more extremist elements,” adds Kerchove.

Investigations of recruitment channels are just starting. “It is not certain that all recruits go through these channels, ” says Kerchove. In some cases, they just buy an airline tickets for Turkey online, and from there they make their way to Syria. Others take charter flights, in small groups of three and four, from Germany to Antalya. They have the number of a contact on the Turkey-Syria border, whom they call upon arrival.

The Belgian Interior Ministry, who is extremely worried about the situation, has created a taskforce comprising of various official agencies, to curb radicalization and its consequences. A difficult task, according to experts. The Syrian conflict is highly polarizing for disenfranchised youths looking for a fight or angry about perceived injustices.

The Belgian taskforce will probably not be able to prevent young Europeans from fighting in Syria, but it can be very useful when they return home, says Bakker. When they come back, they are often disappointed by their experience. Often when they arrive in Syria, they are treated badly by locals, who consider them as amateurs who are only useful for propaganda purposes. Jihadi groups are also wary of these youths, whom they perceive as potential spies. Most of these young people are given menial tasks, such as getting rid of dead bodies.

“Their frustration can reinforce, upon their return, their radicalism and their will to fight,” says a European expert. “If some need to be brought to justice, others just need help and support. In particular, they can serve as an example to those considering to follow in their footsteps.”

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