The build-up of foreign fighters, including Europeans and Americans, joining jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq and the apparent emergence of a jihadist caliphate is alarming the West and the many Muslim regimes that fear a new wave of attacks by the return home of radicalised, war-hardened veterans.
By Ed Blanche
From Australia to Norway, the United States to Russia and across the turmoil-plagued Arab world, the growing army of foreign fighters joining jihadist groups engaged in Syria’s chaotic civil war, is being seen as a potential threat in their home countries.
“It is only a matter of time before jihadis in Al Qaeda-type groups that have taken over much of eastern Syria and western Iraq have a violent impact on the world outside these two countries,” veteran Middle East commentator Patrick Cockburn warned in May. “The road is open wide to new attacks along the lines of 9/11 and 7/7” – the 7 July 2005 suicide bombings in London – “and it may be too late to close it.”
As governments belatedly seek to head off a jihadist surge they fear could be imminent , many are pushing new legislation that would prohibit citizens fighting in foreign conflicts and strip them of their nationality if they do. Most of the foreign fighters join the jihadist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the largest and most violent organisation, and the Al Nusrah Front, Al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria.
Counter-terrorism services in the West and the Middle East believe that for these extremist Sunni groups, deposing the Assad regime and establishing a democratic state is not their main objective.
They want to establish a jihadist caliphate and a pan- Islamic theocracy centred on the ancient Abbasid Caliphate, whose capital was Baghdad and once seen as the heart of the Islamic world. There is a geostrategic element here that was not present in earlier jihadist campaigns in 1980s Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya or even post-US invasion Iraq.
There are no accurate figures available regarding the number of foreign jihadists active in Syria and Iraq and estimates vary widely. But US National Intelligence Director James Clapper recently said there are 7,000, mostly non-Syrian Arabs but including 700 French citizens, 400 Britons and 70 Americans.
London’s Metropolitan Police say up to 700 Britons could be based in Syria, and acknowledge that the UK authorities are powerless to stop would-be jihadists heading there. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, expects the number of returning British fighters to increase significantly.
“It is pretty clear they become highly radicalised when they’re out there,” noted Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the centre. “They imbibe the Al Qaeda narrative – highly anti-Shia, sectarian, anti-state, anti-western and interested in the establishment of an extreme Sharia caliphate.”
These foreign jihadists are believed to amount to 10%-11% of the overall rebel force.
The King’s College centre says there are 11,000 non- Syrian fighters from 73 countries, 15 of them in Europe, currently engaged in Syria. Among non-Arabs, the centre also lists nearly 300 Belgians and 240 Germans – along with one Swiss national and one Luxembourger.
The Arab volunteers are easily the largest group, with Libyans and Saudi Arabians the main contingents. In late March, a Saudi official conceded that 1,200 Saudis had gone to Syria to fight the regime. Saudis were also a dominant contingent in Iraq.
Authorities in Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbour where US, British and Saudi intelligence services are training non-jihadist rebels and arming them to unleash a “second front” in southern Syria, estimate there are 2,000 Jordanians, mainly Islamists, fighting with the rebels in Syria.
The Hashemite Kingdom, highly vulnerable to such forces, is particularly harsh in its efforts to curb the jihadist threat. It has stepped up arrests of hardline Islamists and strengthened anti-terror laws that were already draconian.
On 16 April, Jordanian air force jets destroyed a convoy entering the kingdom from Syria. Amman officials denied involvement, but it was widely seen as a strike against jihadist infiltrators.
Aaron Y Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy reported in April that 300 Saudis fighters have been killed in Syria as of late February, which is “the highest number of fatalities among foreign nationals.”
Other estimates list volunteers, including white converts to Islam, from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the United States, Indonesia and other Asian countries.
Most of these join the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic States of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the most violent rebel force, and the Al Nusrah Front, Al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate. Some foreigners enlist with other Salafist groups supported by members of the Gulf monarchies.
history was made
“Sometime in the spring or summer of 2013, history was made in Syria,” Thomas Hegghammer, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, observed in a December 2013 study of Syrian’s foreign fighters. “That was when the number of foreign fighters exceeded that of any previous conflict in the modern history of the Muslim world.”
The first conflict in which outside Muslim volunteers played a significant role was the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan against the Soviet invaders. The first generation of “Arab Afghans” got its baptism of fire in the mountains of Afghanistan, including Osama bin Laden, who went on to found Al Qaeda and declare holy war on the West and its Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, his homeland.
Western analysts estimate that at least 20,000 foreign fighters participated in the war in Afghanistan, although there were probably no more than 2,000-3,000 in the country at any one time.
Many of these veterans returned to their home countries where they galvanised insurgencies in Algeria and Egypt and established jihadist bridgeheads across the Arab world, in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia and elsewhere.
The war in Iraq, triggered by the US invasion of 2003, produced a new generation of jihadists that engaged not just in fighting US and British troops, but also massacring rival Shi’ites. Veterans of that butchery, in which the US Army says more than 1,000 foreign fighters were killed or captured, are now fighting in Syria.
One of the fiercest foreign contingents fighting in Syria, and this is a worrying development for Moscow, is a growing body of Chechens and North Caucasians – as many as 1,500 Chechens, 200 Dagestanis and 100 other Caucasians – operating in four major groups each commanded by prominent Chechen veterans of the wars against Russia over the last 15 years.
“This emerging phenomenon … the symbiosis of North Caucasian perseverance and Middle Eastern Islamic radicalism … is more dangerous to Russia than the problems it currently faces in the North Caucasus,” observed analyst Mairbek Vatchagaev.
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where jihadists seek to restore the Abbassid caliphate once centred on Baghdad, have allowed Al Qaeda and its fellow travellers to expand considerably. Many volunteers gravitate towards ISIL, which has access to large funding from wealthy benefactors in the Gulf.
ISIL, which is in the vanguard of Sunni forces fighting the Baghdad regime in Iraq, openly seeks to seize and hold territory, build power bases and establish civil administrations for what they envisage as a new caliphate in north and west Iraq and northeast Syria.
In this endeavour, the jihadists have been greatly aided by the misguided, tunnel-vision policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies, particularly the so-called War on Terror that has spawned a smorgasbord of increasingly intrusive counter-terrorism legislation that encroaches more and more of civil liberties across the globe.
The fear in Washington, European capitals and Russia (which are arguably far more vulnerable to jihadist terror than the US these days, because of their large disaffected Muslim populations) is that the hundreds, possibly thousands, of young westernised Muslims who are now fighting in Syria “could create a seasoned corps of jihadist fighters who will eventually return to Europe when the fighting ends,” the US security consultancy Stratfor notes.
This is concentrating the minds of western law and intelligence agencies who are coming to grips with the fact that their governments’ efforts to develop multi- cultural societies have failed miserably and that their cities have become recruiting centres for Al Qaeda, even though there has been no major terrorist attack in the West since the London suicide bombings of 7 July 2005 in which 52 people, plus four bombers, all British-born Muslims, were killed.
So just how much of a threat are these seasoned Islamist veterans of Syria and Iraq? Despite the bloodcurdling warnings from western capitals, so far, there has been no evident jihadist blowback because of the Syrian war.
Stratfor analyst Scott Stewart says the returning veterans could be a danger in the foreseeable future, but concludes “that threat will remain chronic and low- level. It is something that should be of concern, but not a cause for panic.”
This is because of the intense monitoring of foreign fighters by host governments, and the growing cooperation between intelligence services, Stewart explained, and because “very few of these jihadists are ever provided advanced training in the type of skills required to successfully conduct a major terrorist attack in a hostile environment, or what we refer to as terrorism tradecraft…
“Even among the very few who have undertaken such attacks, most have sought to conduct spectacular operations that are beyond their capability, they are frequently caught in sting operations as they seek outside assistance with weapons procurement or bomb-making.”
That may well be so. But it does not take into sufficient account the way that war, and particularly the complex, religion-driven slaughterhouse conflict in Syria where there seems to be no end to atrocities of the most dreadful kind, hardens and corrupts those who engage in its horrors.
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