BERLIN – The Syrian civil war continues to serve as a magnet for radical foreign jihadists to oust President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The French-language Belgian daily La Libre Belgique on Friday cited a Belgian security source saying that “four to five thousand” European jihadists were waging war in Syria. This number far exceeds the figure in a late November study by Norwegian counterterrorism specialist Thomas Hegghammer, which said that “at least 1,200 European Muslims have gone to Syria since the start of the war.”

John R. Schindler, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College and a prominent counterterrorism expert, drew attention to the Belgian figure on his widely respected and popular intelligence blog The XX Committee.

“The figure of 4,000 to 5,000 EU passport holders fighting in Syria is a shocking one and quite a bit higher than anything previously seen in the European media,” Schindler wrote. “However, I’m not ready to discount it out of hand, as I’ve worked with Belgian intelligence on counterterrorism matters in the past, and I’ve found them to be professionals who have a good understanding of the serious threats they’re dealing with. Additionally, the figures I’ve been given on European jihadists fighting in Syria by intelligence officers and counterterrorism experts... is not much out of the range cited today by La Libre Belgique.”

The Jerusalem Post contacted Germany’s domestic intelligence – Verfassungsschutz – in November on the subject, and the agency said the number of German jihadists leaving for Syria was “changing on a daily basis... What they are doing there, we don’t know, because we are a domestic intelligence agency.” It further noted that movement of German jihadists into Syria cannot be precisely tracked because their EU passports allow for wide latitude to travel via other countries such as Turkey into Syria.

The gap between the Belgian estimate and Hegghammer’s earlier one can be explained by the lack of a hard science to identify foreign jihadists in Syria, as well as the possibility that news organizations are receiving incomplete or fragmented information.

Meanwhile, a Tuesday BBC report said that as many as 11,000 foreign fighters – ranging from Arab countries to Indonesia to Kazakhstan to Western Europe – are engaged in combat in Syria to overthrow the Iranand Hezbollah-backed regime of Assad.

La Libre Belgique’s report “Syrian Networks: Risk Exacerbated” stated that 200 Belgians fought or were still active as fighters in Syria and that as many as 20 had died in combat.

“It’s correct for European spooks to be worried,” said Schindler, “since the large number of foreign fighters in Syria... is an ominous portent, making Syria’s fratricide something of a jihadist Super Bowl.”

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