Hundreds of European Muslims fighting Assad

Syria "replaced Afghanistan, Pakistan as main destination for Islamists seeking to obtain combat experience," says expert.

April 25, 2013 03:08
3 minute read.
Syrian rebels take up positions during clashes with forces loyal to President Assad near Aleppo.

Syrian rebels 370. (photo credit: Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)


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European intelligence agencies are worried that European Muslims fighting in Syria will return to carry out terrorist attacks because of their contacts built with al-Qaida, the BBC reported on Wednesday.

The UK, Ireland and France are the Western countries believed to have the most fighters in Syria, according to the report, which quotes EU anti-terror chief Gilles de Kerchove as saying that about 500 Muslims from Europe are fighting with the rebels.

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However, according to Soeren Kern, a senior fellow for the New York-based Gatestone Institute, and a longtime observer of Islam in Europe, more than 1,000 European Muslims are fighting in Syria. In an article for Gatestone in March titled “European Jihadists: The Latest Export,” he wrote that Syria “has replaced Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia as the main destination for militant Islamists seeking to obtain immediate combat experience with little or no official scrutiny.”

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Kern related to the debate: “Although there is no consensus among analysts on the exact number of European jihadists fighting in Syria, I believe the number 1,000 is about right based on a compilation of intelligence estimates and media reports from across Europe.”

He added that “it is relatively easy for Europeans to travel to Turkey and then cross over the border into Syria undetected, making it difficult to determine the true number, which could presumably be even higher than 1,000.”

Kern finds the figure of 500 mentioned by the EU to be too low and believes that it “may be an effort not to alarm the public.”

He said that the recent estimate by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), at between 140 and 600, is also low.


“The ICSR report attempts to downplay the extent of the problem,” Kern said. “Perhaps if the ICSR had released its report after [and not before] the bombings in Boston, their conclusions may have been somewhat different.”

Since the large terrorist attacks in Madrid, in March 2004, and London, in July 2005, there has been an effort by some groups to downplay the threat of radical Islam, and “Boston was a crude reminder that radical Islam still does pose a threat to the West,” he said.

Another issue for European countries is that many of the fighters are returning and they cannot be arrested because most of them have not broken any law.

Asked about the concerns of European governments, Kern noted that they are very worried about returning jihadists and “the threat of home-grown terrorism similar to the bombings in London and Madrid,” he said. “These concerns have certainly been increased following the attacks in Boston.”

In his article, Kern describes in detail the evidence of this phenomenon for various European countries. For example, there are an estimated 100 Dutch Muslims active in Syria, with most having joined the al- Qaida-linked Nusra Front, according to a Dutch public broadcasting system NOS television report last month cited by Kern.

There are at least 70 members of the outlawed Sharia4Belgium Islamist group active in Syria, the Belgium daily De Standaard reported in March.

The British Independent reported last month that UK authorities believe more than 100 British Muslims are fighting in Syria with the Sunni rebels hoping to overthrow President Bashar Assad’s regime and replace it with an Islamic state.

Asked if Europeans show any worry about this issue, Kern states, “Ordinary Europeans are increasingly concerned about the growing presence of Muslims in their countries.” He said that polls demonstrate this and that there is a sense that “multiculturalism has gone too far.”

“As for me personally, I am rather pessimistic about the future of Europe.”

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