Growing Threat of European Fighters in Syria Highlights Need for EU Cooperation

Growing Threat of European Fighters in Syria Highlights Need for EU Cooperation
FSA rebels cleaning their AK47s, Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 19, 2012 (photo via Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

Almost all European Union member states have seen some of their young citizens, often Muslims between the ages of 18-29, leave their countries to join the jihad against the Assad regime in Syria. The issue of foreign fighters is not new: The conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan had already seen young European Muslims join the fight. However, the threat appears more public and pronounced with Syria, partly because many foreign fighters document their journey on social media outlets.

At least 12,000 foreigners have fought in Syria over the first three years of its civil war, including 300-700 French nationals, 200-250 Belgians, 100-120 Dutch, 300-500 Britons, approximately 300 Germans, over 800 Russians and many others from an estimated 70-80 countries. The number of European fighters in Syria at least quadrupled between April 2013 and April 2014. Turkey has been particularly affected both as a country of origin—approximately 400 jihadi fighters—and as a transit point for those coming from other European countries. According to various sources, at least 30 Frenchmen, 28 Britons, 13 Dutch, 15 Spaniards and 100 Turks have died in the conflict.

Intelligence services across Europe are watching the issue closely, concerned that some jihadi fighters could carry out terrorist attacks in their home country upon their return. However, it is worth pointing out that these individuals do not make up a unitary body with consistent grievances and aspirations. Some are well-integrated members of society outraged by the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria and the Assad regime’s ruthless crackdown on civilians across the country. Others go there for the social experience, prestige and glamour associated with Syria in jihadi circles.

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