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09 March 2014

European fighters in Syria

By Shada Islam Dawn

THE brutal civil war in Syria may seem a long way away to most Europeans but `foreign fighters` entangled in the bloody conflict are bringing the Syrian tragedy home to Europe.

There are no fixed or indeed credible estimates of just how many Europeans are fighting in Syria. Intelligence agencies say between 7,000 and 11,000 foreign fighters are in Syria at the moment, of whom about 2,000 are believed to be European Muslims.

Young men and some women have come from as far afield as Australia to join the motley and diverse group of opposition forces in the country, including Al Qaeda, which are fighting against Bashar Al Assad.

It`s not just the fact that Europeans are killing and being killed in Syria that has European governments and the United States worried; it`s the prospect of these foreign fighters returning home as Al Qaeda converts and terrorists-in-waiting, apparently ready to wreak havoc at home.

Intelligence officials across Europe and the US have been issuing dire warnings that the returnees could put their training in weapons and explosive to deadly use when they come back. There are also concerns that they could radicalise others and create a new generation of European-based `home-grown` extremists.

The fears are reflected in headlines across Europe and are feeding into the increasingly strident far-right rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants ahead of elections to the European Parliament to be held in May. The statements are also reviving the unfortunate stereotypes of `Muslims as terrorists` sparked by the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

Saner voices warn that once again hyperbole and hysteria are overtaking a rational assessment of the real threat posed by Syria`s foreign fighters. Their appeals for calm and a measured response to the danger are being ignored, however.

`We have knowledge of about a dozen people who were active in the conflict in Syria... and with this the threat of a terror attack in Germany increases,` Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany`s domestic intelligence agency (BfV), warned recently.

About 300 German citizens have reportedly left to join rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad since the conflict began in 2011, and more than 20 have died there.

Similar concerns have been expressed by Maassen`s counterparts in Britain and the US, with British officials underlining that foreign fighters now represent `the biggest challenge`to the security services since the terror attacks on the US.

`Syria is different from any other counter-terrorism challenge that we have faced since 9/11 because of the number of terrorist groups now engaged in the fighting, their size and scale, the number of people from this country who are joining them, ease of travel, availability of weapons and the intensity of the conflict, according to Charles Farr, director general of the UK Office for Security and CounterTerrorism.

Britain was particularly alarmed by a video posted online last month of a British suicide bomber in Syria. As a result, Home Secretary Theresa May has argued that Britons fighting alongside jihadists in Syria should be stripped of their citizenship. For many Europeans going to Syria is fairly easy, requiring only a cheap air ticket to Turkey and a short ride over the border with a trafficker.

Significantly, while many security experts fret over the possible future actions of the would-be terrorists, few have done any real research on just why these young people are heading to Syria. Those who have found time to look into the question say many who are joining the struggle against Assad regime are doing so because they believe in the cause of the opposition and are appalled by the government`s atrocities.

Others are drawn by Al Qaeda propaganda and recruiters operating through social media, while still others are reacting to their disaffected status and social marginalisation in Europe.

The truth is that young men are often drawn into foreign wars. It`s the romance and the glamour, perhaps, as well as conviction.

The Spanish civil war in the 1930s drew many foreign fighters including the author George Orwell. Many Europeans and Americans fought in Bosnia and Afghanistan and during the revolt in Libya.

Certainly, the involvement of Al Qaeda in the Syrian civil war is a complicating factor, prompting fears that those coming back from the conflict will have been brainwashed into undertaking hostile acts.

As such, many commentators recognise that there is no room for complacency and those coming back from Syria should be interviewed, debriefed and monitored. Efforts must be made to discourage young Europeans from going to Syria.

Certainly, it is best to be prepared for the worst. But European governments must be careful not to stoke anti-Muslim hysteria. They should therefore strive to make the current conversation on foreign fighters less emotional and try harder, much harder, to bring the bloody war in Syria to an end.

-The writer is Dawn`s correspondent in Brussels.