Not unlike the Spanish civil war in the 1930s that spawned the famous Brigadas Internacionales, military units made up of lefty civilian volunteers from all over the world, to fight Franco’s fascist regime, the Syrian conflict has attracted thousands of young European muslims. These men are now beginning to trickle back home, perhaps a little less idealistic, and governments worry the ideological baggage they come back with may pose security threats.
When Brigadiers returned home after the Spanish civil war, much of Europe soon afterwards became locked in war with the very governments that supported Franco during the civil war, affording the former fighters some degree of honor. After the war ended, however, they were quickly persecuted for their communist leanings as the Soviet Union emerged as the West’s new enemy.
With Europe’s Syrian freedom fighters as well, governments see little valor in what the young men have done, although they were fighting a regime the West was poised to bombard itself just months ago. Having fought along side extremist, al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, where the fighting has devolved into a a sectarian conflict between sunnis and shiites, authorities are concerned that they may harbour nefarious plans for their native countries, indoctrinated by extremists.
The total number of European combatants is difficult to track, but various estimates range from 1,000 to 2,000. Drawn by local recruiters working out of a network of mosques in Europe, who arrange all travel and accommodation, most fighters first travel to safe-houses in southern Turkey before being smuggled across the Syrian border. Europeans have actively participated in other conflicts in the Middle East, beginning with Afghanistan in the 1980s, but officials are worried about the rapid increase in their numbers in Syria.
According to Western intelligence officials, Hizb al Tahrir, an international Islamic group, is the backbone of the recruitment effort in Europe. “They create small groups and form a strong sense of group cohesion with a leader in the middle… surrounded by young, aspiring jihadists,” said a Western Diplomat. Governments worry that the battle-hardened jihadist will then be recruited by Islamic radicals to carry out missions in Europe, from recruiting more fighters in local communities, where they are often seen as heroes, to full-fledged terrorist actions.
“The returning jihadists pose the biggest long-term concern of the Syrian civil war,” one U.S. government official told the Wall Street Journal, reflecting the sentiment of many Western European capitals. With European passports, the former fighters can cross borders with ease and enter the United States undetected. Some officials even fear fighters may be faking their death to have their biometric information wiped.
While many Europeans fight alongside more moderate home-grown rebels in Syria, security officials are most worried about those that join the ranks of radical groups such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The U.S. has designated ISIS and the Nusra Front as terrorist groups and is pushing its European counterparts to do the same.
Syrian rebels are increasingly clashing with their more extremist brethren, many of who come from outside Syria, saying they are more concerned about ideology than the cause at hand. ISIS jihadists have made headlines recently for cutting down a 150-year-old tree that they accused locals of worshiping and beheading a member of another rebel group by accident.
Western capitals fret they can do little to keep their citizens from going to Syria. They are frantically trying to beef up efforts to better keep track of Europeans leaving to fight in Syria and to more easily place them in custody when they return. In April, British authorities adopted new rules making it easier to confiscate the passports of nationals suspected of terrorist-related activity abroad and the French introduced a law to allow authorities to prosecute people planning terror attacks abroad.