Dec 7, 2013
Syria’s Jihadi Migration Emerges as Top Terror Threat in Europe, Beyond
Posted on Jul 29, 2013
By Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
This report first appeared on ProPublica.
MADRID — Rachid Wahbi came to Syria from a Spanish slum, rushing toward death.
And he didn’t plan to die alone.
Facing a camera hours before the end, the bearded, 33-year-old cabdriver wore a black headdress and a black flak vest and held an AK-47 rifle. He spoke in hesitant classical Arabic with a north Moroccan accent. He said he had studied his target and, God willing, his action would end in triumph. He wished the glory of martyrdom for his fellow fighters in the al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch.
When the cameraman asked about his mother, the Spaniard became emotional.
The al-Nusrah propaganda video shows Wahbi disguised in the helmet and uniform of a Syrian soldier as he hugs a comrade and climbs into a truck packed with explosives. The truck bears down on an army outpost. An explosion thunders. A column of smoke, seen from multiple camera angles, climbs toward the sky.
Wahbi killed 130 people in that suicide bombing on the al-Nairab military base in northern Syria on June 1 of last year, according to Spanish authorities. And the numbers get grimmer.
Five holy warriors from Spain have died in Syria, three in bombings that killed another 100 people, police say. Last month, Spanish police stormed the hillside ghetto where Wahbi lived in Ceuta, a Spanish territory in North Africa, and arrested a ring of extremists who are charged with sending as many as 50 fighters to Syria. Indicating a threat much closer to home, the accused leader had previously been acquitted of plotting attacks on targets in Spain with a group linked to al-Qaida and a former Guantanamo inmate.
“The global jihad has prioritized the Syrian conflict as its principal front,” said a top Spanish intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. “And it has directed its subsidiaries to move combatants to the zone. What worries us is that this experience could serve as preparation, as training to return to European countries and carry out attacks at home.”
Hundreds of Europeans and thousands of other Sunni Muslim foreign fighters have made Syria the new land of jihad. The migration complicates an already delicate calculus in Washington and in European capitals that are aiding the fractious rebel coalition in Syria. European security chiefs see the flow of extremists to and from Syria as their top terrorist threat. It also raises concerns that European militants radicalized by or returning from the Syrian conflict could strike U.S. targets overseas or travel across the Atlantic.
“Imagine this: Between 2001 and 2010, we identified 50 jihadists who went from France to Afghanistan,” said a senior French counterterror official who also requested anonymity. “Surely there were more, but we identified 50. With Syria, in one year, we have already identified 135. It has been very fast and strong.”
The statistics are even stronger in adjoining Belgium, one-sixth the size of France. Between 100 and 300 jihadis have journeyed from Belgium’s extremist enclaves to Syria, according to a veteran Belgian counterterror official. Other significant fighting contingents represent Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Central Asia, Libya, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The senior French official estimated the total number of Europeans to be at least 400. Others say it could be double that, but counterterror officials warn that precise numbers are difficult to establish.
The foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria “is one of the things that most worries a number of European government agencies,” Italian Defense Minister Mario Mauro said in an interview. “But this is also within the reactive capacity of a system built by democracies, therefore based not on preventive arrests but on monitoring and intelligence activity to prevent situations like this from degenerating.”
The total number of the rebel forces – Syrians and foreigners, full-time and occasional fighters – is thought to be in the tens of thousands. Estimates range from above 60,000 to below 100,000, based on interviews with U.S. and European officials and experts.
A recent private report examines the role of Sunni foreign fighters who have converged from across the Muslim world to battle the regime of Bashir Assad and his powerful Shiite allies, Hezbollah and Iran. Foreign fighters account for up to 10 percent of the rebels in the data sample examined by the study, which relies on sources including online obituaries of militants and social networks and is titled “Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant.”
Released last month by Flashpoint Partners, a New York security contracting firm, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that tends to align with Israeli views, the report compares the conflict to previous arenas that attracted extremists: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen.
“At the very least, the current war in Syria can be considered the third-largest foreign mujahideen mobilization since the early 1980s — falling short only of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iraq during the last decade,” the study concludes. “[T]he mobilization has been stunningly rapid — what took six years to build in Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation may have accumulated inside Syria in less than half that time.”
Syria is familiar turf that once served as a hub for militants en route to fight in Iraq. It is closer and more accessible to Europe than other jihadi destinations: Militants travel by air or land to Turkey, where smugglers sneak them across the border. There is little interference by authorities in Turkey, a major sponsor of the Syrian rebels.
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