Dec 6, 2013
Syria’s Jihadi Migration Emerges as Top Terror Threat in Europe, Beyond
Posted on Jul 29, 2013
By Sebastian Rotella, ProPublica
Despite the ferocity of the civil war, Syrian cities offer better living conditions to foreign volunteers than al-Qaida’s remote compounds in Pakistan or the impoverished wastes where Islamists operate in Somalia and Mali. The ever-improving technology of the Internet and mobile phones allow combatants to trumpet their exploits and remain in close communication with comrades back home.
“There are guys who regularly update their Facebook pages from Syria,” said Claudio Galzerano, the chief of the international terrorism unit of the Italian police in Rome.
Moreover, the cause enjoys unique popularity. Many Sunnis and non-Muslims alike regard it as a crusade to overthrow a brutal dictator who uses chemical weapons to slaughter his people. The Obama administration and European governments support the Syrian opposition and the Supreme Military Command, which encompasses the Free Syrian Army and other relatively moderate groups. The Convoy of Martyrs study describes “Arab Spring-motivated, pro-democratic revolutionary fervor” that pushes foreign volunteers to join the Free Syrian Army, rather than extremist rebel units.
Nonetheless, secular idealists are a minority among the foreign fighters, according to European counterterror officials. The octopus-like embrace of anti-Western, al Qaida-connected networks in Europe and the Muslim world— sometimes led by the same chiefs as in past conflicts — has shifted to Syria. Many foreign recruits join al-Nusrah or the Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaida allies that field some of the toughest fighters. These Sunni Islamist groups clash with other rebel factions and argue among themselves about whether to widen their jihad beyond the borders of Syria, according to counterterror officials.
“There is a risk, and how,” said Stefano Dambruoso, an Italian parliamentary deputy who is a former top anti-terror prosecutor. “In a situation that is out of control like the one in Syria, it is really very dangerous. Italy supported maintaining the embargo because really we don’t know who we are dealing with. The rebels are still not clearly identifiable.”
Dambruoso knows the treacherous turf. Based in Milan in the early 2000s, he led prosecutions of al Qaida operatives involved in plots in Europe and linked to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, a legendary anti-Taliban commander in Afghanistan, just two days before the 9/11 attacks on New York.
Several cases in Italy involved the Tunisian Combatant Group, part of al Qaida’s terrorist coalition. Some Italian cells sent recruits via Syria to join the insurgency in Iraq. Key operatives were arrested by Italian police and then deported to prisons in Tunisia, sometimes after serving time in Italy.
After the Tunisian revolution ended in 2011, however, a new government in Tunis released convicted terrorists and allowed them to create a radical Islamic party, Ansar al Sharia. It is led by Seifallah Ben Hassine, who is a founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group and a former ally of Osama bin Laden, according to European and UN counterterror officials and documents. His party has been recruiting and deploying holy warriors to the Syrian front from camps in the south of Tunisia, according to European investigators.
Tunisians account for 16 percent of foreign fighters in Syria, the second-largest group there, according to the data sample in the Convoy of Martyrs Study.
“This is one of our top concerns,” said Galzerano, the Italian police commander. “They are sending a lot of Tunisians to Syria. Everyone is welcomed by the rebels, including those who have little skills or experience.”
Syria holds another attraction for aspiring holy warriors: It serves as a refuge from law enforcement. Some Europeans in Syria are seen as active threats to their homelands. An illustrative case began last September when someone threw a hand grenade at a kosher grocery store in a suburb north of Paris, wounding one person. Traces of DNA on the grenade led French investigators to a known Islamic radical and revealed a dangerous network operating in three cities.
When a police tactical team raided the Strasbourg apartment of the suspected leader, a Muslim convert of French-Caribbean descent, he opened fire and died in the ensuing shootout, authorities said. Police made a dozen arrests and discovered a garaged stockpile of explosives, including pressure-cooker bombs like those used in the Boston Marathon attack.
“We learned they were planning a campaign of attacks, including car bombs,” said the senior French counterterror official. “They wanted to launch the attacks, then flee to Syria and fight there. Three of them were able to escape to Syria.”
The three suspects who fled the French manhunt joined the al-Nusrah front. One has been badly wounded in combat against the Syrian military, according to the French counterterror official.
Western investigators track the communications and travels of foreign fighters because of their proven capacity for violence and potential contact with al Qaida and its affiliates, who hate the West as much as they hate Assad, investigators say.
“We hear threatening rhetoric in the intercepts,” a European police commander said.
The presence of a minority of hardcore Islamic terrorists in the insurgency poses a conundrum when it comes to Western intervention. One school of thought urges restraint in order to avoid creating a monster comparable to the U.S.-backed Islamists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and then morphed into al Qaida. Others, in contrast, believe the West could influence the Syrian rebel movement by doing more.
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