COPENHAGEN, Denmark – A new wave of Europeans is heading to Syria, their ranks soaring in the past six months as tales of easy living and glorious martyrdom draw them to the rebellion against Bashar Assad.
The western Europe-based rebels, mostly young men, are being recruited by new networks that arrange travel and comfortable lodging in the heart of rebel territory, and foster a militant form of Islam that Western security officials fear will add to the terror threat when the fighters return home.
The 11 western European countries with the biggest contingents in Syria are estimated to have some 1,200-1,700 people among rebel forces, according to government and analyst figures compiled by The Associated Press. That compares to estimates of 600-800 from those countries in late spring.
The surge has occurred particularly in France, Germany, Belgium and Sweden. It reflects the increasing ease of travel to Syria’s front lines and enthusiastic sales pitches by the first wave of European volunteers.
A 21-year-old Dane became interested in Syria during a prison term in Denmark for assault and robbery, mainly through online rebel videos. He made two trips into Syria that totaled a little more than one month. He drove trucks carrying relief supplies and transported people, he said, but never fought. Nevertheless, he posted photographs online of himself with heavy weapons.
“It is my duty to travel down there. This is a Muslim cause,” said the young man, a Muslim convert who did not want to be identified for fear of pursuit by authorities.
On his third trip this year, he said, he was stopped at passport control in Istanbul and sent back to Denmark. No reason was given, but he believes his time with the opposition put him on the intelligence community’s radar. He described being questioned multiple times by Danish intelligence agents, including at the Copenhagen airport after returning from Syria for the first time.
“Right now, I cannot go to Syria,” he said. “I wanted to help with humanitarian work and fight.”
Recruitment drives targeting people like the Dane are growing in intensity. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, one of two main al-Qaida linked groups fighting in Syria, is producing a video featuring a battalion of British fighters “who will be talking to other British Muslims to try and motivate, inspire and recruit them,” said Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization. In France, authorities in recent weeks say they have dismantled two networks of former fighters who have returned from Syria to recruit.
Governments have reported no examples of ex-fighters from Syria creating trouble on their return. But France remains haunted by the case of Mohammed Merah, a French youth of Algerian descent who trained in Pakistan and returned to southern France to attack a Jewish school and kill seven people in 2012. The French government has since outlawed training in terrorism camps abroad.
The United States has also sounded the alarm about young Americans headed to Syria. But distance and expense have kept the numbers from the U.S. far lower: about 20 American citizens, according to the ICSR.
Despite their lack of battlefield experience, Europeans are a powerful propaganda tool for a rebel force that is trying to show that its appeal goes wider and deeper than the Middle East. The Europeans have the added potential of being able to raise money in places far wealthier than Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, where many of the other foreign rebels have their roots and fighting background.
Many, if not most, are from second-generation immigrant families from outside Europe with parents who describe themselves as secular and fully integrated. Others — like the Dane — are converts with no prior ties to Islam.
France has counted between 300 and 400 European rebel fighters in Syria; Germany has counted more than 220; Belgium puts its number at 150-200, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, citing recent figures that double previous estimates. Sweden is about to double its estimates to 150-200, according Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism specialist with the Swedish National Defense College. Britain’s total has stayed stable at less than 150, according to recent estimates from U.K. security officials. The Netherlands estimate, which officials said is rising rapidly, is 100-200, according to government and analyst figures. Denmark’s intelligence service estimates “at least 80” fighters from there — with similar numbers from Spain, Austria and Italy. Norway believes about 40 of its citizens have left for Syria in the past year.
“More Europeans have gone to Syria than have gone to all the other conflict zones put together,” including Iraq and Afghanistan, said Thomas Hegghammer, an analyst at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of this for the future of Islamic radicalism in Europe. They’re radicalizing and training a whole new generation of militants.”
Ranstorp agreed: “In the last two months, there has been an acceleration in the number of people going to Syria.”
The first Europeans to leave for Syria tended to do so haphazardly — catching a flight to Turkey, hopping a bus and hoping for the best. That’s how the 21-year-old Danish man first went, meandering into a refugee camp and stumbling upon people who told him where to go. Those men are returning home or contacting friends and acquaintances by Skype, Facebook, text message, YouTube, or word of mouth to encourage them to follow. They provide the travel arrangements, and say the life of a fighter in Syria is one of comfort punctuated by the adventure of war.
“I talk to fathers and mothers of young people who have left my city. It’s all well-organized. The air tickets are paid for,” said Hans Bonte, mayor of Vilvoorde, a city of 41,000 in Flemish-speaking Belgium that has seen at least 22 young people leave for Syria, including the most recent group in early November. Bonte, who is chief of security for his town as well as a federal lawmaker, speaks at length to each family and is in constant touch with both them and Belgium’s intelligence services.
Bonte said Belgians who are leaving are younger now — teenagers instead of men in their late 20s, and adolescent girls are beginning to appear among the lists of the missing. “It’s a process of following others (who) are trying to convince people to go over there. They are telling stories that it’s fun over there … they are living in a villa with a pool.”
One Vilvoorde mother, whose older son had already left for Syria, was sleeping on her front steps to keep her 15-year-old from slipping out to follow his brother, Bonte said. One night this fall, the boy pushed his mother aside — threatening to kill her if she stopped him from joining the fight in Syria — and stepped into a waiting car. She has heard from neither son since.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the Assad government is discussing the issue with Western officials “and there is cooperation,” although he did not name any countries.
And authorities have encountered teens trying to board airplanes, including some carrying large amounts of cash for the rebellion, said Martin Bernsen, a spokesman for the police security services. “Of course it is difficult to prove where the money goes,” Bernsen said, “so we are worried that it goes to terror-related activities.”
Hegghammer said Syria has worrisome parallels with Afghanistan of the 1980s, where a young Osama bin Laden was among thousands of Muslims to wage battle against Soviet forces. “The gross number of departures is so high that almost whatever the return rate is, you’re going to have substantial numbers of terrorists,” he said.
Recent comments from Andrew Parker, director general of British intelligence agency MI5, underscore those concerns.
“A growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have traveled to fight there or who aspire to do so,” Parker said in a recent speech.
Maher, who is in regular contact with a contingent of Britons in Syria, said their cheery photos of fighters living bachelor-pad style in comfortable houses, with all the food they can eat and all the weaponry they could hope for, will continue draw ever larger numbers.
“They send pictures of sweets — of candy — and of pop. You can get all this out there. It’s not a life full of privation,” Maher said. “You get this comfortable life in Syria with the option, the possibility to die a martyr.”