During a recent visit to Israel, I found military officers focused intently on Syria — where, they said, there are now about 5,000 jihadis. These are not Muslim Brotherhood types, but fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra (listed by the United States last December as an international terrorist organization) and other Sunni jihadi groups linked to al-Qaeda.
The key concern, the Israelis said, is where the jihadis go after Assad falls. Do they stay on in Syria to fight any Alawite militias that may appear? Do they go west to Lebanon, to fight the Shiite group Hezbollah? South to try to cross into the Golan, and fight the Israeli army? Or east into Iraq, to fight as Sunnis against the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Maliki — which the Israelis saw as perhaps the most likely outcome?
But there is another possible outcome: that the jihadis go to Europe to commit acts of violence and terror there. Why would hundreds of them possibly go to Europe? Because they came from Europe.
The facts are pretty clear: There are hundreds and hundreds of European Muslims now fighting in Syria. When I met recently in Washington with the top civil servant in one of Europe’s foreign ministries, this was his greatest fear: What will they do when they come “home,” their fighting skills now honed through months of combat alongside other jihadis from Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other countries?
A recent Gatestone Institute paper by Soeren Kern gives some numbers. The U.K. government thinks there are about 100 British Muslim fighters in Syria. Kern notes a recent speech by British foreign secretary William Hague on the danger:
Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today. This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives.
The French believe there are dozens of French Muslim jihadis in Syria. Kern quotes Dutch public broadcasting reporting that “the Netherlands has become one of the major European suppliers of Islamic jihadists” and about 100 Dutch Muslims are fighting in Syria. The Belgians think there are at least 70 Belgian Muslims there, and a Belgian newspaper called the country the top supplier of youth going to Syria for jihad.
There is a growing recognition in Europe of the danger around the corner. Already two Danish Muslims have been killed as part of the rebel forces in Syria, and the March 25 edition of a leading Danish newspaper carried a story headlined “Youthful gang members are going to war in the name of Islam.” The story continued:
According to the Danish Secret Services . . . several members of the most violent gangs of immigrants in Copenhagen are currently in Syria where they have gone in order to participate in jihad. This may turn hardened criminals into hardline fundamentalists. “This is a new trend. These people are already potentially dangerous and when they return home, they have access to arms and explosives. It is very worrisome to see these types of ties forming between Islam and criminals,” says the head of the Danish Secret Services.
There were very few foreign fighters in Syria when the rebellion began two years ago, so the growth of the jihadi groups is one of the costs of the long, slow war and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Sunni civilians by Assad’s forces. Because the jihadi groups continue to grow day by day, bringing the war to a close and getting Assad out is an important goal. But the genie is out of the bottle, at least for many European countries. Hundreds of trained jihadis will now be returning “home” — to European countries in which they hold citizenship and whose languages they speak. I can see why the Israelis worry where the jihadis will turn once Assad is gone, but at least Israel has a border with Syria it can keep closed and fight to protect. The counter-terror forces in Europe will not be able to prevent these jihadis from crossing Europe’s borders, for they all hold passports. Trouble ahead.