More than 1,000 Muslims from across Europe are currently active as Islamic jihadists, or holy warriors, in Syria, which has replaced Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia as the main destination for militant Islamists seeking to obtain immediate combat experience with little or no official scrutiny.
As the number of European jihadists in Syria grows, European officials are beginning to express concerns about the threat these "enemies within" will pose when they return to Europe.
In Britain, for example, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently said, "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."
British authorities believe that more than 100 British Muslims have gone to fight in Syria in the hope of overthrowing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replacing it with an Islamic state.
Many of the British Muslims in Syria have joined extremist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the most dangerous and effective Sunni jihadist group fighting against the Assad regime. Jabhat al-Nusra, linked to al-Qaeda, was declared a terrorist organization by the United States in December 2012. Due to a steady flow of money and arms from backers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni Muslim countries, the group has grown in size and influence.
According to the British newspaper The Independent, most of the British Muslims participating in the fight against Assad "are not deemed to be doing anything illegal" and are thus able to reenter Britain without any problems. The paper reports that only a small number of those who have returned to Britain from the fighting in Syria have been arrested, but all for one specific offense: their alleged role in the July 2012 kidnapping of a British freelance photographer, John Cantlie, after he crossed into Syria.
Cantlie, along with Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans, was abducted by a group of British jihadists near the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Both men were later rescued by "moderate" fighters linked to the Free Syrian Army.
After his release from captivity, Cantlie expressed astonishment at the number of "disenchanted young Britons" fighting in Syria. In an account of his experience published in The Sunday Times on August 5, 2012 (site operates behind a pay wall), Cantlie wrote: "I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists -- young men with south London accents -- shot to kill. They were aiming their Kalashnikovs at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner in a rocky landscape that looked like the Scottish Highlands. Bullets kicking up dirt as I ran. A bullet through my arm, another grazing my ear. And not a Syrian in sight. This wasn't what I had expected."
Cantlie quoted one man, who claimed to be a former supermarket worker in Britain, as threatening him: "You are spies. You work for MI5 [British domestic security agency], you work for MI6 [British foreign intelligence agency]. Prepare for the afterlife. Are you ready to meet Allah?"
Oerlemans has described a similar experience in Syria. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblat he said: "The jihadists had genuine British accents, from Birmingham, Liverpool. A British Pakistani told how he had grown up with British playmates. He tried so hard to be British."
In France, the daily newspaper Le Figaro reported on March 13, 2013 that "at least 50" and "as many as 80" French citizens are fighting with jihadist groups in Syria. The number is far higher than the "handful" claimed by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls to be operating alongside Islamists in Mali, or the estimated number of Frenchmen who went to Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan to wage jihad.
Leading French anti-terrorism Judge Marc Trévidic told Le Figaro that the presence of so many French jihadists in Syria presents French authorities with an uncomfortable paradox. Because France officially supports the effort to overthrow the Assad regime -- France was the first Western country to recognize Syria's rebel council as the country's legitimate interlocutors -- it is difficult for the French government now to come out and say that it does not support those who are fighting the war.
Trévidic said Syria was a natural destination for French jihadists. There are no visa requirements for French citizens to enter neighboring Turkey, where it is easy to find Syrian contacts and then cross a porous border. He also said that trained and experienced jihadists, once back in France, could become a dangerous problem for the authorities.
"No one," Trévidic said "is trying to stop them going into Syria;" he then referred to their fight as an "authorized jihad." He added: "It is particularly complicated to qualify their adventures in Syria as acts of terrorism. But let's not be fooled. A good proportion of them are going there in the hope of helping to establish a radical Islamic state. The actual terrorism will begin just as soon as the Assad regime is defeated."
The interview with Trévidic came just two days after French police arrested three suspected Islamists in the town of Marignane, near Marseille. Police found weapons and explosives at the home of one of the suspects, all French citizens between the ages of 18 and 27.
Paris prosecutor François Molins said on March 11 that the three men may have been planning an attack to commemorate the first anniversary of the shooting rampage in the southern city of Toulouse by Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French Islamic jihadist of Algerian origin who killed three French paratroopers, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi with close-range shots to the head.
"The investigation before their arrest," Molins said, "showed that they were training for making improvised explosive devices based on a jihadist radicalization, a glorification of Mohamed Merah, and an affirmed desire to go into action."
Molins added, "The investigation showed we were faced with a veritable laboratory for making improvised explosive devices." During the search of the home of one of the detainees, police found two pistols, a revolver, 50 grams of acetone peroxide (TATP, a powerful explosive), 150 kilograms of nitrate, and two liters of acetone, which Molins said would have enabled the production of 600 grams of TATP.
The tremendous devastative force of TATP, which is relatively easy to make but difficult to detect, has made it a weapon of choice for Islamic terrorists, who often refer to it as "The Mother of Satan." Molins said the mixture of acetone with 150 kilos of nitrate "could have caused considerable damage for a radius of several hundred meters."
Interior Minister Manuel Valls said the arrests in Marignane shows that France "faces an enemy from within which is the fruit of a process of radicalization."
In nearby Holland, the Dutch public broadcasting system, NOS television , reported on March 12 that the Netherlands has become one of the major European suppliers of Islamic jihadists. According to NOS, about 100 Dutch Muslims are presently active as jihadists in Syria; most have joined the notorious Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group.
As in other European countries, Dutch counter-terrorism experts are worried that Dutch jihadists will bring their war-fighting skills back to the Netherlands.
On March 13, the Dutch government raised its alert level for terrorist attacks from "limited" to "substantial." In a statement, the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV), a government agency within the Security and Justice Ministry, said: "The chance of an attack in the Netherlands or against Dutch interests abroad has risen. Close to a hundred individuals have recently left the Netherlands for various countries in Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria." The agency said individuals fighting for radical Islam abroad could return and "inspire others in the Netherlands to follow in their footsteps."
The Dutch daily newspaper Trouw reported on March 16 that the Justice Ministry lacks measures at its disposal to prevent Dutch jihadists from embarking on their foreign adventures. The paper noted that Dutch courts have so far been unable to prosecute Dutch jihadists for travelling to foreign battlefields.
Trouw describes the trial in a Rotterdam court of three Dutch Kurds, arrested in November 2012 just before travelling to Syria to join jihadist fighters there. Prosecutors accused the three of "taking preparatory actions for the purpose of committing terrorist offenses." But the case is pending because it remains unclear which terrorist actions the three were planning to commit in Syria. Two of the three have been released from jail.
In neighboring Belgium, the daily newspaper De Standaard reported on March 11 that at least 70 members of the outlawed Sharia4Belgium, a Muslim group that wants to turn Belgium into an Islamic state, are actively fighting in Syria. The paper noted that that most of the Belgian jihadists are "young people, between the ages of 17 and 25, who grew up here. They are young people without qualifications and often with criminal records. They come from Antwerp, Brussels, Mechelen and Vilvoorde."
De Standaard reports that the Belgian security services are "particularly concerned about what will happen when the military-trained "drop-outs," after the war from Syria, return to our country." The paper adds that it has been difficult to prosecute jihadists in Belgian courts, as the uprising against Assad is "generally regarded as legitimate."
The newspaper pointed to a recent court case in the Belgian city of Mechelen, where 13 Muslim extremists were acquitted of having membership in a terrorist organization. The court said that although there was evidence that the jihadists travelled to Chechnya in Russia, there was no evidence that they fought there as members of a terrorist group.
In Denmark, the daily newspaper Politiken reported on March 3 that a 30-year-old Danish convert to Islam, Abdel Malik, had been killed in fighting near the Syrian city of Homs. The newspaper said that an Islamic Facebook page , created to protest a comedy show that pokes fun at Denmark's immigrant and Muslim community, has established a fund to help support Malik's family, which includes a wife who is also a convert to Islam, and four young children.
Malik's death came two weeks after another Danish citizen, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane was also killed while fighting with rebels in Syria. Abderrahmane, born to a Danish mother and an Algerian father, is known for the two years he spent in American custody at the Guantanamo military base after being captured in Afghanistan in 2001.
According to an article in US News & World Report, Abderrahmane was released in February 2004, despite reservations from American security officials, because the Danish government had threatened to withdraw its troops from Iraq if he were not released.
In 2007, while working as a mailman in Copenhagen, Abderrahmane was convicted of stealing two passports and three credit cards, and of withdrawing 110,000 kroner ($20,000). Abderrahmane refused to testify during the trial: he denied the legitimacy of the Danish court to try Muslims. He spent ten months in jail, but the stolen money was never recovered.
In an interview with the Politiken newspaper in September 2011, Abderrahmane said he was not afraid to die fighting for Islam. "Jihad means serving God and by doing so you achieve justice," he said.
According to Mehdi Mozaffari, a professor of Islam at Aarhus University, Abderrahmane is now being regarded as a martyr: "He has become a symbol, especially for young Muslims. You could say that he has become known as a sort of Muslim Che Guevara."
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported on March 1 that Abu Ahmed, the Imam of the Quba Amager mosque in southern Copenhagen, referred to Abderrahmane as a "real man" and said it was "heroic" to die in holy war in Syria.
The newspaper also said that Ahmed had joined forces with a Danish Salafist group, Hjælp4Syrien.dk , and that together the two are engaged in a propaganda campaign aimed at encouraging young Danish Muslims to take part in the jihad in Syria. Hjælp4Syrien.dk says Danish jihadists should support the war in Syria "financially, physically and verbally." On its Facebook page, the group shows an image of a young Muslim with a machine gun, who is apparently willing to die for Allah.
Meanwhile, European Muslims are celebrating so-called "Martyrs' Weddings" for jihadists killed in Syria. The Middle East Media Research Institute on March 4 published photographs of one such wedding, held in an undisclosed location in Europe -- presumably France -- to symbolize the deceased's wedding to the virgins of Paradise.
Jihadist movements are staging these weddings as a means of encouraging young men to join their ranks and adopt the ideology of jihad and martyrdom, based on the Islamic belief that every martyr is rewarded with 72 black-eyed virgin brides in Paradise.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.