7-16-14 – Syria’s “International Brigades” Could Sow Domestic Terror

By John J. Metzler

New York—A 22 year old Florida man sets off a suicide bomb in Syria.  Seven Dutch jihadis are killed in combat with Syrian army units.  A Frenchman, just returned from Syria, kills four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels.

Those are some of the shocking stories which emerge from the civil war in Syria which has now spilled over into Iraq, as radicalized Muslim extremists leave the USA, Britain, and Europe to pursue a religious and ideologically driven jihad in the cauldron of the Middle East.  The ranks of these foreign fighters have grown to at least 7,000 according to U.S. intelligence officials.  

Many of these fighters have been inspired and loosely linked by social media as well as many radical mosques, especially in Britain and France. 

At issue is not simply that these volunteers are fighting abroad under dubious circumstances, but more troublesome, upon their return from Syria, will many of them become ticking time bombs throughout  American and European cities?  We are not talking simply about political radicalization, but specific military and terror skill sets which can lie dormant or possibly be triggered by events or by design. 

Britain’s MI 6 security agency says that as many as 300 of these foreign fighters may have already returned to the United Kingdom from Middle East warzones. 

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Syrian conflict had “turned into a cradle of violent extremism,” that could threaten Western countries when fighters return home. 

Responding to the growing threat the French government has proposed six-month travel bans on certain individuals going to Syria.  It’s estimated that two or three French citizens leave daily to join radical Islamist groups overseas. 

Even Al-Qaida terrorists have been wary of the hyper-radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a signature movement of choice for many of the radicals. 

Besides the ideological and religious magnetism of fighting in the Middle East, the practical transport access is not too complicated.  Most militants fly to Turkey along with a huge tourist surge.  The Turkish Islamic/lite government in the meantime has played fast and loose with allowing all sorts and stripes of rebels and dissidents slip over its porous border with Syria.  Among  the “moderate” rebel groups staging from Turkey, there’s also a pipeline for the fanatics.  

But here’s the real problem.  Contrary to many hardline jihadis from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen, these militants don’t carry “red flagged” passports but rather hold American, Belgian, British, French or German passports.  Easy unhindered access inside the 28-member European Union is guaranteed by the Schengen Agreements allowing for free movement among member states.  So once such a citizen re-enters the European Union, he is then free to move and mingle throughout the region without any passport controls, except for the United Kingdom. 

Equally a EU passport holder from France, Belgium or Germany has visa free access to the USA.   While the free movement is a boom for trade, tourism and commerce among countries, it allows for the easier travel of many such foreign fighters.

EU Interior Ministries are keenly aware of this unlocked back door.  Equally U.S. Homeland security is ramping up surveillance of many European origin flights to the USA in light of this reality. 

Evoking the “International Brigades” of the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939), these foreign fighters are driven by ideological zeal, to fight for the “cause.”   The American “Lincoln Brigade” was composed largely of leftists and communists.  A similar political strand was true with many of the British, French and German communists who fought in Spain.   The International Brigades were powered by an  commitment to “fight fascism,” supporting the Spanish Republic against General Franco’s  insurgent nationalists, who were  backed by fascist Germany and Italy. 

Syria’s International Brigades are significantly different in many ways; these are hardened religious zealots, many of them converted to Islam, whose “cause” is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East.  Syria’s secular regime is supported by Russia.  The cause here is both the cult of violence and to spread radical Islam. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human rights, over 170,000 people have been killed in the conflict thus far. Of 45,000 rebels killed, 15,000 are foreign, mostly Arab fighters, but many indeed are Western.

Lamentably, the unintended consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, coupled with the Obama Administration’s strategic ineptitude, are starkly obvious from Libya to the Levant and into Iraq.  

The black flag of jihad now flies over parts of Syria and Iraq.  When shall some of its foreign zealots return home?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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