Syria’s Jihadi Migration Emerges as Top Terror Threat in Europe, Beyond
by Sebastian Rotella
ProPublica, July 24, 2013, 12:56 p.m.
The suicide bombing at al-Nairab military base in northern Syria on June 1,
2012, as seen in a propaganda video by al-Nusrah, al-Qaida's Syrian branch.
MADRID — Rachid Wahbi came to Syria from a Spanish slum, rushing toward
And he didn’t plan to die alone.
Facing a camera hours before the end, the bearded, 33-year-old cabdriver
wore a black headdress and a black flak vest and held an AK-47 rifle. He
spoke in hesitant classical Arabic with a north Moroccan accent. He said he
had studied his target and, God willing, his action would end in triumph. He
wished the glory of martyrdom for his fellow fighters in the al-Nusrah
Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch.
When the cameraman asked about his mother, the Spaniard became emotional.
“I want to thank my mother because she inspired me,” Wahbi said, according
to a translation by the Spanish national police. “Mother, you must be happy
because God will reward you.”
The al-Nusrah propaganda video shows Wahbi disguised in the helmet and
uniform of a Syrian soldier as he hugs a comrade and climbs into a truck
packed with explosives. The truck bears down on an army outpost. An
explosion thunders. A column of smoke, seen from multiple camera angles,
climbs toward the sky.
Wahbi killed 130 people in that suicide bombing on the al-Nairab military
base in northern Syria on June 1 of last year, according to Spanish
authorities. And the numbers get grimmer.
Five holy warriors from Spain have died in Syria, three in bombings that
killed another 100 people, police say. Last month, Spanish police stormed
the hillside ghetto where Wahbi lived in Ceuta, a Spanish territory in North
Africa, and arrested a ring of extremists who are charged with sending as
many as 50 fighters to Syria. Indicating a threat much closer to home, the
accused leader had previously been acquitted of plotting attacks on targets
in Spain with a group linked to al-Qaida and a former Guantanamo inmate.
“The global jihad has prioritized the Syrian conflict as its principal
front,” said a top Spanish intelligence official who requested anonymity
because of the continuing investigation. “And it has directed its
subsidiaries to move combatants to the zone. What worries us is that this
experience could serve as preparation, as training to return to European
countries and carry out attacks at home.”
Hundreds of Europeans and thousands of other Sunni Muslim foreign fighters
have made Syria the new land of jihad. The migration complicates an already
delicate calculus in Washington and in European capitals that are aiding the
fractious rebel coalition in Syria. European security chiefs see the flow of
extremists to and from Syria as their top terrorist threat. It also raises
concerns that European militants radicalized by or returning from the Syrian
conflict could strike U.S. targets overseas or travel across the Atlantic.
“Imagine this: Between 2001 and 2010, we identified 50 jihadists who went
from France to Afghanistan,” said a senior French counterterror official who
also requested anonymity. “Surely there were more, but we identified 50.
With Syria, in one year, we have already identified 135. It has been very
fast and strong.”
The statistics are even stronger in adjoining Belgium, one-sixth the size of
France. Between 100 and 300 jihadis have journeyed from Belgium’s extremist
enclaves to Syria, according to a veteran Belgian counterterror official.
Other significant fighting contingents represent Britain, Denmark, the
Netherlands, Canada, Central Asia, Libya, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. The
senior French official estimated the total number of Europeans to be at
least 400. Others say it could be double that, but counterterror officials
warn that precise numbers are difficult to establish.
The foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria “is one of the things that most
worries a number of European government agencies,” Italian Defense Minister
Mario Mauro said in an interview. “But this is also within the reactive
capacity of a system built by democracies, therefore based not on preventive
arrests but on monitoring and intelligence activity to prevent situations
like this from degenerating.”
The total number of the rebel forces – Syrians and foreigners, full-time and
occasional fighters – is thought to be in the tens of thousands. Estimates
range from above 60,000 to below 100,000, based on interviews with U.S. and
European officials and experts.
A recent private report examines the role of Sunni foreign fighters who have
converged from across the Muslim world to battle the regime of Bashir Assad
and his powerful Shiite allies, Hezbollah and Iran. Foreign fighters account
for up to 10 percent of the rebels in the data sample examined by the study,
which relies on sources including online obituaries of militants and social
networks and is titled “Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant.”
Released last month by Flashpoint Partners, a New York security contracting
firm, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that
tends to align with Israeli views, the report compares the conflict to
previous arenas that attracted extremists: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq,
“At the very least, the current war in Syria can be considered the
third-largest foreign mujahideen mobilization since the early 1980s —
falling short only of Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iraq during the last
decade,” the study concludes. “[T]he mobilization has been stunningly rapid
— what took six years to build in Iraq at the height of the U.S. occupation
may have accumulated inside Syria in less than half that time.”
Syria is familiar turf that once served as a hub for militants en route to
fight in Iraq. It is closer and more accessible to Europe than other jihadi
destinations: Militants travel by air or land to Turkey, where smugglers
sneak them across the border. There is little interference by authorities in
Turkey, a major sponsor of the Syrian rebels.
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
European police fear that well-trained, battle-hardened veterans will return
from Syria and, on their own or acting on orders from terrorist bosses,
decide to continue the war. Western leaders say they are taking pains to
prevent stepped-up aid to the Syrian opposition from reinforcing the
extremists. When the European Union ended an arms embargo to the rebels in
May, reluctance about that decision resulted partly from concerns that the
weapons would end up in the wrong hands.
“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
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
Tunisians account for 16 percent of foreign fighters in Syria, the
second-largest group there, according to the data sample in the Convoy of
“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
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
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.
A former CIA counterterror chief leans in the latter direction. Author
Charles (Sam) Faddis served in South Asia and the Middle East, where he led
clandestine CIA operations in Iraq that preceded the U.S. invasion in 2003.
He communicates periodically with leaders of the Free Syrian Army and thinks
the Western support is “too little, too late.”
“I’m the first guy who parts company with the neo-cons (neo-conservative
Republicans in Washington) who think we should get involved everywhere,”
Faddis said. “I’m against putting American troops in there, and I’m against
a no-fly zone. But our approach has been short-sighted.”
There is a real threat of a blowback against the West even from a relatively
small number of trained, combat-hardened veterans of the conflict, Faddis
said. But he criticizes the Obama administration for not having moved
quickly to provide arms and intelligence to the Free Syrian Army.
“You were going to have extremists flocking in there anyway,” he said. “Now
you’ve increased their influence. Their power has been enhanced by our not
getting involved in a more significant way. We need to get on the ground,
map the terrain, figure out who we can work with.”
Last month, President Obama authorized providing small arms and training to
Syrian rebels to augment nonlethal aid that they already receive. The U.S.
government is working hard to support the pro-democracy forces and thwart
al-Nusrah, which the U.S. designated as a terrorist group last year, and
other extremist groups, State Department officials say.
“We remain deeply concerned by the violent extremism there,” said a State
Department official who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to
speak publicly. “We distinguish between those in the opposition seeking a
moderate, democratic Syria and those who are trying to hijack it. We make
clear with the armed opposition leaders who don’t espouse these [extremist]
ideals the importance of isolating the extremists, so it doesn’t take root
in the future Syria they are trying to fight for.”
The U.S. has committed $250 million in nonlethal assistance to the rebels
and $815 million in humanitarian aid to those affected by the conflict,
according to a State Department fact sheet. In areas of Syria under rebel
control, the U.S. attempts to shore up the democratic opposition by helping
local governments deliver security and other essential services, providing
material such as trucks, communications equipment and computers. U.S.
officials put the recipients through a vetting process intended to prevent
aid from going to the extremists, the State Department official said.
“It’s important that the vetting is in place precisely because there are
groups like al-Nusrah trying to intercept things,” the official said.
“Sometimes there’s a delay as a result.”
In Europe, authorities have a hard time identifying and prosecuting
suspected jihadis for terrorist activity when they return from Syria. Some
known extremists insist they fought in the Free Syrian Army, which they
indignantly point out has the backing of President Obama, French President
François Hollande and others. Judges are more skeptical of the prosecutions
than they were with defendants returning from Afghanistan or Iraq,
counterterror officials say.
Courts in Europe often struggle to find enough evidence to lock up Islamic
extremists if their alleged crimes center on ideological activity or combat
in foreign countries.
Raphael Gendron is an example. In late 2008, Italian police arrested
Gendron, a Frenchman residing in Belgium, and Bassam Ayachi, a
Syrian-Belgian imam, in a camping vehicle coming off a ferry from Greece in
Bari, a city at the heel of the Italian boot. Police discovered five illegal
immigrants and a trove of jihadi propaganda in the vehicle.
In 2006, Gendron had been convicted of a charge of inciting hate and
violence against Jews with Internet propaganda in Belgium. Ayachi had
performed the marriage in Brussels of the Tunisian suicide bomber who later
killed Massoud in Afghanistan, investigators say. Both had longtime ties to
networks that had been implicated in terror plots and had sent jihadis to
Bosnia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, according to investigators and
Italian court documents.
An Italian court convicted the duo of acting as recruiters and operatives
for al Qaida, but an appellate panel freed them last year. Soon Gendron went
to Syria to join a rebel battalion commanded by Ayachi’s son, a veteran of
the Belgian military, according to Belgian investigators. In April, the
37-year-old Gendron died in combat near Homs, Syria.
Most suspects in past al Qaida-related terrorist plots against the West
traveled first to jihadi combat theaters, and many were European or spent
time in Europe. The combat zones and training venues of Pakistan and
Afghanistan generated a stream of militants intent on striking the West —
from the Sept. 11 hijackers to the failed Times Square bomber in 2010.
Fears of massive blowback against Western nations from Iraq did not
materialize, however. The Iraqi conflict certainly played a role in
radicalization. But some European jihadis who returned from Iraq told
investigators that, despite their eagerness to fight in a war zone, they
would not commit violence against civilians at home.
The background of foreign volunteers determines the reception they get from
Syrian extremist groups, investigators say.
“We see a little of everything in the profile of the recruits,” the top
Spanish intelligence official said. “There are people who are clearly with
al Qaida, or are associates of its subsidiaries. Then there are people who
have no connection with anything. Solitary actors inspired to go to there
Militants with useful skills, such as medical professionals or computer
experts, are kept out of combat and given support roles. Men with military
experience deploy in front-line units.
Those with little to offer quickly become human bombs.
Rachid Wahbi, a 33-year-old cab driver from Spain, who appeared in a
propaganda video before killing 130 people in a suicide bombing on the
al-Nairab military base in northern Syrian on June 1, 2012, according to
Rachid Wahbi, a 33-year-old cab driver from Spain, who appeared in a
propaganda video before killing 130 people in a suicide bombing on the
al-Nairab military base in northern Syrian on June 1, 2012, according to
Wahbi, the Spanish suicide attacker, died soon after his arrival in Syria.
He had no criminal record. Also known as Rachid Mohamed, he had supported
his wife and children driving a white Mercedes taxi in Ceuta, one of two
Spanish cities on the Moroccan coast. His predominantly Muslim neighborhood,
known as El Principe, resembles a Brazilian favela or a North African
casbah: The slum sprawls over a canyon near the Moroccan border and serves
as a fortress for organized crime and Islamic extremism.
In 2006, 300 Spanish police officers raided El Principe, a show of force
planned for the rough topography and hostility to law enforcement. Police
rounded up 11 suspects accused of belonging to an al Qaida-linked group that
allegedly plotted to attack a military base and a fairground in Ceuta and
discussed joining the jihad in Iraq or Afghanistan. The suspects included an
accused ideologue known as “Marquitos” and two brothers of a Spaniard once
imprisoned in the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
However, the prosecution ran into problems with turning intelligence into
evidence and presenting the testimony of two protected witnesses. The trial
ended last year in acquittals. There were cries in the media and Muslim
community that innocent men had been railroaded.
Spanish prosecutors now have filed an indictment alleging that the accused
ideologue never relinquished his command role in Ceuta’s Islamic underworld.
After war broke out in Syria in 2011, Marquitos allegedly recruited men from
Ceuta and neighboring Morocco to join the new jihad, according to Spanish
The taxi driver and two friends were among the first recruits. They departed
in April of last year, flying via Malaga and Madrid to Istanbul, where
smugglers helped them enter Syria and join al-Nusrah.
“They were in Syria very few days,” Wahbi’s widow, Sanaa, told El País
newspaper last year. “Maybe not even a week. During the trip, which lasted a
month and a half, he communicated with us by Messenger (internet chat). They
were in Turkey quite a while because it seems they couldn’t reach Damascus.
When they arrived in Syria he called us, but he didn’t give us details of
what he was doing.”
Wahbi’s attack stands out as one of the war’s deadliest. Police say the ring
in Ceuta sent at least 20 and up to 50 recruits along the same route or via
Morocco. The sophisticated operation paid for travel and provided funds to
widows and children of fallen fighters. Police are still trying to determine
if the financing came from the criminal activity such as the drug trade,
according to Spanish intelligence officials.
On June 21, authorities launched another raid on El Principe. Four hundred
officers of the police and Guardia Civil participated, backed by a
helicopter hovering over the densely populated canyon. Police once again
arrested Marquitos, now 39, and seven accused accomplices. They are awaiting
Police believe the clandestine flow to Syria continues from European hotbeds
“There are two categories,” said a Spanish intelligence official who
requested anonymity because of the continuing investigation. “Those who go
intending to die quickly in a suicide attack. And there are those who want
to participate in an act of jihad, taking a great risk because they are
going to acquire contacts, training and experience. They want to fight,
survive and return. Those are the ones who worry us the most.”
(F)AIR USE NOTICE: All original content and/or articles and graphics in this
message are copyrighted, unless specifically noted otherwise. All rights to
these copyrighted items are reserved. Articles and graphics have been placed
within for educational and discussion purposes only, in compliance with
"Fair Use" criteria established in Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976.
The principle of "Fair Use" was established as law by Section 107 of The
Copyright Act of 1976. "Fair Use" legally eliminates the need to obtain
permission or pay royalties for the use of previously copyrighted materials
if the purposes of display include "criticism, comment, news reporting,
teaching, scholarship, and research." Section 107 establishes four criteria
for determining whether the use of a work in any particular case qualifies
as a "fair use". A work used does not necessarily have to satisfy all four
criteria to qualify as an instance of "fair use". Rather, "fair use" is
determined by the overall extent to which the cited work does or does not
substantially satisfy the criteria in their totality. If you wish to use
copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you
must obtain permission from the copyright owner. For more information go to:
THIS DOCUMENT MAY CONTAIN COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. COPYING AND DISSEMINATION IS
PROHIBITED WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE COPYRIGHT OWNERS.