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Extremism

German fighters in Syria raise red flags at home

Germans are fighting alongside Syrian rebels against their common enemy, Bashar al-Assad. Security officials in Germany worry that the fighters will return as terrorists. But can they accurately be termed "jihadis"?

Both of the young, bearded men spoke excellent German. Kurt Pelda met the two in the rubble of the town of Azaz in northern Syria. The men told the Swiss war reporter that they had come from Germany on a "humanitarian" mission. It's a euphemism used by many foreign jihadists present in Syria.

"Of course," Pelda said, "they don't say that they're fighting."

Over the last few months, Pelda has visited Syria on multiple occasions. Time and again he runs into foreign fighters - about two dozen or so, he says.

Often it's merely a suspicion, since most of the militants prefer not to speak of their background. The two Germans, too, preferred to remain undercover, giving neither their names nor the cities from which they originated. Fears of future problems with German security officials upon their return are clearly too high.

Hans-Peter Friedrich stands before a podium and speaks into a microphone
(Photo: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa)

Friedrich worries about a terror attack on German soil and wants returning fighters to be monitored

And in fact, both Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, which deals in foreign intelligence, and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which deals in domestic intelligence, have their eyes on German jihadists in Syria. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich believes that roughly 40 Germans - and up to 700 Europeans generally - are now fighting on the side of the Syrian opposition.

"These people," Friedrich said, "will become further radicalized there. They'll be trained - explosives, car bombs, everything."

Furthermore, Friedrich sees a large risk that those same individuals will later use their training to carry out attacks in Germany. "That's of great concern to us," he said. As a result, he would like to see the German government carefully monitor the trips abroad made by members of extremist organizations.

"There've been attempts to detain these people," said Guido Steinberg, an expert on terrorism at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). But German security officials cannot ultimately prevent the trip abroad, he told DW. Instead, potential travelers head first to Turkey in order to then travel onward to neighboring countries. From there, and with the help of Syrian opposition members, they can cross the border into Syria without much trouble.

Hatred for Assad

Anger at massacres carried out by the Assad regime's forces is what is driving foreign fighters toward Syria. Generally, those fighters have Arabic or Kurdish roots. The Internet plays an important role in recruitment. There, uncountable numbers of videos, replete with dramatic soundtracks, show the bodies of dead children and women. Directly thereafter comes a demand to join the war against Assad.

A bearded man in battle dress uniform points with his free hand into the destroyed rubble of a stone mosque while holding an AK-47 rifle in the other
(Photo:DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images)

In Aleppo, Syrian rebels now control more than half of the city

"They want to help out their fellow Sunni brethren," Aaron Y. Zelin, a security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told DW. "They feel as though Arab governments and western governments have shirked their responsibilities."

The spiritual element of that calling, Guido Steinberg says, is a well-known phenomenon. "Wherever Muslims are in a military emergency, other Muslims feel called upon to come their assistance. That was already the case in Afghanistan, and was also the case in Iraq."

Yet not all of these fighters are jihadists, the expert says. Some join forces with the moderate and oppositional Free Syrian Army, others with the al Qaeda-oriented al-Nusra Front.

But even those who do join the al-Nusra Front are not necessarily extreme Islamists, Steinberg stresses. More than anything, many of the fighters are attracted by the group's military power.

Turning radical

(Photo: DW/S. Amri)

Guido Steinberg sees a huge risk in allowing trained jihadists to remain unmonitored in Germany

In the law few months, the al-Nusra Front, in particular, has been gaining influence in Syria. Many opposition units are now choosing to fight for that group.

"Many of the fighters weren't originally jihadist at all, but ended up being convinced [to join al-Nusra], since the Nusra Front is well organized and has good logistics, and is well financed," Steinberg said. "They've managed to more or less raise themselves to the top of the resistance movement."

War reporter Kurt Pelda also speaks of the "Islamization" of the conflict.

"At the beginning it was about democracy and freedom," he said. "Back then you still used to see the green, white and black independence flag of Syria all the time. Today, you see the black al Qaeda flag more than anything else."

The rebels' first priority continues to be the fall of Assad, in Pelda's view. And, at least for now, no general "anti-western" jihad is being waged. Still, risks remain.

"Over time, they'll get brainwashed there," he said. "If they really do get indoctrinated, they'll become a threat to their home countries later." Other conflict regions, he believes, have proven that to be the case.

For terrorism expert Steinberg, even a small group of indoctrinated terrorists constitutes a significant threat to Germany. "Even if it's just three or four war-tested and well-trained fighters who come back, that can present an enormous danger."

'We need weapons'

In terms of the resistance itself, fighters from Germany and other European countries largely play a symbolic role. Most have little military experience upon their arrival. For the true Syrian rebels, the foreign fighters are little more than "grunts" or cannon fodder.

The burnt and twisted shell of a black automobile is observed by a dozen Syrians in the daylight, one of whom is photographing the scene
(Photo: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

In late April, 2013, rebels attacked Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi's convoy with a car bomb

Far more useful are fighters with experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or Libya. Indisputably, these comprise the largest group of foreign fighters in Syria. The al-Nusra Front, for example, now uses terror tactics that were clearly inherited from Iraqi compatriots. Overall, says security expert Aaron Y. Zelin, between five and 10 percent of the opposition fighters are foreign.

Even President Bashar al-Assad utilizes foreign forces. Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group supports the Assad regime, while, at least anecdotally, more and more Iranian militants appear to be filling the ranks of Assad's troops.

For the opposition Free Syrian Army, a different sort of help is desired from abroad.

"We don't need jihadists or other foreign fighters. We have enough men, ourselves," said their speaker, Malik al-Kurdi. "What we need are weapons."

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