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Eastern Europe

Steinberg: 'It's easy to travel to Syria'

More and more young Islamists from Europe are going to Syria to take part in the war. Now many Albanians are also joining them. DW talks to analyst Guido Steinberg about recruitment from Europe.

DW: Just a few days ago security forces in Albania arrested eight people who have allegedly been recruiting fighters for Syria. There were two imams among them. The enlisted fighters first flew to Turkey and travelled from there to Syria. Is this the usual path they take?

Guido Steinberg: The departure from Albania to Syria via Turkey is not a big surprise. There is a huge influx of European fighters from various countries: Germany, Britain, France, but also from Bosnia, Kosovo, Austria, and Belgium. The recruits travel to certain cities in Turkey, where they find contact people without any trouble who bring them across the border to Syria. The newcomers get training and then they are allocated to different groups according to the recruits' wishes. We've known about this phenomenon for two years now.

Do they receive their training in Turkey or Syria?

In Syria. Turkey is more a deployment and retreat zone. The biggest problem is that Turkey has tolerated these activities for years. For the past few months Turkey has been trying to restrict the scope of the worst groups, but all in all, Turkey is part of the problem, not the solution.

This recruitment is relatively new for Albania. Up till now we only knew of Balkan recruits coming from Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Are the Balkans especially receptive to extremist ideologies?

It is not a surprise that the Balkans are a focus of the recruitment for Syria. That's not in terms of absolute numbers - there the recruits from Britain, Germany, and France dominate. But if you look at the numbers in relation to the total population then the smaller countries are leading. These are mainly Belgium, Austria, and Denmark, but Bosnia is also at the top. And you can say similar things of Kosovo and Albania.

How do the recruiting networks work?

There are different approaches. There are certain people who have contacts to terror networks who recruit people. That often happens in Salafist cultural centers or in mosques. This phenomenon is not very well researched because these people work very carefully. But it is obvious that young people recruit young people. Friends bring their friends to the mosque and into the Salafist scene. It is more a group-dynamic process than targeted recruitment. You shouldn't think that Syrian organizations send their recruiters in Europe. That might be true in individual cases but in general the initiative of the European volunteers is decisive.

What motivates people to risk their lives in Syria?

Screenshot of the website liveleak.com
(Foto: liveleak.com)

Many jihadists from the Balkans are fighting in the Syrian war

That differs from country to country. In general, mainly Salafist Muslims are convinced that they have to help their fellow Muslims in Syria. The difference from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia is that the trip to Syria is so easy. You can travel from many European countries - and all EU member states - to Turkey with only your ID card. That is different for Pakistan or Somalia: it's a lot more difficult to travel there. There are certainly other motives, like a yearning for adventurous, that are important. But the most important reason is the terrible pictures from the Syria conflict. We have more of these pictures than we have from other conflicts.

Sometimes the recruits take their families, their wives and children, with them into the war. Is it even possible to offer these relatives any security?

Yes, that's certainly a phenomenon that not only affects the Albanians. Many European jihadists travel with their wives and children. In Germany it's said that between 20 and 40 women travelled with their husbands. Some of them stay in Turkey and are safe there. But there is a real infrastructure in certain areas where jihadist groups are mostly safe.

The Muslim community in Albania does not acknowledge the two imams as part of their institutions and explicitly distances itself from them.

Yes, most of these imams belong to the Salafist scene. They represent an interpretation of Islam which is mainly supported by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. They claim to offer the real interpretation of Islam, and have developed a certain aggression towards the outside world. In the more radical circles this aggression turns into violence, what they call holy war or jihad.

So they are not sacrificing themselves for a country, but for an abstract cause?

They are sacrificing themselves for an ideology. You can definitely compare them to the commitment of the European communists in the 1930s during the Spanish civil war, who also believed they had to express their solidarity with the left in Spain. That's now very similar in Europe. They think they have to show the world their solidarity with the Muslims.

Guido Steinberg is a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

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