Now that Syria is becoming the new cause célèbre of the European jihadist movement, there are growing concerns about the effect that the prolonged conflict there will have on the terrorist threat to Europe. The Dutch government raised the terrorist threat level from “limited” to “substantial”, while the Director of the British Office for Counterterrorism and Security, Charles Farr, stated that we are possibly at a “key moment” in the development of jihadist terrorism in Europe. In all, some 600 European jihadists are currently participating in the Syrian civil war, with the Netherlands and Denmark accounting for the largest shares. Many now fear that these foreign fighters will come back as skilled and hardened terrorists who will use their newly-acquired expertise to carry out attacks in Europe. Also, several intelligence services have indicated that the returnees will be able to use their status as Syrian civil war veterans to attract followers and thus form new terrorist cells.
It is indeed unsettling that young men leave their homes to fight for a creed that most of us would abhor. Also, it is understandable that intelligence services and governments are worried. My own research has shown that jihadist cells with members who have been in training camps or war zones plan more complex and professional attacks than other cells. But while this finding seems to confirm the conventional wisdom about European fighters in Syria, there are reasons to be less pessimistic about the terrorist threat they will pose upon their return in Europe.
First, the value of European fighters for jihadist groups in Syria should not be overstated, as they have no on-the-ground expertise. They need training, and it is doubtful whether jihadist militias that are in the middle of a civil war can spare the time and ammunition to help new recruits catch up. Furthermore, the transfer of knowledge and expertise is complicated further by the new recruits’ lack of knowledge of the local language, obviously a severe handicap in a setting where swift communication is of the essence. There is, therefore, a reasonable chance that they will be used as cannon fodder. The details are still sketchy, but this appears to have been the fate of two young Dutchmen who died in Syria last month.
Second, Western Europe and Syria are very different operational environments, and each requires a different skill set. For instance, in northwestern Europe, where intelligence services and the police function adequately, it is much harder to go undetected and stay out of the hands of the law. In Syria, on the other hand, state power is rapidly disintegrating and stealth is much less of an issue. This makes it unlikely that foreign jihadists in Syria will learn much about how to cover up their operations.
The weapon use is also different. The guns used in the Syrian conflict are not easily available in Europe, so the ability to handle such guns is not necessarily of much use in the home countries of the European fighters. The same holds true for explosives, whose effectiveness partially depends on the context. Bomb making materials react differently under different weather conditions, which means that what causes a strong explosion in the summer heat of Aleppo, may not have the same effect in cold and rainy Amsterdam. So here, too, we see that fighting skills acquired in Syria will not be easily transferable to other operational environments.
But what is perhaps the most important factor undermining the threat from foreign fighters returning from Syria, is their inability to endure the hard life of an armed rebel in a brutal civil war. We should not forget that many of them are in their early twenties or even late teens, and have only a faint idea about what they are getting themselves into. They are misled by propaganda, which instills in them an overly romantic notion of what participation in the jihad in Syria entails. The reality contrasts markedly with the propaganda, and not all European fighters have the stomach for it. Both in the Netherlands and Belgium, parents of jihadists have reported phone calls from their sons, who said they wanted to come home. In other cases, European fighters who have been in touch with their families said they wanted to leave Syria but could not, since European recruits have to hand in their passports upon joining jihadist groups.
To these three factors should be added a parallel to Iraq. At the time, many governments and experts feared that the conflict in Iraq would become a “university of terrorism”, where European jihadists could learn the tricks of the trade before going back to Europe. Plausible as this may have sounded, no successful terrorist attack has been carried out by a jihadist who gained experience by fighting in Iraq. It is difficult to see why we should expect the conflict in Syria to have a different outcome.
On 9/11, al Qaeda defied our imagination, and the consequent trauma still clouds our judgment of terrorist threats. We do not want to be caught off guard again, so when assessing a terrorist threat, there is a strong tendency among policy makers and experts to assume the worst. More than eleven years down the road, however, it is safe to say that 9/11 was an outlier. Many of the fears we’ve had since, ranging from chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attacks by al Qaeda to more outlandish suggestions about the use of surgically implanted bombs, never materialized. The post-9/11 record of jihadist terrorism shows that worst case scenarios rarely occur, and that more balanced views are more accurate. This also goes for the threat from jihadist veterans returning from Syria. It is possible that they acquire skills and will use them in Europe, but that does not automatically mean that it is likely. For a full understanding of the phenomenon we are dealing with, we need to be open to the other side of the story.