By Mick Krever, CNN
The volume for foreign fighters seeking to battle jihad in Syria is “more significant than every other instance of foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s,” the International Center for the Study of Radicalization claims.
“What’s happening right now in Syria is truly profound,” Peter Neumann, director of the center, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday.
“The old al Qaeda, I believe, is no longer that relevant. In five years’ time we may well be talking about a different kind of organization, and one that like Afghanistan in the 1980s has been created in Syria.”
Western powers are scrambling to deal with the very real national security blowback that is emerging from the Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year.
The man in Belgium who stands accused of shooting three people last month at a Jewish Museum spent a year fighting in Syria, according to the chief prosecutor of Paris.
And last week the U.S. said a man who carried out a recent suicide bombing in Syria is believed to have been an American citizen, Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha.
There is grave concern among governments that those who are not killed in battle – like, allegedly, the man in Belgium – will come back and wreak terror at home.
Historically, Neumann said, around one in nine foreign fighters will become involved in domestic terrorism.
“If that is anything to go by, clearly not everyone has been to Syria will become a terrorist, but a significant minority will pose a problem at some point down the line.”
The key to addressing the problem, he said, may lie in simply publicizing the experiences of those who do go to wage battle.
“We’ve created a database of three-hundred-fifty foreign fighters currently on the ground in Syria,” Neumann told Amanpour. “We talk to them via WhatsApp, via Skype, via social media.”
“In the beginning, they are quite gung ho about everything – everything is wonderful.”
“But once you break them down they are quite skeptical about things. They are telling us that the Syrian people do not like them very much. They are telling us that they hate the idea that all this infighting is going on between different groups – they came to Syria in order to fight Bashar Assad; what they end up doing is killing other Sunni rebels.”
“And so there are a lot of powerful messages. If governments paid more attention, these would be very powerful messages to deter people from going to Syria in the first place.”
Right now, he said, governments scrambling to deal with the problem are focusing only on punitive measures – i.e. if you go to Syria to fight and return, the government will come after you.
“There need to be other things. There needs to be messaging. People have to be deterred from going in the first place. And also there needs to be more sophisticated intervention.”