The Menace of Militant Islamists in Syria

BEIRUT - The worsening situation in Syria threatens the Middle East in many ways that will continue to evolve in the months and years ahead, but perhaps the most troubling threat is the continued expansion of the hardline groups of Salafist-takfiri Islamists, such as Al-Nusra Front and The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), that have established themselves in parts of Syria.
These groups are troubling for Syrians above all, but also because they threaten other countries in the Middle East and around the world. Syria is critical for the global network of militants because it allows local, regional and global groups to establish secure bases from which they can operate, mobilize and train recruits, coordinate globally, and carry out operations in Syria or abroad.
In the past month, officials and analysts in Europe, North America, Russia, Australia and other distant lands have rung the alarm bells over the new threat they face from trained, battle-hardened militants who have joined Islamist groups in Syria and are likely soon to return to fight in their own home societies. The striking simultaneity of this realization across the world captures the real threat that now emanates from Syria. It includes statements by the heads of the US House and Senate intelligence committees last week that the terrorist threat against the United States is growing, and Americans are not as safe as they were a year or two ago. One reason for this, they said, is that Al-Qaeda has been evolving and developing a wider global network of affiliated groups that often carry out smaller operations that are more difficult to detect and prevent.
Russian officials have expressed concern about Islamist fighters from the North Caucasus region who are active in Syria—often in leadership positions—and are likely to return to work to achieve Islamic states in Chechnya and other nearby regions around southern Russia. Governments there have established special police and intelligence units to fight and prevent this from happening.
Europeans also now speak openly about the growing number of young Europeans who flock to Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, and who now pose a "potential threat" for the European Union and its allies, as French and Belgium officials warned this week. European militants are especially troubling for Western security agencies because they can freely travel around much of the world.
The French and Belgian interior ministers said that between 1,500 and 2,000 youths have gone to Syria to join Islamist groups working to topple the regime in Damascus. The numbers continue to increase. Recent estimates by security agencies put the number of Europeans fighting in Syria at 1200-1700, compared to the 600 that was estimated earlier this year in a report by King's College London.
"When the conflict began in Syria, it was difficult to act because it was a matter of going to fight a regime condemned by all, which made it difficult to say anything," the French minister said. But the situation today is different, as "most of those going say they want to fight in groups linked to Al-Qaeda."
This highlights the perplexing fact that most Western governments waffled in their policy towards removing the Assad regime after the uprising there started in March-April 2011, and the lack of serious support for the secular and nationalist Syrian rebels opened the door for mainstream and then hardline Islamists to participate in the anti-Assad rebellion. Estimates of how many fighters the Salafists-takfiris command vary widely—between 15,000 and 30,000—and this figure also appears to be growing. As these local and regional groups establish themselves in Syria, and in Iraq since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, it becomes easier for Al-Qaeda to connect with them and expand its global network.
“To the extent that I am concerned about Al-Qaeda the brand, it’s that it is clearly expanding its affiliates, both in number and in some cases in capability,” Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent media interview. “We’ve got to watch and determine which ones are local, which ones are regional, and which ones are global, and each requires a different approach.”
Well, whatever approaches the United States and its allies are using do not seem to be working very well, because these Salafist-takfiri groups continue to proliferate and also to develop operational links with one another. To stop the current expansion of Al-Qaeda-linked networks that threaten everyone in the region and the world, the Syrian war must be wound down and ended soon. This is why I suspect that we have started to see the early signs of concerted diplomatic rapprochements among the United States, Europeans, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Saudi-led Gulf states, who can easily resolve their differences in order to work together to confront the new and frightening Salafist-takfiri threat emanating from Syria. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.