"I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists -- young men with south London accents -- shot to kill. And not a Syrian in sight. This wasn't what I had expected." - John Cantlie, British photographer
More than 1,000 Muslims from across Europe are currently active as Islamic jihadists, or holy warriors, in Syria, which has replaced Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia as the main destination for militant Islamists seeking to obtain immediate combat experience with little or no official scrutiny.
As the number of European jihadists in Syria grows, European officials are beginning to express concerns about the threat these "enemies within" will pose when they return to Europe.
In Britain, for example, Foreign Secretary William Hague recently said, "Syria is now the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today. This includes a number of individuals connected with the United Kingdom and other European countries. They may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive, some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives."
British authorities believe that more than 100 British Muslims have gone to fight in Syria in the hope of overthrowing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and replacing it with an Islamic state.
Many of the British Muslims in Syria have joined extremist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the most dangerous and effective Sunni jihadist group fighting against the Assad regime. Jabhat al-Nusra, linked to al-Qaeda, was declared a terrorist organization by the United States in December 2012. Due to a steady flow of money and arms from backers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni Muslim countries, the group has grown in size and influence.
According to the British newspaper The Independent, most of the British Muslims participating in the fight against Assad "are not deemed to be doing anything illegal" and are thus able to reenter Britain without any problems. The paper reports that only a small number of those who have returned to Britain from the fighting in Syria have been arrested, but all for one specific offense: their alleged role in the July 2012 kidnapping of a British freelance photographer, John Cantlie, after he crossed into Syria.
Cantlie, along with Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans, was abducted by a group of British jihadists near the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Both men were later rescued by "moderate" fighters linked to the Free Syrian Army.
After his release from captivity, Cantlie expressed astonishment at the number of "disenchanted young Britons" fighting in Syria. In an account of his experience published in The Sunday Times on August 5, 2012 (site operates behind a pay wall), Cantlie wrote: "I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists -- young men with south London accents -- shot to kill. They were aiming their Kalashnikovs at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner in a rocky landscape that looked like the Scottish Highlands. Bullets kicking up dirt as I ran. A bullet through my arm, another grazing my ear. And not a Syrian in sight. This wasn't what I had expected."
Cantlie quoted one man, who claimed to be a former supermarket worker in Britain, as threatening him: "You are spies. You work for MI5 [British domestic security agency], you work for MI6 [British foreign intelligence agency]. Prepare for the afterlife. Are you ready to meet Allah?"
Oerlemans has described a similar experience in Syria. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblat he said: "The jihadists had genuine British accents, from Birmingham, Liverpool. A British Pakistani told how he had grown up with British playmates. He tried so hard to be British."
In France, the daily newspaper Le Figaro reported on March 13, 2013 that "at least 50" and "as many as 80" French citizens are fighting with jihadist groups in Syria. The number is far higher than the "handful" claimed by French Interior Minister Manuel Valls to be operating alongside Islamists in Mali, or the estimated number of Frenchmen who went to Bosnia, Iraq or Afghanistan to wage jihad.
Leading French anti-terrorism Judge Marc Trévidic told Le Figaro that the presence of so many French jihadists in Syria presents French authorities with an uncomfortable paradox. Because France officially supports the effort to overthrow the Assad regime -- France was the first Western country to recognize Syria's rebel council as the country's legitimate interlocutors -- it is difficult for the French government now to come out and say that it does not support those who are fighting the war.