French police have arrested four people suspected of recruiting would-be jihadist fighters in Paris and southern France, apparently for training and combat in the Syrian civil war, the British edition of the International Business Times reported today.
The arrests were announced by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve. They come a day after the announcement on Sunday that French police had arrested a suspect in the May 24 terrorist shootings at the Jewish Museum of Brussels in Belgium.
The suspect in the Brussels attack, a French-born Muslim named Mehdi Nemmouche, is alleged to have received training and combat experience in Syria with a militant anti-Assad insurgent force, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Nemmouche’s arrest has touched off fears among European, American and Israeli security officials that the Syrian civil war might be breeding a new generation of young Islamist radicals with Western roots — and Western citizenship — who could return home prepared to carry out new terrorist attacks. Intelligence sources told Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel that an estimated 1,200 European and North American Muslims are fighting with militant groups in Syria at any given time.
Nemmouche was arrested in the southern French city of Marseille on Friday, May 30, carrying a cache of weapons that matched those appearing in the museum video of the attack. He was also carrying a computer thumb drive that features a voice, believed to be his, claiming responsibility for the Brussels attack and vowing more.
Some compare blowback fears from the Syrian civil war to the aftermath of the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. The Afghan mujahideen, sponsored by the United States, ended up giving rise to Al Qaeda and similar groups that eventually turned their weapons against America and the West. Unlike those fighters, though, the Syrian insurgency is said to be producing jihadists with American and European citizenship who can cross borders and plan their attacks more easily than the earlier generation.
Haaretz military reporter Amos Harel writes in a news analysis today that the background of the Brussels suspect “confirms the West’s worst fears” about the Syrian connection and the possibility of blowback:
Western intelligence services believe that more than 1,200 European and North American Muslims are fighting there at any given moment, in an effort to topple the regime. Many are fighting in the ranks of organizations affiliated with Al-Qaida, and some return home afterward to continue their jihad. Terrorism investigators in the West say that Western Muslims who join jihadi terror groups generally go through four stages: Growing religiosity; a personal or economic crisis that the young man attributes to discrimination against Muslims; ideological radicalization under the influence of a local preacher; and, finally, enlistment in a terror organization in either central Asia or the Middle East. That’s what happened in the past in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that’s what is happening now in Syria, the current principal theater of jihadi operations. This process runs like a scarlet threat among the terrorists who perpetrated huge attacks in Madrid and London during the previous decade. When these young men return to the West, they seek out new targets to attack: Crowded public places, sites affiliated with the United States and Israel, or Jewish centers. For them, solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is integrated into the larger war against the West.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).