Our security correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the increasingly unstable situation in Syria and considers how its insecurity could manifest itself on the streets of Western Europe:
The tragic situation in Syria is rarely from our televisions screens. In ramshackled camps, thousands of refugees struggle to exist with bad winter weather, creating even more problems for those unfortunate to be caught up in the fighting. For those struggling to find water and shelter from the inclement weather, the situation is dire.
The United Nations believes that the fighting has already claimed over 100,000 lives. It is a war that for many seems to be never ending. The forthcoming peace conference in Geneva looks like a hopeless exercise from the outset. With so many different groups either attending or not being allowed to sit at the negotiating table, the chances of any significant progress are very slim.
For the United Kingdom and many European nations, the continued instability in Syria provides another reason to be concerned. The steady trickle of would-be Jihadists moving from European cities through transit facilities in Turkey into Syria has been increasing steady as social network sites provide coverage of the acts of violence metered out by the Assad regime to those who are seeking its downfall.
War on “iPads, hair-gel and Kit Kats”
The fight against the Asad regime is now being marketed by well over 100 web sites and social media outlets. Its messages are sophisticated. For one individual from Portsmouth who frequently posts on Facebook, says the fight in Syria is: “The ultimate journey thawar with “iPads, hair-gel and Kit Kats.”t any young man seeking Jihad can make. It is five-star Jihad and is very relaxing.” Another web site describes the fight in Syria against the regime as war with “iPads, hair-gel and Kit Kats.” This is a narrative designed to resonate with young men who feel marginalised from society, perhaps lacking self esteem and a distinct social identity self-esteem. Going to fight for such a cause is portrayed as being noble and able to secure an individual’s place in Paradise.
This messaging is clearly working. Across Western Europe, increasing numbers of people are travelling in Syria. In his recent press conference in Paris, President Hollande suggested that over 700 French nationals had travelled to Syria. The German intelligence service also has gone on record to suggest that around 250 members of the Islamic community in Germany are in Syria. Furthermore, admission by the British Secret Services estimates that as many as 350 Britons are fighting in Syria.
It is not difficult to believe that anywhere between 1000 and 1500 Europeans could be involved. Many of whom have chosen to go and fight for groups allied to Al Qaeda. Any one of these could return back to Europe at a time of their choosing intent on continuing the fight somewhere on the European mainland.
The two individuals, from Birmingham, who were arrested at Heathrow Airport, as they stepped off a plane from Turkey, and later charged, highlights a major concern. Some of those that travel may return to the United Kingdom with instructions to become involved in planning and conducting acts of terrorism.
This pattern is being repeated across Europe with reports suggesting that children as young at 15 have travelled to become involved in the fighting. The power of the images and narrative broadcast on social media is clearly providing a major draw to people who see themselves as being on the periphery of society.
While in Syria many are exposed to the privations of war. For some this will harden their views about taking revenge when they return to Western Europe. Some will inevitably ask: “Why did European governments stand to one side and allow what for many people can only be regarded as acts of genocide by the Assad regime to take place?” For others the whole process of seeing war up close and personal will be a chastening experience. Their experiences may have the opposite effect and create a desire to do positive things to help those displaced by the fighting in Syria.
Risk of terrorism in Europe
For those will malevolent intent however, their time in Syria can readily be put to work planning acts of terrorism in Western Europe. With the availability of materials for forming explosives, all the elements they need are readily to hand.
What tactics might they use? In Syria the car bomb has become one of the major weapons used by the Al Qaeda affiliated groups against the regime forces. In 2013 a total of 107 Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) were detonated by opposition groups in Syria. Of the total 37 were detonated by a person inside the vehicle – improving the targeting of the weapon as the point of detonation is selected by the driver and not on the basis of a timing device or some other form of remote control. These attacks killed a total of 768 people and wounded a further 1063.
The worst single month of the year was February when a total of 219 died and 399 were wounded in a series of 16 attacks that spanned the month. This followed another bad month in January where 12 VBIED were exploded killing 103 and wounding 103 people. In October the death toll for a single month again reached over 100 (125) from the use of 7 VBIED three of which involved a suicide bomber driving the vehicle.
For western security agencies these figures heighten the concerns about what form of terrorism could be conducted by those returning from Syria. It does not make great reading. Few of the VBIED attacks in Syria have been used in an urban environment. Many have taken place in rural settings against Assad forces manning roadblocks.
For anyone seeking to project what might happen if a VBIED were to be detonated in a built-up residential area in Western Europe, the example of Omagh provides some insight. Its death toll of 29 and over 300 wounded provides a stark reminder of just what sort of challenge the emergency services across Western Europe would face if the spectre of Syrian-inspired terrorism where to appear on our streets.