As Syrian Conflict Rages, France Examines Potential Terrorism Risks

French security officials reveal to TIME evidence of aspiring militants leaving France for Syria to join Islamists battling the Assad regime — and warn the Middle Eastern country could join Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen as a training ground for future terrorists

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ARIS MESSINIS / AFP / Getty Images

A Free Syria Army fighter stands near the Syrian-Turkish border on Aug. 27, 2012

As the civil war grinds on between loyalists of Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebel forces fighting to depose him, concerns are rising that the conflict may become a magnet for aspiring jihadists in Europe. Those apprehensions were expressed to TIME this week by French counterterrorism officials, who outlined reliable intelligence information and one established case of French youths traveling to Syria to fight with Islamist militants. That nub of evidence, they say, has them monitoring the rebellion for signs of it becoming a destination for budding radicals in Europe seeking a quick route to jihad.

Though they were intentionally hazy on many details to avoid compromising their work in the area, security officials said new intelligence indicates a not insignificant number of French youths have traveled en route to Turkey to fight in Syria. In one case, a group of nearly a half dozen young men who’d begun feeding their appetite for radical Islam online had made their way into Syrian refugee camps along Turkey’s border to get information and make contacts with rebel forces. They eventually traveled into Syria to join one of the many columns formed by foreign jihadists, according to one French man who had second thoughts, returned home and was questioned by security authorities who’d learned of the trip.

Though still under watch, the young man has not been charged of any offenses due to the lack of terrorist activity or intent. Indeed, unlike previous generations of recruits who set off for Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen or Algeria to aid al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting local governments or U.S. and Western troops deployed abroad, French authorities say putting any Europeans who set off to fight in Syria on trial for terrorism-related offenses will be difficult — if impossible — for now. (Not least when French officials, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, are leading calls to speed up aid and assistance to the rebellion.)

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“How do you to make a legally sound terrorism case against a guy who went to help depose Bashar Assad — a man most international governments have condemned as a bloody dictator and whose actions make him the obvious candidate for terror charges?” asked a high-ranking French security official, whose sensitive position prevents him from being named. “We know Islamist groups that promote and sponsor terrorism are present and fighting in Syria now. But what their members are involved in there now is insurgency, not terror. For now, you basically have one anti-Assad guy with a Kalashnikov and a beard, and another anti-Assad guy with a Kalashnikov and no beard. How are you going to charge a French citizen who goes to Syria to fight with one of those rebels, but not the other?”

That question didn’t apply when Western nationals joined outlawed terror groups like al-Qaeda or battled American, NATO or allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. As things stand with Syria, however, even known radicals who engage in what they declare jihad won’t run afoul of European laws unless they undertake terrorism in battle — or once back home.

“It’s somewhat like the situation with Bosnia, where you had [young Europeans] joining ranks of radical mujahedin fighting Serbian forces we all considered thugs and murderers,” the French security official says. “A lot of those people returned home battle-hardened and fully radicalized, and some eventually took up terror activity. But back then — as now — we couldn’t take action against them until they demonstrated terrorist intent.”

To be sure, the number of French youths identified as having left for Syria is small. Even intelligence estimates appear to limit the overall number to the teens. But as protracted conflicts in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated, the longer violence involving radical Islamist fighters goes on, the greater both its allure and training efficiency becomes for budding extremists from Europe. As conflicts evolve into war that radicals join as jihad, interest and recruitment invariably grows in Europe — and clandestine networks soon form to shuttle novice jihadists to and from their date with indoctrination, training and combat duty. Once such activity begins, it’s never limited to a single European nation.

But why the consternation if hard evidence of French youths heading to Syria remains limited? Because in addition to the risk of protracted Syrian conflict, the French official says it also contains other elements that could create terrorism trouble for Europe. Syria is relatively close to Europe and easily accessed via Turkey — which is a short, visa-free flight away for most E.U. citizens. Turkey is also a popular destination for European tourists, with whom would-be fighters could blend in to duck detection either going to or returning from Syria.

Increased religious radicalization of the fight is also a threat. The battle against Syria’s Alawite establishment, at odds with the country’s Sunni majority, provides the kind of sectarian animus that al-Qaeda relied on to escalate its activities in Iraq. And the increasingly wanton violence Assad’s regime is unleashing on rebels and innocent bystanders alike is producing the sort of ghastly images of massacred and mutilated bodies that — once transformed into al-Qaeda recruitment propaganda — helped radicalize and motivate outraged European youths to take up combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and Algeria.

The most obvious solution to prevent Syria from becoming a new potential source of terrorism trouble for Europe — and, not incidentally, to end the slaughter in Syria — is also the most foreboding: Western intervention, or massive arming and aiding of rebels to depose Assad quickly. The option otherwise, French officials fear, is seeing an open-ended civil war become increasingly influenced by jihadist factions who gain increasing assistance from European recruits — and who eventually turn on their moderate allies to claim power once Assad has been toppled.

“The reason we can’t charge people seeking to fight in Syria with terrorism-related charges is that, for now, Islamists there haven’t begun using terror there, and see no advantage exploiting the conflict to export terror activities back to the anti-Assad nations of Europe,” the official says. “Given enough time, that could change. We really hope the fighting ends before it can.”

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