A photograph from Syria shows a large man in fighting garb, carrying an assault rifle. His head is wrapped in black cloth, and the sign on his armband indicates beyond a doubt that he is an Islamist. But the man is not Syrian; he identifies himself as "holy warrior Abu Ahmad al-Almani" from Germany.
The picture of him was posted on Facebook. The information the man provides about himself says that he was born in Lebanon, and until recently lived in Germany. He left to join the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
But now "Abu Ahmad" is an Islamic fighter, and he’s calling for German Muslims to join the cause. "Dear brethren, come join our ranks, fight with our brothers as if we were a wall. Faith is the weapon our enemies most fear."
According to a Die Welt investigation, the fighter from Germany is only one of hundreds of foreigners who have associated with Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime. Most of them are young men from North Africa, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But more and more Europeans are joining the militia fighters.
Western intelligence agencies believe that there are some 100 Muslims with European passports involved in the war in Syria, Die Welt has learned. A great many of these are fighters, some are radical Islamists, and see it as their duty to join the “Holy War” against the Syrian strongman.
"There could be many reasons for somebody to travel to Syria," one source told Die Welt. "Somebody might want to help their family. Somebody else might aspire to become a martyr. Some only become Islamists as a result of taking part in the fighting."
German intelligence views the travel of radical Muslims to Syria with concern. The assumption is that most of them plan to take up fighting against government troops.
From the standpoint of intelligence agents, the situation of the Syrian opposition remains highly opaque. According to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) – the German intelligence service – the biggest problem for foreign jihadists is the chaotic situation of countless warring parties, citizens’ militias, and rebel groups. Only very few Islamists coming in from Europe know anything about the group they join up with, or what that group’s ideology and goals actually are.
The most radical of the rebel groups is probably Jabat al-Nusra, which has a jihadist orientation and wants to create a theocracy in Syria. Jabat al-Nusra is considered to be a regional branch of al-Qaeda, but the group -- which is said to have about 1,000 fighters -- has deliberately avoided official affiliation with the terror network so far, for reasons of image and strategy. Intelligence operatives believe that Jabat al-Nusra doesn’t want to give Assad fodder to nourish his claims that the opposition consists of al-Qaeda fighters.
Egypt's terrain is ripe
Western intelligence operatives say that al-Nusra runs several large training camps in Syria where Islamists with fighting experience – veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – train new recruits, including Islamists from Western countries. In a situation similar to the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, hundreds of Islamists are presently being trained in the use of fire arms, bomb-making and hand-to-hand combat in Syrian camps managed by Jabat al-Nusra.
Al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri is focusing his efforts on Syria and Egypt, trying to build new structures in these two key countries since many of the established al-Qaeda offshoots no longer listen to the network's leadership after the death of Osama Bin Laden, according to information from Western intelligence sources.
Al-Zawahiri's contact in Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Jabat al-Nusra leader. In Egypt, Jamal al-Kashef and Sheik Adel Shahato look after al-Qaeda interests. Al-Qaeda’s aim is to fight the "heretical regimes" in both countries; to al-Zawahiri the new regime of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi also counts as one of these. In one of his recent speeches, al-Zawahiri called for attacks on the Egyptian military to help bring down Morsi’s government.
According to intelligence sources, several al-Qaeda leaders who were originally from Egypt have returned there after years of fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other leaders and active members have been released from prison by the Morsi government. The al-Qaeda cell in Egypt is thought to have been involved in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
On October 24, Egyptian security forces however did raid a "safe house" in Cairo that was used by al-Qaeda members under al-Kashef’s orders. One al-Qaeda fighter was killed, and others were taken into custody. A large weapons depot and explosives were found at the site. In several other raids over the next few days, 20 more al-Qaeda operatives were arrested. Egyptian sources said the cell was directly under al-Zawahiri’s orders and was working to bring the Morsi government down.
Because of the political turmoil in Egypt, the country has become a stomping ground for global jihadists. A German al-Qaeda fighter, Denis Cuspert, who has threatened attacks in Germany, has gone to Cairo. Many German and European fighters pretend to be going to Egypt to study Islam or Arabic, but then head for al-Qaeda training camps in Egypt, the Sinai or Libya.
Chemical and biological stockpiles
But the most important field of operations for al-Qaeda at the moment is Syria. According to Die Welt’s information from Western intelligence sources, last year al-Zawahiri sent at least three organizers to Syria to create jihadist groups to carry out his instructions.
Particularly worrying for the West are al-Qaeda efforts to get their hands on chemical and biological weapons. Local al-Qaeda operatives have allegedly already been told to find out where these weapons are stockpiled. Intelligence sources also say that al-Qaeda is looking for experts in Syria to train their fighters in how to use the weapons.
Al-Qaeda’s efforts are said to be focused mainly around Deraa in the southwestern part of the country, and Aleppo, where its HQ is thought to be located.
Another major concern for Western intelligence services is al-Zawahiri’s intention to train extremists with European passports in Egypt and Syria so that they can build terror cells in Europe, and to see Syria turn into a kind of Waziristan – a remote part of Pakistan where members can move about pretty much unhindered.
For future attacks in Europe, extremists with European passports are particularly valuable – men like the Spaniard Rachid Wahbi who arrived in Syria via Turkey in June 2012 headed for a training camp for European fighters, or Mehdi al-Harati, a Libyan with an Irish passport. He was one of the founders of the Tripoli Brigade, the first rebel unit in Libya. He now leads the rebels in the north of Syria.
According to Western intelligence sources, al-Nusra commander Abu Mohammad al-Julani is already planning to expand his base of operations to Europe via Turkey. He’s preparing to make Syria – after the fall of the Assad regime – a center of jihadist activity with branches in other countries.
Some of al-Julani’s al-Qaeda cells are already up and running in other countries in the region, and Western intelligence operatives say he is in the process of building additional cells in Europe.
It has been noted that so far Jabat al-Nusra has avoided using European fighters in suicide missions. Apparently these fighters are too valuable to “burn” right now – their European passports will come in good stead when the fighting in Syria is over and the terror network enters a Europe-oriented expansion phase.