Hundreds of Europeans have traveled to Syria to engage in the fight against President Bashar al-Assad, a year-long study by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization has found.
The study, entitled “European foreign fighters in Syria,” was released on Tuesday, and put the figure at up to 600 individuals from 14 countries, including the United Kingdom, Austria, Spain, Sweden and Germany.
Dr. Peter Neumann of King’s College London, lead researcher on the project, said the remaining contingent was made up of fighters from the wider Middle East, who traveled to the country to join forces with the opposition.
Estimates are based on freely available information from more than 450 open sources in the Western and Arab media, as well as the martyrdom notices that have been posted in jihadist online forums.
“It’s very difficult to ascertain, with certainty, the exact numbers of fighters who travel from Europe to Syria. The figure of 600 is the top end of the estimate,” the lower end is 150, Neumann told Al Arabiya.
The picture is far from complete, and will probably remain so for years to come. There is no “true census” on foreign fighters, he added.
The numbers used on the lower end are conservative estimates, or fully confirmed deaths. The higher estimate is based on unverified numbers provided by government and media sources.
The study found that, over the course of the conflict, 28 - 134 fighters came from Britain, 30 - 92 from France, 14 - 85 from Belgium, and 5 - 107 from the Netherlands. Other nations included Albania, Finland and Kosovo.
“There’s a strong connection between Libya and Syria. The same foreign fighters who fought in the recent conflict in Libya are being found in Syria,” said Neumann.
They are motivated by “a strong sense of solidarity with Syria,” and are encouraged to fight by the “horrific images” being broadcast around the world, he added.
As of the end of March, there are likely to be at least 70 - 441 individuals from Europe currently engaged in fighting, the report said.
“The real hot-spot is Syria. The conflict there is significant as most people, especially those motivated by the jihadist cause, want to fight in what is seen as the heart of the Arab world,” said Neumann.
It is important to be nuanced when discussing foreign fighters in Syria. Not all those from Europe are motivated by the jihadist cause, and not all join Islamist extremist groups in Syria, states the report.
In many ways, discerning the motivations and ideology of the fighters traveling to Syria is far more difficult than investigating the pure numbers, said Neumann.
Despite the statement that not all fighters are linked to jihadist groups operating inside Syria, the ICSR notes that a major source of its data comes from jihadist websites and their posting of martyrdom notices.
These are obituaries dedicated to foreign fighters who have died in the conflict in Syria, with details of the fighter’s country of residence, and the manner in which they died.
The notices act as a call to arms for other potential fighters, signifying that ‘martyrs’ will not be forgotten. Those killed in action are given “proper commemoration, and held up as an example,” encouraging others to join the cause, said Neumann.