Is Syria A Training Ground For A New Generation Of Terrorists?

Jun 3, 2014
Originally published on June 3, 2014 6:03 pm

According to Richard Barrett, the senior vice president of the Soufan Group, the number of foreign fighters in Syria has surpassed the number of those who have gone to Afghanistan. Barrett speaks with Robert Siegel about why he believes the Syrian conflict has become an incubator for young terrorists.

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Last month a gunman opened fire at the Jewish Museum in Brussels and killed three people. The suspect, who was picked up in France, was a French citizen who had fought in the war in Syria against the Assad regime. Recently, a suicide bomber in Syria was identified as an American - a jihadist who had gone to fight in Syria. Well, a new report published this week says the Syrian war is likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists. It describes what kinds of people from which countries become fighters in Syria. Its author, Richard Barrett, now of The Soufan Group, used to work on Al Qaeda sanctions at the United Nations and before that with British intelligence. He joins us from New York. Welcome to the program, once again.


SIEGEL: The baseline experience for you, it seems, in this report, is the phenomenon of foreign fighters who went to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. Some of them stayed on as terrorists - Al Qaeda, for example. So first, how did the foreign fighters in Syria compare in numbers with those who fought in Afghanistan?

BARRETT: Well, it's been very hard to estimate exactly how many people went to Afghanistan, and the numbers vary from about 3,000 to about 20,000. But I think it's fair to say that an upper limit would be about 10,000. So already, the amount of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria exceeds that.

SIEGEL: More than 10,000?

BARRETT: I believe that we know, from official estimates, that there are at least 11,000.

SIEGEL: And you find that, compared to those who went fight in Afghanistan, those who go to Syria are younger. They're younger men.

BARRETT: It does seem so, yeah. And disturbingly, some as young as 15 and so on. And talking to some colleagues in Europe, it seems that there's quite a group of people in their late teens and early twenties.

SIEGEL: The foreign fighters you are describing seem, mostly, to be fighting with extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda. There are also more moderate groups that the U.S. and Europe are always promoting. Why aren't they fighting for those people? Why aren't they joining those groups?

BARRETT: I think the more extremist views are much more attractive. I think that they offer more arms, they offer better training, they offer more discipline - they're more effective fighters. But beyond that, I think they have a very strong motivating sense about them - an ideological purpose.

SIEGEL: Their purpose being to wage global jihad. I mean, to protect Muslims in trouble - not just to bring democracy to Syria, you say?

BARRETT: Well, exactly. I don't think they're particularly interested in the sort of nitty-gritty of the argument between the free Syrian army, for example, and the Syrian regime. I think they're much more interested in that whole idea of protecting the Muslim community, doing something good for their religion, doing something good for a much wider community than just the people who are opposing President Assad.

SIEGEL: There must be some foreign fighters who went either to Afghanistan or now to Syria who go away, come back and lead reasonably normal lives - perhaps not talking a lot about what they did for a year or two. How many do we think become terrorists in their home countries?

BARRETT: Well, I would hope a very small proportion, maybe even a tiny proportion. But if you've got, say, 12,000 people going - say you've got 3,000 from Western countries, and only 1% turn out to be terrorists. Well, that still gives you a bit of a problem, I would say.

SIEGEL: Of the 11,000 fighters whom you've been able to identify according to official estimates by country, I counted about 7,000 from Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia. That describes that while we, in the United States or Europe, might be most concerned about the Americans or the Europeans to go and come back, that this is far more a Middle-Eastern problem than it is a Western problem - fair?

BARRETT: Very fair, yes. It is essentially a problem that the Arab world is going to face much more than the Western world. But the Arab world has got various mechanisms in place, I think, and they're sort of, to an extent, better-placed to deal with the sorts of problems they may face from these returning fighters than some of the Western countries.

SIEGEL: Do you think there's any measurable share of the people - the foreign fighters - who are going over who do so, as they see it, at the beginning of a lifelong career as career jihadists, who will go on to fight against the United States at any opportunity?

BARRETT: Well it's an interesting question because I think many of them do go over thinking that this is a career, maybe a very short career, and they expect to die in Syria. And you see a lot of people burning their passports, for example, and making the very symbolic gesture of not intending to return. But people will return. People will return because they're disillusioned or their disgusted by what they see. They'll return because they've just had enough and they want to go back to their friends and family, or they may return thinking, look, I can do more somewhere else. And of course, it's that final category that we should worry about the most.

SIEGEL: Richard Barrett, good to talk with you. Thank you very much.

BARRETT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Mr. Barrett is author of the report, "Foreign Fighters In Syria." It's published by The Soufan Group, of which he is now senior vice president. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.