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Middle East

Jihad and back: German fighters in Syria

Some 200 German Islamists are thought to be fighting in Syria. Many are worried they could be a threat when they return home. More likely, however, they will return to Germany disillusioned.

From the perspective of a jihadi, there are many reasons to go to Syria. The self-proclaimed "holy warrior" can fight against a secular, "infidel" ruler; he can participate in a battle between Sunnis and Shiites, a battle many believe will lead to the final domination of the Middle East by one of the two groups; and he can contribute to the establishment of an Islamic state on the ruins of Syria.

'German camp' in Syria

With these goals in mind, many foreign Sunni extremists are currently fighting on Syrian soil. According to a recently published study by Janes, a British publisher, there are around 10,000 jihadists on Syrian soil. These fighters sympathize with al Qaeda's ideology of global jihad. In addition, the study says there are another 30,000 to 35,000 Islamists in Syria who may not be interested in global jihad but who do want to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Eric Breininger in an internet video

Eric Breininger became a jihadi fighter in Pakistan and was killed by troops there

According to the news magazine "Der Spiegel," Germany's secret service - called the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution - suspects there are some 200 jihadists from Germany in Syria. Most of them come from the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, followed by Hesse, Berlin, Bavaria and Hamburg. More than half possess German citizenship. Most are in a so-called "German camp" for jihadis from Germany.

Willing, but ready?

The role volunteers from Germany play in the battle is difficult to assess. However, according to political scientist Alexander Hamann of RWTH Aachen University, one thing is clear: they are on a battlefield with experienced and highly professional fighters.

Some of the international jihadists have already fought in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq - and therefore have very different experiences and skills than the Islamists from Germany, who might soon find that the situation is too much for them. "They are young, in some ways idealistic people, who come from a peaceful region of the world - or at least, one that is not in a remotely similar state," says Hamann.

Without appropriate training and experience, they are generally of little use in battle. "We know about this from Iraq and the Palestinian territories," Hamann says, "where young Western Europeans are rejected by the old hands, because they do not bring relevant skills to the fight."

Fear and deprivation

Vehicles burn after an explosion at central Damascus REUTERS/Sana

This bomb attack in Damascus was blamed by the government on jihadi fighters

But the German Islamists do have their uses: the jihadi groups have become professional enough to be able to deploy their members according to their capabilities. They have people looking after finances, and others who work with the media to recruit new members over the Internet.

And Hamann says new members are needed, since struggles such those as in Syria need plenty of untrained helpers: "It doesn't matter to them if someone comes back alive or loses his life on the battlefield," he said.

According to a recent study by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, many German jihadis have a hard time dealing with what they experience. Many don't speak Arabic and can't communicate with their allies, so they feel very lonely. They have to put up with poor accommodation and food, as well as illness, and they're frightened for their lives, since training camps are often the target of attacks.

No passport and no money

A still from the video in which Harrach appears masked http://www.intelcenter.com

The German Al Qaeda supporter Bekkay Harrach has made recruiting videos headlined 'Oh Allah, I love you'

It's hard to tell how such experiences affect those who come back to Germany. It's also hard to tell what kind of a threat they represent. Hamann says it's not even clear what they will have learned in Syria.

"One can't estimate what skills they gained in Syria, or how motivated they are," he said.

Jihadists active in Syriaor elsewhere don't necessarily return to Germany as fully trained and committed terrorists. According to the secret service, many of them are disillusioned and demoralized by their experience in a war-zone.

That's one reason they want to get back to Germany quickly. And that isn't always easy: they often have no visa for the country they're in, no passport and scarcely any money. The only alternative left for them is to get in touch with the German embassy.

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