Western countries, fearful that the influx of radical fighters into Syria could facilitate later terror attacks in Europe and the US have handed Turkey a list of nearly 5,000 people they believe are attempting to travel to Syria to join al-Qaeda-linked groups there, according to a news report.
The report, published on Friday in the Financial Times, comes in the wake of a Turkish decision to designate the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, as a terrorist organization. The decision last week appears to be an effort by Turkey to bring its Syria policy into closer alignment with that of the United States and other Western countries. The US designated the al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group in 2012.
Western countries are apprehensive that volunteers from Europe and the Americas who travel to Syria to fight alongside radical groups against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime may later launch terrorist attacks in the West. Turkey is seen as the major transit point for such fighters to enter Syria.
Western concerns were exacerbated by an attack late last month on a Jewish museum in Belgium that killed three. The attack is believed to be the first committed by jihadi fighters who had returned from Syria. The main suspect in the attack, a French national, was found to have spent much of last year with radical groups in Syria. The suspect reportedly traveled from France via Britain, Lebanon and eventually Turkey to enter Syria.
The Financial Times said that even though the Ukraine crisis dominated the headlines of a G7 summit in Brussels last week, the primary security concern discussed at the meeting was the risk of spillover from the Syrian war.
“This is the top issue now in EU relations with Turkey,” an EU official was quoted as saying. “Each member state has a [terror] watchlist. All roads lead to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.”
According to the report, Turkey has become more responsive to Western concerns in recent months, and Turkish officials say some, though not all, of Ankara's Western partners are providing information on possible terror suspects.
The report also says that in addition to the potential 5,000 recruits, another 2,000-3,000 people, including 70 from the US, are already thought to have traveled to Syria from Europe and the Americas. “Security officials fear the cohort could lay the groundwork for years of attempted terror attacks against the West on a level not seen since 9/11,” the report said.
The report also stated that a group of nine European countries had a closed-door meeting on Thursday to discuss the threat, now recognized as a European problem due to the continent's open border arrangements. Confirming that a group of European countries is “working extremely closely together” to share information, Gilles de Kerchove, the EU's top counterterrorism official, told the Financial Times that officials from these countries have had meetings with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey. “For them it is Syria, Syria, Syria, Syria,” he said.