As many as 6,000 foreign fighters from nearly 50 nations have now joined the war in Syria, according to The London Times newspaper.
The vast majority are "veterans" from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and a few former Soviets to bolster their ranks.
The British daily pointed out that surprising estimates suggest that Australians now make up the largest contingent from any developed nation fighting in Syria.
There are around 120 French fighters in Syria, about 100 Britons and a handful of Americans — but there are at least 200 Australians, according to a public statement made by David Irvine, director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).
The French, British and American jihadists are drawn from communities that number 4.7 million, 2.7 million and 2.6 million respectively. The Australian contingent is drawn from a Muslim population of just 500,000, and is causing concern to a government that fears the homecoming of a battle-hardened group of radicalized Islamists when the conflict ends.
In February, Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer released a paper showing that one out of nine westerners who fight in foreign jihadist insurgencies ends up becoming involved in terrorist plots back home.
There is evidence that more than 100 Australian terrorists in Syria are fighting with the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked militia.
According to Greg Barton, international director of Monash University’s Global Terrorism Research Centre: “It’s very difficult to get hard data or proof on what’s really going on. But the head of ASIO doesn’t come out and make public statements very often, so the fact that he’s talking about this shows how much of a concern this is."
"The number of Australian terrorists in Syria is far higher than a few hundred,” says Jamal Daoud, a Jordanian migrant who stood as a candidate for the New South Wales (NSW) legislature during the last state polls.
“I have been talking to community members for years now. So many times people have told me ‘my neighbor is fighting in Syria’ or ‘I am selling our furniture so I can go fight in Syria’,” he said.
According to the British Daily, Australian counterterrorism operatives have been dispatched to Turkey and Beirut, where they are collecting evidence against a number of Australians suspected of fighting in Syria.
Barton points out that many of the Australians who have traveled to the war zone come from the northern Lebanese immigrant community — a group that has “experienced disproportionate problems” with organized crime.
Translated and edited by The Syrian Observer