ATMEH, Syria — European jihadists in Syria have been blamed by some Syrians for ruining the purity of their revolution, held up by Bashar al-Assad's regime as a sign of that the rebels are foreign-backed radicals, and feared by Western security agencies as a potential terrorist threat. But despite all the talk about them, they rarely speak with outsiders about their beliefs and goals. So when two European jihadists agreed to speak with us, it marked the first time that fighters working with al Qaeda inside Syria explained to the world why they are doing battle in Syria and what future they imagine for the country.
The two fighters -- one of whom is an ethnic European who converted to Islam, while the other is ethnically neither European nor Arab, and was born a Muslim -- set a couple of preconditions. Their real names and countries of origin could not be published; as they put it, "Europe will do." They also wore masks during the interview, so they could not be recognized. "I still want to travel to my family in Europe," one said.
It was also strictly forbidden to name the town where the interview would take place. "You can mention somewhere in northern Sham," one of the men declared, a reference to Greater Syria -- encompassing not only modern-day Syria but also Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq -- that existed in the early Islamic period.
Getting to the location of the interview posed another problem. In a sign of how perilous Syria has become, al Qaeda-affiliated militants man a checkpoint slightly more than a mile outside the Atmeh refugee camp along the border with Turkey. And there were many more such checkpoints along the way to where the two European jihadists live. With kidnappings of journalists and aid workers by rebels spiking in recent months, locals all advised against the idea of driving deeper into the country. After long deliberations, we chose to stay in Atmeh and send a trustworthy Syrian middle-man on our behalf deeper inside the country. He carried our questionnaire, a camera, and conducted the interviews.
The meetings with the European jihadists occurred separately, on two separate days in two different locations. The interviews were conducted in English, as the fighters are not fluent in Arabic.
The phenomenon of European jihadists flowing into Syria is increasingly attracting the attention of Western security agencies, which fear what they will do when they return home. According to American and European intelligence officials speaking to the New York Times, more Westerners are currently fighting in Syria than in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen: The estimates range from 600 to 1,000 fighters. Their primary motivation is religion -- the vast majority are white converts to Islam or naturalized immigrants with a Muslim background.
The jihadists' religious extremism, military experience in Syria, and the ease with which they could travel around Europe and the United States make a potentially lethal cocktail. Matthew Olsen, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, recently told a conference that Syria has become "the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world," and raised fears that such jihadists could return "as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States."