The issue of foreign fighters and returnees is considered one of the biggest security challenges in Europe. The main focus of governments, security agencies and experts has always been the jihadist foreign fighters, who travelled to Syria to fight for ISIL and other terrorist groups. There is little attention given to the other foreign fighters, namely the ones who joined the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — the Syrian branch of the terrorist organisation, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) — and its militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG).
We do not know their exact numbers but, according to different sources, we estimate that between 400 and 800 foreign fighters have joined the PYD/YPG. While the majority of them are from the West, mainly the EU, the US, Turkey, Canada and Australia, there are foreign fighters from many different countries, including Iran, Russia and China. They are not taken as seriously as the foreign fighters who joined the Islamic State (ISIL). This is a major mistake.
They pose a very serious security threat. These people receive military training in Syria; they learn how to use heavy guns and how to make bombs and they kill people. Of course, we do not know if they kill only terrorists or others as well. In any case, it should not matter. Do we want civilians in our societies to get involved in conflicts in foreign countries? We cannot underestimate this threat just because they claim that they are there to fight against ISIL. Indeed, the justifications of jihadist foreign fighters from Europe were quite similar. They claimed that they were travelling to Syria in order to fight against an evil regime and protect innocent people. However, this did not end well.
Turkey’s Afrin operation has also changed certain dynamics. Now, some of these foreign fighters are also fighting against Turkey, a NATO country. Of course, this is not a problem for PYD/YPG and far-left foreign fighters. Even though PYD/YPG has been cooperating with the US in the last few years, their main ideology is extreme left and anti-capitalist. It is important to note that the US actually supported and tolerated Islamist groups fighting against communism during the Cold War and now Washington is openly supporting an extreme left/communist group fighting against ISIL. PYD/YPG is currently calling for volunteers from all around the world. This is not so different than the recruitment efforts of ISIL in the past. The only difference is that ISIL was using “jihad” to justify their recruitment efforts and violence, and PYD/YPG is using “revolution.”
There are actually three main types of foreign fighters under PYD/YPG: non-Syrian Kurds, far-left groups and individuals, and far right individuals from the West, who are in Syria for “the fight against Islam.” Among these three groups, the far-left is the most influential, especially among the foreign fighters from the West. However, the existence of far-right extremists, especially former military, is also very important. It shows us that all extreme ideologies love violence and justify it for their “causes.” This makes Syria a playground for all the extremist ideologies in our societies. Today, they are fighting in Syria but they will be back home soon, the survivors at least.
Some experts claim that the West is not the target of the foreign fighters who joined PYD/YPG. This is naïve, if not disingenuous. We can never be sure about potential targets of violent groups and extreme ideologies. Circumstances may change in the coming months or years and they may start seeing some Western countries as targets. There are various far-left foreign fighters from different countries, including but not limited to the Greek anarchists, English-speaking extreme left guerrilla groups from Western countries, Marxist-Leninist groups from France and Germany, and others. Such groups are already anti-establishment and against the political system in the West. They may easily start using these skills against politicians, financial institutions and multi-national companies in Europe and beyond. Left-wing terrorism is not a new phenomenon and the returning foreign fighters may take it to a different level.
We should never forget that extreme ideologies are just the flip side of the same coin. Their far-left ideology is a threat similar to jihadists or far-right groups. They are against democracy, pluralism and our fundamental values. Thus, we should start taking this threat more seriously.
Some European countries continue to support PYD/YPG directly and indirectly. Two current trials in the UK of two returnees are very important because it is the first time a European court is charging foreign fighters who joined PYD/YPG with terrorism. Other countries are also closely following the returnees. The position of France is quite confusing. While the French government continues to support PYD/YPG in Syria, some of these French nationals, according to French media, are considered national security threats by the country’s security agencies. Ironically, representatives of PYD/YPG regularly appear on French media, including public broadcasters, as if it is a legitimate entity rather than a terrorist group. PYD/YPG propaganda is actually quite strong in the West. They have been using media in a very professional way by abusing anti-ISIS feeling in the West and positioning themselves as the only solution against ISIL. This is another tool for recruitment.
Similar to ISIL, PYD/YPG is quite professional in terms of propaganda, the use of social media and internet and fake news. Online recruitment and encrypted messaging apps have played a major role for far-left foreign fighters joining PYD/YPG. According to The New York Times, PYD/YPG even sends WhatsApp group messages to recruit international "volunteers." They claim that they are making a “revolution” and asking all “revolutionary” left organisations and individuals to support them. Of course, we do not know where these organisations and individuals will use these skills next and whether they may try to make “revolutions” in the West, which would mean violence and terror.
Dr. Demir Murat Seyrek is Senior Policy Advisor at the European Foundation for Democracy.
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