A photo taken on March 19, 2012, shows policemen working near the "Ozar Hatorah" Jewish school, in Toulouse, southwestern France, where four people were killed and two seriously wounded when a gunman opened fire. / Eric Cabanis, AFP/Getty Images
PARIS - Thousands of Europeans have gone to Syria to fight for a variety of groups battling the regime of Bashar Assad, and intelligence agencies are increasingly concerned about what these radicalized jihadists will do when they return home.
Between 1,100 and 1,700 European fighters are known to have gone to Syria since the conflict began in 2011, most leaving from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Belgium, according to the International Center for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague.
Experts say several hundred of those who have smuggled themselves into Syria are French citizens - mostly of Arab or Muslim origin. As citizens, they have a right to return home because, unlike the United States, France does not bar its people from joining the groups.
"About 600 French nationals are fighting jihad around the world, and Syria is one of the poles of attraction for them," says Guillaume Atchouel, a French journalist who covers radical groups in France.
In August, a young Frenchman named Jean Daniel was killed in Syria while fighting alongside the rebels with his brother Nicholas.
"My sons were good kids, but they were brainwashed," said their father, Gerard, of the two young men, who converted to radical Islam before joining the rebellion in Syria.
In a video released in July, the two brothers armed with Kalashnikovs had asked French President FranÃ®ois Hollande to convert to Islam to save his soul from "the fire of hell." In September, Abu Muhammad al-Fransi, a French convert to Islam, was killed in battle while fighting with the Islamic organization of Ahrar al-Sham.
A month later, in October, a French national going by the nom de guerre of Abou al-Qaaqaa conducted a suicide operation in Al-Hamam, a village southeast of the city of Aleppo, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The man was believed to be a member of the al-Nusra Front, a rebel faction listed as a terror organization by the United States.
"After decreasing for a while, the number of young French nationals traveling to Syria has surged again," Atchouel says. "They feel that they need to back up the anti-government rebels since Assad beefed up his position recently."
Some French radicals have resorted to extreme measures to finance their jihadist missions. In September, five Islamists attacked a Quick fast food restaurant in Paris and stole 2,500 euros to fund their trip to Turkey, from where they planned to smuggle themselves into Syria.
Alain Marsaud, a French MP and former anti-terrorism judge, says there are currently two types of French jihadists fighting in conflicts abroad.
"Some are dual nationals and others are new converts," he said. "These people are for the most part living on the margins of French society and feel rejected."
Most French jihadists fighting in Syria have little religious knowledge and were recently proselytized, note experts.
"Some are indoctrinated by local imams or travel to Belgium or to Amsterdam, where many radical sheiks reside. Others learn from the Internet. They abandon their families and leave to Turkey before entering Syria," Marsaud says.
Most avoid using Lebanon as a point of entry because of the collaboration between Lebanese and French intelligence services, he adds.
This profile fits Jean Daniel and Nicolas. According to their father, Jean Daniel resigned from his job, telling his family he was going to Thailand before it was discovered that he and his brother had gone to Syria.
"We were devastated," Gerard says. "He (Jean Daniel) explained he was going to die as a martyr and that we would only see him in heaven if we converted."
Marsaud believes there are currently about 200 French jihadists in Syria, with a smaller number in Mali and Afghanistan, though, he notes, there are no real figures available. He emphasizes that many of the French fighters in Syria and elsewhere are not taken seriously and do not see the front lines, instead being given secondary roles.
Atchouel says many of them have cultural and language differences with local jihadists groups. Both experts worry about what happens if and when these jihadists return to France.
"There is the legal dimension of how to deal with these people who have been fighting a regime that France has condemned," Marsaud says.
"The other problem is that the French jihadists will return from Syria having received training," says Atchouel, citing the case of Mohammed Merah.
In March 2012, the young Frenchman of Algerian origin went on a violent attack in the French town of Toulouse before being killed by French police after a 32-hour standoff. He had been transformed from a petty criminal to a violent jihadist after receiving training in Pakistan.
Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet has organized an international gathering on the subject of returning jihadists.
"We have to anticipate the returns (of fighters from Syria), the ways to handle this, the prevention measures and especially the exchange of information on the travels," she told the Daily Mail.
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