By Alan Cowell
April 24, 2014
The British police said on Thursday that officers would work with charitable organizations to prevent British Muslims from travelling to Syria as fighters in the civil war, urging women in particular to report would-be jihadists “so that we can intervene and help.”
The move reflected growing concern among British and other European counterterrorism authorities that some of the hundreds of European Muslims fighting alongside Islamist forces in Syria could return home and commit terrorist attacks.
Scotland Yard said on Thursday that officers arrested 40 people on charges relating to the Syrian conflict in the first three months of 2014, compared with 25 for all of last year. The British authorities say around 400 Britons have travelled to Syria to join the fighting, and 20 of them have been killed, one of them in a suicide truck bombing.
“We are increasingly concerned about the numbers of young people who have or are intending to travel to Syria to join the conflict,” Helen Ball, a senior counterterrorism officer for the Metropolitan Police, said in a statement. “We want to ensure that people, particularly women, who are concerned about their loved ones, are given enough information about what they can do to prevent this from happening.”
“We want to increase their confidence in the police and partners to encourage them to come forward so that we can intervene and help,” she said.
Police officers met on Thursday with representatives of a counterterrorism group and charitable organizations to initiate the campaign.
Some Muslim leaders criticized the effort, saying Scotland Yard’s role in it would deter participation by Muslims.
Ms. Ball sought to counter that view, saying: “This is not about criminalizing people, it is about preventing tragedies. We want to inform those who wish to genuinely help the Syrian cause how they can do so safely and legally.”
Officers plan to hand out leaflets at British ports warning of the risks of travelling to Syria, and officers plan to advise people who want to support humanitarian efforts in Syria to avoid travelling there and to donate to non-profit organizations instead.
Islamist groups in Syria are part of an increasingly fissured opposition effort to unseat President Bashar al-Assad that has turned in on itself in areas of northern and eastern Syria.
In February, a senior leader of Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist rebel group that is close to the Nusra Front, the official Qaeda affiliate in Syria, was killed in a bombing that opposition activists attributed to another extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That group was cut off by Al Qaeda because of its violent attacks on rebel and other jihadist groups.
In January, American and European intelligence officials estimated the number of young Europeans fighting in Syria at 1,200. President François Hollande of France said 700 French citizens and foreigners had headed to Syria from his country. The German authorities have called the flow of young people to Syria “a great danger,” especially if they return home trained in the use of weapons and explosives.
Michelle Russell, the head of investigations and enforcement for Britain’s Charity Commission, said in a statement: “There is a genuine and desperate need for humanitarian assistance to help people affected by the conflict in Syria. U.K. charities and their partners are playing an important role in the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria and its neighbouring countries. In part, they have only been able to do this by the generous donations of the public.”
The appeal came one day after the leaders of five United Nations agencies warned in Geneva that diplomacy to bring an end to the fighting in Syria had foundered and that the desperate plight of civilians in many parts of the country was getting worse.
“The war escalates in many areas,” read a statement signed by senior officials responsible for emergency relief, help for refugees, the plight of children and for getting food and medical supplies to Syria. “The humanitarian situation deteriorates day after day.”
According to United Nations estimates, the three-year conflict has left more than nine million Syrians needing help. They include 3.5 million Syrians trapped by fierce fighting in areas where shifting battle lines have prevented relief agencies from reaching them.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collates data from inside Syria, said in early April that the number of Syrians killed since the beginning of the revolt against Mr. Assad in March 2011 now exceeded 150,000, a third of them civilians.