Journalist discusses 'disneyland for jihadists' developing in Syria

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Beyond the chemical weapons issue, another huge complicating factor in Syria is the presence of radical jihadi groups among the rebel ranks. Some of them have ties to al-Qaeda and they have been gaining ground in recent months. Christoph Reuter is a reporter for the German news weekly Der Spiegel. He's been reporting from the town of Atmeh, near the Turkish border - a place where many foreign Islamists fighters have been gathering. Reuter describers it as a "Disneyland" for jihadists, a place with all the comforts of home, but without the risks found on the real front lines.

Christoph Reuter: This combination of Atmeh with modest climate, rather cheap houses for rent, three internet places, closes shops specialized in jihadi outfits from Waziristan and Afghanistan, which together make kind of a club meet for jihadis who come to Syria not necessarily really to fight, but to tell all their friends at home, "I'm a jihadi in Syria now."

Werman: You mentioned Pakistan and Egypt. Where else are these jihadists coming from?

Reuter: Well, the biggest group is, to our great surprise, Tunisians, at least in Idlib. In Aleppo it's mostly Saudis, Moroccans. Then you have Egyptians, Europeans like British or French originating from Pakistan or from Algeria. You have Chechens, you have people from Dagestan. You have even Indonesians in some areas. So it seems to be a really international movement. You go to the provincial airport of Hatay in southern Turkey and always you are standing in line with an assortment of jihadis.

Werman: That is extraordinary. So are they actually doing any fighting or are they just going out to eat?

Reuter: We don't have precise numbers, but probably maybe thirty, forty percent go to fight and maybe a third of so, they come to Syria and then they stay in and around Atmeh, which started as an entry place and they stayed. They have no intention of going anywhere. It was surreal.

Werman: That does mean though that sixty to eighty percent of the jihadis are serious fighters and out to be of concern to both Syria and all the players involved in it right now.

Reuter: See, what you have in Syria now is a kind of Faustian deal, a very weird deal between jihadis and the bigger rebel groups that some of the jihadis, they really fight the regime. They offer the use of suicide bombers in some cases and they are, militarily-speaking, a real asset. But you have a large group of them which we encountered, what we want to do is basically impose their rule and their agenda on people in areas which have seen no fighting since half a year or one year because they are deep, deep into the liberated area.

Werman: They presence though of al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups has been a key concern of those who are opposed to US intervention in Syria. You're not saying that that concern is not justified?

Reuter: No, the concern is absolutely justified and when you talk to let's say Syrian rebel commanders from the main factions, they all give you the same answer. They say, "We ask everybody for help. We ask Americans for help, we ask the Saudis for help, we ask Europe for help. The only people who came to help are jihadis from all over the Sunni world. Like them, but we are not in a position to open a second front." The toppling of Assad would mean that you have another round of fighting - Syrians kicking out the foreign jihadis.

Werman: Christoph Reuter with the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Thanks so much for your time.

Reuter: You're welcome.