European people fighting in Syria are being trained as "jihadists" and then encouraged to return to launch attacks on home soil, an al-Qaeda defector and Western security sources say.
In a rare interview on Turkey's border with Syria, the defector from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) said recruits from Europe and the United States were being indoctrinated in extremist anti-Western ideology, trained how to make and detonate car bombs and suicide vests and sent home to start new terrorist cells.
He has provided the first confirmation from Syrian rebels that young foreigners are being indoctrinated in extremist anti-Western ideology.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation last month estimated 1900 Western Europeans in total are fighting in the Syrian conflict, more than triple the 600 there last year.
The threat from Syria is dominating the work of Britain's MI5 and the spy agency has had to allocate more and more resources to tackling the danger in the past six months.
The defector, known as Murad, said of the foreign fighters he met in Syria: "They talked often about terrorist attacks. The foreigners were proud of 9/11 and the London bombings. The British, French and American mujahideen [holy warriors] in the room started talking about places that they wanted to bomb or explode themselves in Europe and the United States."
Some have gone to Syria with genuine intentions of fighting the regime but are then brainwashed by al-Qaeda and encouraged to return home and launch attacks there instead.
Last Friday, two 21-year-old men from Birmingham were charged with travelling to Syria to carry out acts of terrorism. Two 15-year-old boys from France were reported last week to have left Toulouse to join the fighting in Syria. The possibility of French citizens returning from Syria as hardened jihadists was the "biggest threat that the country faces in the coming years", Manuel Valls, the Interior Minister, said yesterday.
Valls estimated that 700 French nationals had either travelled to Syria or returned to France.
A video clip posted on the YouTube account of Belgian teenager Brian De Mulder, who is in Syria, threatened one of Belgium's biggest tourist attractions, the Atomium, a huge monument of stainless steel spheres built for the 1958 World's Fair. A father from Norway went to Turkey to retrieve his two teenage daughters who went to Syria to fight. One German family organised to have their 16-year-old son kidnapped and returned home.
Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London, estimated last week that up to 50 British fighters had already returned home.
Last month, Richard Walton, the head of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism command, said there were already indications that Britons were returning from Syria with orders to carry out attacks, with the Metropolitan Police mounting a "huge number of operations" to protect the public.
ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq. It is now being attacked by other rebel groups, including Islamist ones, but Isis still controls territory.
Murad said that anti-Western sentiment was virulent and ISIS leaders had discussed attacking Western targets.
The defector, a Syrian, decided to join ISIS in Aleppo last August because he heard that the group was "serving Islam and protecting Muslims". Murad disagreed with his "emir's" orders that they should fight fellow Syrian rebels and treat them as unbelievers. "What is happening in Syria is not jihad. ISIS is not protecting Muslims it is killing them," he said.
- additional reporting Independent
UN invites Iran to Swiss talks
The United Nations has invited Iran to attend an international meeting of foreign ministers in the Swiss city of Montreux before the first direct peace talks in Geneva on Friday between the warring sides in Syria's nearly three-year conflict.
But it was not clear how Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, would react to the invitation to Iran. The coalition had agreed on Sunday to attend the Geneva peace talks.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said he had issued the invitation to Iran after long talks in recent days with Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif.
Ban said Zarif had assured him Iran "understands that the basis of the talks" was the full implementation of the road map adopted by the United States, Russia and other major powers in Geneva in June 2012. That plan called for the creation of a transitional Syrian Government with full executive powers.