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CIAO Focus, October 2014: Syria's Foreign Jihadists

According to a report published last June by the New York based Soufan Group, at least 12,000 foreign fighters from as many as 81 nations have entered Syria over the past three years.  Although it is estimated that 3,000 of these jihadists hail from western nations, the vast majority of them are from the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia is the largest country of origin with 3,000 fighters followed by Saudi Arabia (2,500) and Morocco (1,500).

However, since Abu Bakr al-Afghani, the leader of Islamic State, declared the establishment of a caliphate on June 29 it is thought that the surge of foreign fighters into Syria has increased exponentially.  The Syrian Civil War has attracted more foreign fighters than either the jihadist war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s or the more recent insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. 

The dominant militant Muslim groups currently fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and the so called Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS and ISIL).  All three are al-Qa’eda splinter groups but Islamic State has managed to recruit the greatest number of foreigners into its ranks. The latter’s attraction to foreign fighters probably lies in its willingness to use other languages besides Arabic to recruit new members as well as its successes on the battlefield.  Islamic State has so far conquered a swath of territory the size of Jordan. 

There are myriad factors that influence young men (and some women) to leave their home countries to go and fight a jihad in Syria as the Soufan Group points out: Few job prospects for college graduates; a failure to carry out political reforms; and perhaps most importantly, the inability or unwillingness of institutions to address the rage and despair that tends to radicalize so many young people living in developing nations.  A recent article published in The Economist that looks at westerners fighting in Syria suggests that young Muslims living in non-Muslim countries are struggling with ennui and marginalization at home and seek adventure and glory in addition to a sense of belonging by joining a jihad movement in the Middle East. 

What happens to these fighters when they return home is a matter of great concern at the moment.  The attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium last March by a returning jihadist has convinced many in the media that a “blowback problem” constitutes an imminent security threat.  However, Daniel Byman, a security studies expert at Georgetown University cautions that while it is important to be vigilant with respect to returning jihadists, we mustn’t exaggerate the danger they pose. 

--Robert Sedgwick, Editor, CIAO   


From the CIAO Database:

Foreign Fighters in Syria

Stories of Foreign Fighter Migration to Syria (CTC Sentinel, Vol. 7 Issue 8)

The "Home Game" Counting Violent Extremism within NATO

Foreign Fighters from North Africa in Syria and Iraq

The Middle East and North Africa: Change and Upheaval 2014

Outside Sources:

Foreign Fighters in Syria: How Great a Danger?" with Dr. Daniel Byman (Video)

ISIS and Foreign Fighters: Cutting off the Global Pipeline (Council on Foreign Relations)

It ain’t half hot here, mum (The Economist)

Iraq and Syria: Who are the foreign fighters? (BBC World News)

Homeward Bound?
Don't Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists (Brookings Institution)

Past CIAO foci can be found in the archive.

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Source: Accuracy in Media

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