Foreign rebel fighters in the Syrian Civil War
During the course of the Syrian Civil War many foreign fighters have been documented to have fought for Syria's rebel forces, either for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (which has elicited the biggest international response), Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army or other factions. Many foreign fighters have also died in the conflict. Fighters include those from the Gulf Arab states, Tunisia (following its own Tunisian revolution), Libya (following the similar Libyan Civil War), Bosnia, China, other Arab states, Russia's Chechnya and North Caucasus region and Western countries (despite warnings of radicalism from those governments). The conflict has taken on a largely sectarian bent with foreign Sunnis fighting for the opposition, while foreign Shias fight for the government. Estimates of the total number of foreign Sunnis who have fought for the rebels over the course of the conflict range from 5,000 to over 10,000, while foreign Shia fighters are thought to number around 10,000 at the most. Over 600 foreign fighters were killed in the first half of 2013 alone.
- 1 Reasons
- 2 Passage
- 3 Arab world
- 4 China
- 5 Central Asia
- 6 Eastern Europe
- 7 Southeast Asia
- 8 Western countries
- 9 Pakistan
- 10 Others
- 11 Reactions
- 12 Blowback
- 13 See also
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
One reason suggested for the influx of foreigners in the fight is that the Syrian government took no steps to curtail the inflow of foreigners who then moved to Iraq during the Iraqi insurgency. In the first half of 2012, 700-1,400 fighters were said to have entered Syria. In 2011 total foreign fighters were roughly in line with foreign fighters in other Muslim jihads such as Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan (In the 1980s and 2000s) and Iraq at up to 10% of the fighters. Their numbers continue to increase, however, and may now number more than 11,000. Syria's easy accessibility through Turkey is probably an important factor in making it the current number one destination for jihad. Places such as Tunisia had a high number of fighters abroad due to the accessible mobility and expatriates and larger middle class than most other countries. Syria was said to be a breeding ground for fighters as most foreign recruits had little or no combat experience. An analysis of martyrdom videos indicated that of the 600 reported dead in the first half of 2013, less than 20 of the dead fighters were experienced fighters from Afghanistan, Libya, or elsewhere.
Most fighters travel to Turkey first before slipping across the border with somewhat lesser contingents coming from Lebanon and even fewer from Jordan and Iraq; many of the fighters also use forged passports as they try and escape secret services. Upon entering the country, many of the Islamist fighters were dispersed to the various groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham and the Nusra Front. Languages reportedly spoken in rebel camps include: Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, the Saudi Arabic dialect and Urdu (Pakistan or India). In regards to the Free Syrian Army, The Guardian reported the recruits to be more secretive. Jihadist internet fora have also been fertile recruiting grounds. The easy access to the country was a reason for the growing number of foreign fighters. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that Libyan fighting leader Abu-Yahya indicated an easy travel route for Tunisian and Libyan fighters, who are first trained in Libya to fight in Syria and then smuggled into Syria with the help of militant groups.
Even in July 2013, it was reported that foreign fighters continued to come to Syria and commit atrocities against both supporters and opponents of the government, as well as clashing with moderate rebel groups. This followed President Bashar al-Assad signing into law a bill that would punish anyone entering the country illegally with jail time and a fine. The fine would be between five million and 10 million Syrian pounds.
The total number of foreign fighters was estimated to be the largest for Libyans with several hundred fighters; Saudis numbered at least 330; several hundred Egyptian Islamists; about 300 Iraqis and over 500 Jordananians.
Bahraini Sunni sheikh Adel al-Hamad said that his son, Abdulrahman, was killed while fighting in Syria and that he had "hoped to fall as a martyr." He added: "He visited Syria once, then he returned to Bahrain where he prepared for his fighting gear and returned to Syria." In response, Interior Minister Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa said that support should be given from the international community and that individuals should not be indoctrinated and radicalised. It follows calls from mosques to join the "jihad" in Syria. There are also Saudi fighters. USA Today reported that over 1,200 death row inmates were sent from Saudi Arabia to fight against the Syrian government.
Mostly Lebanese fighters tend to have their own groups and militias. Members of Fatah al-Islam and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades were also present though they were fighting under independent banners. Many Lebanese fighters for the opposition come from the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli. The city's Sunni cleric Sheik Masen al-Mohammed said: "The struggle for freedom in Syria is our own struggle for freedom. We Lebanese are part of the Syrian revolution, [sic] part of the rebellion. If Syria gains its freedom, then we will also win in Lebanon." He also said of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he was an "infidel...It is the duty of every Muslim, every Arab to fight the infidels. There is a holy war in Syria and the young men there are conducting jihad. For blood, for honor, for freedom, for dignity. We know of Palestinian, Libyan and Yemen fighters who are active there."
Libya's Transitional National Government was the first and only UN recognised entity to see the Syrian National Council as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. In December 2011, it was reported in the French media that the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group's Abdulhakim Belhadj's associate Abd al-Mehdi al-Harati was leading a Libyan group of fighters with rumours suggesting some of the Nusra Front's fighters came from this group. Arms from the recently concluded Libyan Civil War were also present in Syria. While many fighters from the civil war were reported to have gone to fight in Syria, several were said to have returned home amidst escalating violence and threats of a new civil war. Towards the end of 2014, the city of Derna reportedly swore allegiance to ISIS, the first outside Syria or Iraq.
Following the first Arab Spring uprising that led to the Tunisian revolution, where the Islamist Ennahda party came to power, many Tunisian fighters also fought alongside the Syrian opposition fighters. In early 2012, Tunisia also withdrew recognition of Syria. Tunisians have also been killed and captured in Syria, with at least five deaths from the town of Ben Guerdane, from where many fighters make their out of Tunisia to Syria. The Syrian government also informed the United Nations of the arrest of 26 alleged al-Qaeda militants, 19 of whom were Tunisian. Tunisians are reportedly a large percentage of the foreign Arab fighters in the country. President Moncef Marzouki's spokesman Adnan Mancer said that the government was trying to follow up on the fate of Tunisians in Syria with the help of international organisations like the Red Cross as it had cut official ties with the government. He said: "Our youth have good intentions, but it is possible they fell into the hands of manipulators."
In March 2013, an inquiry was initiated in the recruiting of Tunisian Islamists. In May, Foreign Minister Othmane Jarandi said that there were about 800 Tunisians fighting for the opposition in Syria. He added that "the repatriation of Tunisians can be facilitated by the embassy in Lebanon after the government makes contact with the Syrian authorities about imprisoned Tunisian citizens."
Rifts within the al-Qaeda subgroups were also exposed by the war. Amongst the various Iraqis fighting in Syria's opposition are Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also issued a video tape that said his group had merged with the Nusra Front in order to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. However, Nusra Front disavowed the claim, while al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered them to be separate groups. al-Baghdadi then issued another video tape in which he rejected al-Zawahiri's ruling.
Israeli-Arabs were also found to have traveled to Syria and fought for the rebels. At least one returnee, who was reportedly asked to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel, was convicted of "endangering national security." Judge Avraham Yaakov said at a session of the trial at Lod district court that "there's no legal guidance regarding the rebel groups fighting in Syria."
In June 2013, a recently promoted Jordanian Air Force captain was reported to have taken leave from his job and traveled to Turkey in order to fight for the Nusra Front. Yemenis have also fought for both sides in the Syrian battle; Palestinians have also fought for both sides of the conflict with Hamas being more supportive of the opposition and the PFLP-GC supporting the government. A leading Mauritanian jihadist ideologue, Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, has called for support for the Nusra Front. Most recruits are Arabs (Lebanese, Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Kuwaitis, Tunisians, Libyans, Algerians, Egyptians, Saudis, Sudanese and Yemenis). The largest contingents of about 500-900 fighters come from Syria's neighbors: Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians and Jordanians, many of whom fought U.S. forces in Iraq. The second-largest contingent is from other Arab countries in North Africa: around 75-300 fighters from Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also called for a jihad in Syria with the main target of message said to be Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
In November 2014, five people were jailed in Jordan for three to five years for "promoting... terrorist organisations" in reference to ISIS. Two others were also on trial as part of a crackdown on militants.
In response to a flare-up of violence in Xinjiang, China, the Chinese media blamed violence on extremists from Syria. The Global Times reported that members of an East Turkestan faction had traveled from Turkey to Syria. "This Global Times reporter has recently exclusively learned from the Chinese anti-terrorism authorities that since 2012, some members of the 'East Turkestan' faction have entered Syria from Turkey, participated in extremist, religious and terrorist organisations within the Syrian opposition forces and fought against the Syrian army. At the same time, these elements from 'East Turkestan' have identified candidates to sneak into Chinese territory to plan and execute terrorist attacks." It also cited the arrest of 23-year-old Maimaiti Aili, of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and said that he fought in the Syrian Civil War. Dilxat Raxit, the Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uyghur Congress, replied to the accusation that "Uighurs already find it very difficult to get passports, how can they run off to Syria?" While the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying did not directly respond to the claims she said that China has "also noted that in recent years East Turkestan terrorist forces and international terrorist organizations have been uniting, not only threatening China's national security but also the peace and stability of relevant countries and regions."
Footage also emerged online of a Chinese rebel fighter in Syria, ne Bo Wang, a Muslim convert who calls himself Youssef. He appeared in a video in the northern Syrian countryside, in which he condemned the Syrian government for "butchering every Muslim here in cold blood, including children and women" and stating that "people have no freedom, no democracy, no security and no respect here, not at all." He also spoke of historical Chinese ties to Syria, claiming that the Chinese government had destroyed the "traditional friendship between the Chinese and Arab people" because they "sell weapons and provide financial assistance to the Assad government." He also apologised for his government's support for the government and warned them that if they continued to do so "all Islamic countries will join together to implement economic sanctions on China."
There are also sightings of Uyghur fighters in both ISIS and Al-Nusra Front while Han Chinese fighters are less prevalent in FSA.
In September 2013, a Kazakh and two Kyrgyz returned from Syria and were arrested in Osh on terrorism charges on claims that they were sent to Kyrgyzstan by the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to perpetrate attacks. In early February 2014, six suspects were arrested in Osh, some of whom were said to have trained in camps in Syria before returning to Kyrgyzstan. They were reportedly planning attacks in Osh and Bishkek. Some Kyrgyz fighters that were known to be in Syria joined the Al Nusrah Front.
It's estimated that the number of Azerbaijanis in Syria ranges from 200 to 300.
Muslims from the Balkans region also joined the opposition fight against the government, with some dying while fighting. Many recruits came from Serbia's Sandzak region, particularly Novi Pazar. Several hundred Muslims also traveled from Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Many of the recruits were Salafists and, though denied by some Salafist leaders, Resad Plojovic, the deputy leader of the Sandzak muftiate, said that "some organisations and individuals [are recruiting Balkan Muslims]. There are centers or individuals who probably have connections with certain organisations, and they are motivating people. They also may know ways to transport them to the war zone. Let’s be frank. Many here do not even know where Syria is. They cannot know how to go there and get involved in all that is happening there." Anel Grbovic is a journalist from Novi Pazar, said that most fighters from Serbia were removed from the country's two official Islamic communities[which?] before traveling to Syria. "The fact is, there are illegal organisations recruiting people here. The fact is, there are houses where they come together. The fact is, there are facilities where they conduct their religious rituals – which mean they exclude themselves from the mosque. That means they exclude themselves from the system of the Islamic community and are more easily influenced by some individuals or organisations." As for Albanian Muslims in Kosovo and Macedonia, they fought for the rebels in order to help "Sunni brothers" in their fight. At least one Macedonian fighter said he was recruited via an intermediary in Vienna. From Bosnia-Herzegovina, many Bosniaks joined the Nusra Front as Salafists (Salafism came to Bosnia during the Bosnian War with Saudi financing, though foreign fighters in that war stayed on in the country despite controversy). Some of relatives of the fighters have said that the leader of the predominantly Salafist Bosnian village of Gornja Maoča, Nusret Imamovic, recruited the fighters; however he refused to be interviewed about the allegations. The Director of the Bosnian State Investigation and Protection Agency Goran Zubac said that his office had questioned at least eight men linked to recruiting and sending the fighters to Syria, while he said his office was monitoring the Salafists. "If our priority is to fight against terrorism and these activities are a part of this sector, then you can rest assured that nobody in the State Investigation and Protection Agency is sleeping."
FTV reported that a group of 52 Bosniak fighters went to Syria since the fighting commenced, though 32 fighters returned, while two were killed. An additional nine Bosniaks released a video tape saying they were going to fight in Homs, though they also mentioned the jihads in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chechnya and Russia
Kavkaz Center reported that dozens Chechens and other fighters from the north Caucasus regions of Russia had joined the fight against the Syrian government. It was even suggested that this group makes up the largest contingent of foreign fighters outside Libya. The leader of one such group, Brigade of Martyrs, Abu Omar al-Chechen, said: "Jihad needs very many things. Firstly it needs money. Much is dependent on money today for jihad. [We] have missed many chances, but truly today there is a chance to establish an Islamic state on Earth." At least 17 fighters from the region were reported to have been killed in Aleppo, while opposition fighters have lauded their fighting skill due the previous First Chechen War and Second Chechen War as well as the insurgent spillover into Ingushetia, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. The Federal Security Service estimated that about 200 Russian citizens were fighting for the Syrian opposition, while it expressed fears the fighters could carry out militant attacks upon returning. As of early December 2013, the Russian media estimate for Russian citizens fighting for the rebels was increased to 400.
The Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, which was said to be cooperating with the Nusra Front,now with Ansar al-Deen Front, was one of the leading recruiters of foreign fighters. Its online forum was said to show an easy access route, via Turkey, to the battlefield, which brought in more fighters. The Free Beacon also reported that Chechen fighters were bringing with them Russian-made SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles which are shoulder-fired and could be used to target civilian commercial airliners.
Indonesia is estimated to have about 200 of it citizens fighting in Syria.It is suspected that more than 200 Filipinos,members of Abu Sayyaf and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters are training and fighting in Iraq and Syria under Islamic State.
Both European converts and immigrant or immigrant's children have gone to fight for the Syrian opposition. This includes citizens from France (with the leading number of fighters), followed by the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands  and Italy. EU anti-terrorism coordinator Gilles De Kerckhove said that this was a worrying trend as those who return could be more radicalized. EUROPOL Director Rob Wainright issued his 2013 report and said that the returning fighters "could incite other volunteers to join the armed struggle," as well as use their training, combat experience, knowledge and contacts to conduct such activities within the EU. There were also Australians and citizens of the United States fighting for the Syrian opposition camp, despite warnings from their government that they could be prosecuted for terrorism amid fears they could return home and carry out attacks. Australian security agencies estimated about 200 Australians to be fighting in the country with dozens said to be part of the Nusra Front.
The first European to fight for the Syrian opposition was reported by Der Spiegel to be a fighter for the Free Syrian Army who was "a Frenchman who had just turned 24 and comes from a wealthy family. He just turned up here with his credit card in hand." A Michigan-born U.S.-convert to Islam was also the first U.S. citizen to be killed in Syria, reportedly by the government, as she was taking part in a reconnaissance mission with two Britons near Aleppo. In July 2013, an U.S.-Egyptian man named Amiir Farouk Ibrahim (from Pennsylvania) went missing in Syria, presumed by the media to be fighting with rebel forces. His passport was discovered, amongst others, in an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant base which had been captured by Kurdish rebels. His family was aware he was in Syria, but his father did not believe that his son had gone there for humanitarian purposes. On 3 August, two Lebanese-Swedish brothers, Hassan and Moatasem Deeb, were killed in a rebel assault on the Abu Zeid army checkpoint near Qalaat al-Hosn, according to their cousin and a Tripoli cleric. Moatasem died as he exploded his suicide vest in a car at the checkpoint and his brother died in the ensuing fighting. This followed their other brother, Rabih's, death in Tripoli the previous year. The cleric claimed that the deaths were not in vain as that the checkpoint had been taken by rebels. A suicide attack on a school where Syrian troops were stationed in Deir al-Zor was said to have been perpetrated by an Australian named Abu Asma al-Australi for the al-Nusra Front. Reports indicated he was from Queensland and travelled to Syria with his wife before sending her back to Australia. A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that the Australian government was aware of the reports that an Australian had killed himself, but could not confirm any of the speculation. He added that the government had concern about its citizens fighting in the country, including with the al-Nusra Front.
The Syrian-born head of a Stockholm mosque, Haytham Rahmeh, reportedly smuggled weapons to the rebels for 18 months. Rahmeh, a member of the Syrian National Council and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was said to have bought the weapons mainly in Libya and with support from the Commission for Civilian Protection and then transported them through Turkey to Syria. In June 2013, the chief analyst[who?] at the Swedish intelligence agency[which?] expressed concern about the dangers of those returning from the fighting and noted that at least 30 Swedes were known to have fought in Syria and “many” had returned. On 27 May 2014, a Somali and two Kosovars, all Norwegian citizens from Oslo, were arrested after being suspected of supporting the ISIS. The death of Kosovar, Egzon Avdyli, who grew up in Norway was highlighted in the media as he fought for ISIS. He was also a spokesman for the Norway-based Prophet's Ummah and was said to have left for Syria earlier in the year. He "supported the establishment of an Islamic state in Norway or other Western countries." At least 50 Norwegians were thought to have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamists, with Norwegian intelligence groups said to be concerned of the danger of them returning. In a joint operation in mid-March, Spanish and Moroccan security services targeted an al Qaeda recruiting network and arrested four suspected members in Spain and three others in Morocco. The network, whose activities extend to Morocco, Belgium, France, Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Mali, Indonesia, and Syria, is headed by Melilla resident Mustafa Maya Amaya, who funneled recruits to the ISIS, the Al Nusrah Front and AQIM. Some of those arrested had returned home from conflict zones such as Syria; and in January, a suspected jihadist returning from Syria was arrested in Malaga as a potential "threat to national security." On 30 April, Spanish security forces, working with French police, arrested Abdelmalek Tanem, a dual Algerian-French citizen, in Almeria, who had recently returned from Syria where he worked towards facilitating integration of Europeans into the Al Nusrah Front and ISIS. On 30 May 2014, Spanish security forces arrested six people in Melilla who were involved in a network that sends fighters to al Qaeda camps in Syria, Mali, and Libya. The cell leader, Benaissa Laghmouchi Baghdadi, had spent eight months in Syria and also had ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Mali. Some of those arrested also had linked to Sharia4Spain.
Western countries, including the U.K., have provided aid to the rebels. As of November, 2013, there are believed to be approximately 600 fighters from Western countries in Syria. Norway's Thomas Hegghammer issued a report that suggested one in nine Westerners who fight in foreign jihadist insurgencies end up becoming involved in attack plots back home. The Associate Director of the Melbourne School of Government David Malet, however, suggested that while research on foreign fighters was a new field, different studies showed another view to the likelihood of blowback from returning fighters. "Other studies show that most foreign fighters simply resume their previous lives so long as they are provided amnesty."
The U.K. arrested former Guantanamo Bay detention camp detainee Moazzam Begg for "attending [a] terrorist training camp" in Syria and "facilitating terrorism overseas." Meanwhile, France was estimated to have up to 700 of its citizens fighting in Syria. At least one pregnant Austrian indicated she wanted to return home.
There were an estimated 50–100 Australians fighting in the country as of January 2014, with total calculations for the war reaching about 200 fighters. About six were reported to have died and the others were suggested as having returned home. In Sydney and Melbourne, in particular, opponents and supporters of the government have resorted to beatings, assaults, shootings and property, largely along sectarian lines. There were more than 15 incidents of violence involving members of the Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian communities, although in 2013 it had decreased from the previous year. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) reported at the end of the year: "The situation in Syria, with the potential for violence spilling into other parts of the Middle East, increases the possibility of associated communal violence in Australia and remains a concern for ASIO." Zaky Mallah, the first person to be charged and acquitted under Australia's anti-terrorism laws, suggested: "The majority of Australians heading to Syria are from Lebanese backgrounds. The Lebanese youth here feel disadvantaged, isolated and discriminated against. Many [are] unemployed and have turned to religion as a result." After the death of a couple from western Sydney in the country, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison suggested those fighting in Syria could risk losing their citizenship, while the Australian Federal Police added that those returning from the fighting would be considered a national security threat. ASIO confiscated the passports of those it suspected of travelling to engage in "politically motivated violence;" from mid-2012 to mid-2013 18 passports were confiscated. Former Victoria Multicultural Affairs Commissioner and founder of the Australian Arabic Council Joseph Wakim said:
"The new coalition government has been critical of both sides and sympathetic to the Christian minorities who have been targeted by the anti-Assad [sic] forces. With Australia's suite of anti-terror laws, and concerted efforts by our intelligence agencies to share resources and establish strategic community contacts, Australia's buffer against terrorist acts has been bolstered. Local community elders and clerics have also been more vigilant and public in encouraging good citizenship and close cooperation with authorities, including denouncing potential terrorists. [Those Australian fighting in Syria had a perceived moral duty to aid their Muslim brothers to] rid Syria of an infidel secular authoritarian regime and replace it with one that upholds their brand version of pure Islam. While there is no evidence of such individuals planning attacks in Australia, their recruitment activities tap into a population of Australian-born and disengaged youth searching for a worthy cause – and at times martyrdom."
As of January 2015, the Department of Justice and Equality estimates that approximately 50 Irish residents have travelled to Syria to fight for rebel forces in the civil war since 2011. At least three Irish citizens have been killed in combat. According to the Department of Justice, many have "participated in the conflict under the flag of fundamentalist and extreme organisations" and "may pose certain threats" upon their return to Ireland and the European Union. The Garda Síochána (Irish national police) "will continue to monitor developments in this area and take action as required," including officers from the Garda Middle Eastern Bureau of the Special Detective Unit (SDU) and Garda Racial, Intercultural and Diversity Office (GRIDO). According to The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), "per capita, Ireland is probably the biggest (contributor of fighters) of all the countries we looked at because Ireland has a small population."
According to media reports, Garda and military intelligence are monitoring between 30 and 60 potential Islamist fighters both in the Irish state and Irish citizens fighting abroad in Syria and Iraq.
Robin Simcox of the Henry Jackson Society claimed that the number of British citizens who went to fight in Syria is higher than during the Iraq War and Afghanistan War combined. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation assessed that up to 366 British citizens had been involved in the war in Syria as of December 2013. The Rayat al-Tawheed group is composed of British combatants linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Similarly, the suffix "al-Britani" was adopted by British Islamist fighters. In May 2014, a British citizen was killed in fighting. The Free Syrian Army's Abdullah al-Bashir asserted that British fighters were the largest foreign contingent of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. There were also a few British-Somali fighters for ISIS.
During Ramadan 2014, over 140 Imams signed an open letter asking British Muslims not to travel to Syria (as well as ISIS conflict that had spread to Iraq at the time). Additionally, they were urged to make donations to people in the country from the U.K. itself with one such imam, Shahid Raza of Leicester Central Mosque, making the call. In October 2014, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said: "We still have an average of five people joining them (ISIS) a week. Five a week doesn't sound much but when you realise there are 50 weeks in a year, [sic] 250 more would be 50% more than we think have gone already. Those are the ones that we believe have gone. There may be many more who set out to travel to another country and meandered over to Syria and Iraq in a way that is not always possible to spot when you have failed states and leaky borders." He added that this estimate was a "minimum" and "the drumbeat of terrorism in Britain" is now "faster and more intense."
At least one aspirant convert attacker, had his passport confiscated on suspicion he was to go overseas to fight. On 21 October, he was killed after trying to run over two Canadian security service personnel.
An ISIS video released by British-based Abu Muthanna al Yemeni claimed "We have brothers from Bangladesh, from Iraq, from Cambodia, Australia, U.K." ISIS also threatened fighters with execution for returning to Britain. In November, Regnum reported that "White Widow" Samantha Lewthwaite, who had fought in Syria the previous month, was shot dead by a Russian voluntary sniper while she was fighting for the Ukrainian volunteer battalion Aidar during the War in Donbass. Though it was not formally verified, while her father has not confirmed the reports, it was reported in the Western press.
The Pakistani Taliban said that its fighters, from a variety of countries, were fighting against the Syrian government. They were reportedly working with the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda in Iraq, which have grouped themselves under the banner of the Syrian Islamic Front. The group's commanders said that they sought to fight in Syria in order to foster closer links with al-Qaeda's central leadership. An unnamed Taliban commander was quoted by Reuters as saying that the group was fighting alongside their "Mujahedeen friends. When our brothers needed our help, we sent hundreds of fighters along with our Arab friends." He added that videos would be released showing the group's "victories" in Syria. Another commander said: "Since our Arab brothers have come here for our support, we are bound to help them in their respective countries and that is what we did in Syria. We have established our own camps in Syria. Some of our people go and then return after spending some time fighting there. The group's spokesman, Abdul Rashid Abbasi, said on 16 July 2013 that its first batch of fighters had arrived in Syria and set up a command and control centre and that another batch of at least 120 fighters were expected to join the others within a week. While a militant said that 100 fighters had reached Syria and another 20 were on the way with an untold number of volunteers waiting, the Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry said: "We have seen these reports in the media and the concerned authorities are verifying these claims by the militants." However, the Syrian National Council released a statement that read: "We ask for clarification regarding coverage that reflects poorly on the Syrian revolution, particularly news about Taliban's office in Syria and other news items about Islamist fighters." It also cited the Taliban's Shura Council as denying the news and calling it a "rumor." Specifically, Ahmed Kamel said the reports of the Taliban's presence were a "systematic" and "rapid" campaign by pro-government outlets to "smear" the rebels. He said that these were "sick attempts to make the Syrian people look like a bunch of radical Islamists. Syria is bigger than all of these lies and we know, based on our contacts inside Syria, that no Pakistani Taliban are fighting alongside the Syrian rebels. The Taliban want to kill Americans and Israelis, so why they should go to Syria when we are fighting for freedom, democracy and justice against a tyrant?"
Other Non-Arab fighters came from Turkey, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Though they were reported to be callous, under-trained and poor, particularly in comparison to the Chechens. Other Muslim contingents included: South and Central Asians (Afghans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis), Westerners (Belgian, British, French, U.S., Australia, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada and Austria), as well as Azerbaijan (members of the country's Sunni minority), Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. The core foreign support lies with the Al Qaeda-linked ISIS, which is in opposition to the Islamic Front and other non-Islamist groups. Reports indicated the inclusion of Buddhist-majority Khmers fighting with ISIS, including those who studied in madrassas in the Middle East.
On 3 July 2013, it was reported that Syrian aircraft had dropped leaflets over areas in Idlib province calling on both rebels to turn themselves over to the authorities and for foreign fighters to return to their countries.
In June 2014, the European Union's Director of Justice and Home Affairs Gilles de Kerchove estimated that there were about 500 fighters from the E.U. with the U.K., Ireland and France estimated to have the most citizens fighting there. He added that while "not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalised there, will be trained. And as we've seen this might lead to a serious threat when they get back." European intelligence agencies were said to have stepped up investigations with Britain and Belgium increasing efforts to track how people are recruited. The Netherlands' officials raised the terror threat level to "substantial" partly over concerns about radicalised citizens returning from Syria.
The director of the U.S. government's National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen told the Aspen Security Forum that an increasing number of foreign fighters from the West were fighting for the Nusra Front and that they were "the most capable fighting force within the opposition. Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world. We see foreign fighters going from Western Europe and, in a small number of cases, from the United States to Syria to fight for the opposition." He, along with other speakers, speculated that there was an increased threat of attacks should the fighters return home. The European Union's counter-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, said that about 600 fighters had traveled from Europe to Syria and that should the Balkans and North Africa be counted there would be thousands of fighters. Olsen added that "the concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalised, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States."
Despite former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's call for a jihad in Syria, the interim leadership in the country said that it had no intention of calling for such a jihad and that it would re-evaluate Morsi's cutting of diplomatic relations with Syria. On 8 July, following the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état, amid fears that many fighters were going to Egypt in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt put travel restrictions on Syrian entering that country and required a visa before they entered Egypt.
The Kremlin was said to be concerned about links between northern Caucasus militants and the Islamist oppositions fighters. The Australian government was also concerned about returning fighters.
Saudi Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh called for Syrians to be "enable[d]" to protect themselves. He also said of fighters going to the country that "this is all wrong, it's not obligatory. I do not advise one to go there...you will be a burden to them, what they want from you is your prayer. These are feuding factions and one should not go there. I do not advise one to go there...Going to a land that you do not know and without experience, you will be a burden to them, what they want from you is your prayer. Muslim should be fearful of God and not deceive young Muslims and exploit their weakness and lack of insight and push them to an abyss. I advise them to advise as they would advise their sons." This was seen as a Saudi fear of its citizens returning home with skills they learnt against the Saudi state.
Turkish intelligence supported Islamist radicals like the al-Nusra Front and aided their passage into Syria and supported arming the rebels. Then President Abdullah Gul said Syria risks becoming "Afghanistan on the shores of the Mediterranean" and that Turkey could become a Mediterranean Pakistan.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls said that French national fighting for extremist groups could become enemies of France when they return to home. The Norwegian Police Security Service estimated that up to 40 Norwegians had gone to Syria to fight, but that the number might be higher. As of November 2013 at least five are presumed dead and some have returned to Norway. Many are recruited through Islamist groups in Norway and fight for organisations such as Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, ISIS and al-Nusra. Both the Security Service and academics have expressed worry that returning fighters might pose a future threat to Norway. The U.K. also confirmed over 200 Syrian trained fighters had returned home with the intent to carry out attacks.
In April 2014, it was announced that nine unnamed European countries were to take measures to prevent its citizens from fighting in Syria. They would be joined by the United States, Turkey, Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia. Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet said that his country had taken steps in 2014 to address the problem and sought to increase international cooperation in the matter because "coping with the return [of fighters], that is our main concern." It followed European Union warnings that its citizens were going to fight in Syria and countries like Somalia and Sudan and that they could return more radicalised and trained in guerrilla tactics that could prove a security risk. Milquet added that an informal ministerial group with France in 2013 year, brought together officials from the U.K., Netherlands and Spain, which, in turn, then met officials from the U.S., Canada and Australia. France and England had also announced plans to prevent their citizens from fighting in Syria. France announced a set of 20 measures to deal with the issue with President Francois Holland saying "France will take all measures to dissuade, prevent and punish those who are tempted to fight where they have no reason to be," while Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius estimated that about 500 French citizens were involved in the conflict. The U.K. police announced that they would appeal to Muslim women to help persuade youths not to fight in the war. In April 2014, the U.K. enacted Operation Mum that seeks Muslim women informing against family members who consider going to Syria to fight. It comes as up to 700 citizens were said to have traveled there, with 20 known deaths and more in detention.
Australia expressed concern that veterans of the conflict posed a graver threat that those during the September 11 attacks, while another unnamed official compared the threat to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said:
This is a big issue; it’s concerning people right around the world. We have an ongoing Islamist terror threat and the situation in Syria has the potential to escalate that threat as militarised radicals come back. I don’t say that there is any simple solution to this problem, but the vigilance that’s been maintained since 2001 needs to be increased in these circumstances and its certainly no time to be reducing the emphasis on good intelligence which has been a very important part of Australia’s response to the terror threat ever since then.
Abbott signed an agreement with French President François Hollande to share intelligence on each other’s citizens who had fought in Syria. He made a similar deal with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when the met on Batam Island in early June 2014.
The ISIS flag was seen being waved thrice in Jammu and Kashmir. However, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah alleged that: "You have to understand that no ISIS group has been identified so far in the valley. The flag of the ISIS was waved by some idiots, which does not mean that ISIS has any presence in Kashmir." He further noted that legal action was taken against the tailor who made it and those who flew it. In another instance it was waved after Friday prayers.
The governments of Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines were also concerned about returning fighters. On at least one occasion Malaysian reports indicated that four new terrorist groups have emerged to stake a claim over parts of mainland Southeast Asia. While some arrests were made, another five Malaysian men had fled to the Philippines to be in concert with Abu Sayyaf. Malaysia's first suicide bomber attack occurred under the auspices of ISIS (though in Iraq).
In 2014, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz introduced the Expatriate Terrorist Act which would allow the federal government go to court to revoke the citizenship of those who joins or aids a foreign terrorist group. He cited his view that it was "necessary" to prevent citizens to fight for ISIS from returning to carry out "unspeakable acts of terror here at home."
In at least Suluk in Raqqa, ISIS was teaching their version of Sharia to Europeans and other foreigners at a house. Further, at least three fathers, two Belgians and a Russian, traveled to northern Syria to try and bring home their sons fighting for the opposition. Another former Belgian soldier successfully brought back his son from Syria.
Western reactions have generally been of concern for blowback from the returning Islamist foreign fighters. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said: "The balance of power within the Syrian opposition between responsible forces and terrorists is already murky at best. If even more al Qaeda supporters are moving in, it raises the risks of supplying weapons even to 'friendly' opposition forces even higher." Former CIA official and former staff member of the White House National Security Council Bruce Riedel added: "Syria is the new epicenter for the global jihad with would be 'martyrs' arriving from across the Islamic world to fight Assad. [sic] They are getting experience in the terror arts they will bring home." Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote that "not everyone who has joined the Syrian rebels is al Qaeda, and only a small number may ever become involved in terrorism after returning to Europe. That said, it would be wrong to conclude that individuals who have trained and fought in Syria pose no potential threat. Numerous studies show that individuals with foreign training and/or fighting experience have featured prominently in European based terrorist plots. [Other studies have shown that foreign-trained fighters] are far more lethal, dangerous and sophisticated than purely domestic cells." He suggested a recurrence of roving attackers that followed the Iraq war in the 2000s, the Bosnia war in the 1990s and the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.
The Free Beacon suggested the growing number of foreign fighters was indicated by the release of videos such as one showing the execution of three Christians, including a Roman Catholic priest. Other such videos are the increasing number of "martyrdom announcements." The New York Times suggested the influx of foreign Islamist fighters could make Syria a new haven for such fighters akin to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment's Thomas Hegghammer estimated in November 2013 that between 1,132 and 1,707 Europeans from 12 such countries had gone to Syria to fight, with a majority from France (200–400), the United Kingdom (200–300) and Belgium (100–300).
Turkey was said to be concerned about the presence of radical jihadists on their border with Syria. The Carnegie Middle East Center noted the "unprecedented" speed at which the numbers of fighters have mobilised in comparison to earlier modern conflicts in the Islamic world.
Shahriman Lockman of the Malaysia-based Institute of Strategic & International Studies said of the return of fighters: "It is worrisome, yes. If they wanted a safe haven for their training and operations, they could easily go to the numerous failed states in Africa. But they chose to operate from Malaysia, where the risk of being under surveillance is much higher."
Amidst concern of blowback, the first reported case of a former fighter in the conflict to attack those outside Syria occurred in May 2014 at the Jewish Museum of Belgium shooting. Though unconfirmed, ISIS reportedly claimed responsibility for the 2014 shootings at Parliament Hill, Ottawa.
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