Foreign Fighters in Syria

Issued on: 01/01/2014 Type: Article

This past year saw a marked increase in the involvement of foreigners in the fighting against the Syrian regime. Most join Al-Qaeda- and global jihad-affiliated organizations, gain military experience, and undergo radicalization and jihadization. They are liable to import continue terrorist and subversive activities to their countries of origin when they return (the "Afghanistan model").
Number of Foreign Fighters

1.   This study analyzes the phenomenon of foreign fighters participating in the fighting in Syria, most of them in organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad. It examines the numbers of foreign fighters coming from the main countries of origin, profiles the fighters and illustrates their potential for terrorism and subversion upon their return to their home countries. It is a continuation of the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center's September 2013 study of the Al-Nusra Front and other organizations in Syria affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad.[1] Analyses of the individual countries and regions from which the fighters come will be issued in the near future.

2.    In the civil war in Syria, which has lasted for almost three years, two main organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad gained a foothold, and most of the foreign fighters join them. The most prominent is the Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), a branch of Al-Qaeda in Syria, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its main competitor is a jihadist organization called the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As of December 2013, the two organizations have a combined membership of an estimated 9,000 fighters. Salafist-jihadi organizations not affiliated with Al-Qaeda also operate in Syria. They collaborate with the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in fighting the Syrian regime, logistically and in administering areas taken over by the rebels (the so-called "liberated areas").

3.    Our overall estimate of the number of foreign fighters in Syria is between 6,000 and 7,000, from dozens of countries,[2] and the number continually rises. Most of them (an estimated 6,000) have remained in Syria and participate in the fighting, primarily in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Some of them (an estimated 1,000) either returned to their countries of origin or were killed or wounded in the fighting, or captured by the Syrian army. We estimate the number of foreign fighters killed at about 500-700, that is, between 8% and 10% of the total number.

4.   Most of the foreign fighters come from the Arab world. We estimate their number at about 4,500, from Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Others come from Western Europe and other Western countries, especially young men who are second and sometimes third generation Muslim immigrants (especially Europeans of Moroccan extraction). We estimate their number at more than 1,000.[3] Most of them come from Belgium, Britain, France, Holland and Germany. A third group is represented by fighters who come from Muslim countries and Muslim regions in Asia, and they number an estimated 500. Among them are skilled operatives, some with previous military-terrorist experience gained in Chechnya and Pakistan.

5.   There are still relatively few Israeli Arabs and Palestiniansfighting in Syria. An estimated 15-20 are Israeli Arabs, there are dozens of Gazans whose number has risen sharply, and several score from Lebanon and Syria (especially from the Eyn al-Hilweh refugee camp in south Lebanon), and a few individual fighters from Judea and Samaria. Among the fighters from Jordan, those of Palestinian extraction are prominent. Most of the Palestinian fighters join the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations.

An American fighter calling himself Abu Dujana al-Amriki, killed in the fighting in Syria.
An American fighter calling himself Abu Dujana al-Amriki, killed in the fighting in Syria. He appears in an Islamic State video; behind him is the Al-Qaeda flag. He says that "...this is a message for the people of the West from the jihad fighters in Syria. We have come from all nationalities to defend our land, this Islamic land, to spread the Sharia of Allah on the face of the earth and to sacrifice our lives and souls for jihad. We have come to kill all those who stand in our way. This flag [of Al-Qaeda] will yet wave over the capitals of [all] the countries in the world]. With this simple weapon [pointing to the rifle he carries] we will liberate our lands and our people and bring Islamic law [the Sharia] to rule over the entire earth..." ( website

The Potential Danger of Foreign Fighters

6.   The foreign fighters in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State are a potential threat to international security. Some of them, having gained military experience and skills, and undergone Islamic jihadization and radicalization, are liable continue their terrorist and subversive activities when they return to their countries of origin. In addition, some of them may join already extant terrorist networks and become a catalyst for Islamic radicalization. Upon return they may be handled by Al-Qaeda and global jihad organizations, exploiting the personal relationships formed in Syria with other fighters. However, it is possible that only a small number of the returning foreign fighters will be enlisted into the ranks of the global jihad and will attempt to promote terrorism and subversion in their countries of origin. However, in our assessment, it is sufficient for Al-Qaeda and global jihad organizations to create a network of skilled manpower in order to carry out terrorist attacks, as happened after the war in Afghanistan.

7.    Analysis of the foreign fighters indicates that the potential level of danger is higher for Western European countries (especially those with large communities of Muslim immigrants). That is because of the following factors: the relatively large number of fighters from Western Europe; their hostility to the West and its values they absorb while in Syria (often intensifying their own feelings of deprivation and frustration); Syria's geographical proximity to Western Europe; the relative logistic and operational ease of maintaining contact between the leadership of Al-Qaeda and global jihad organizations in Syria and the terrorist and subversive networks in Europe; and the legal, political and societal difficulties encountered when combating Islamic terrorism on European soil. Moreover Al-Qaeda and the global jihad are liable to activate the veterans of the war in Syria for terrorist acts not only in Europe itself but in other Western countries as well, such as the United States (as they were activated in the United States during the events of September 11, 2001).

8.   Another potential threat is that returning foreign fighters will be employed for terrorist and subversive purposes in Arab or Muslim countries (especially in the Middle East and Central Asia). Some groups of foreign fighters have already finished their fighting ours in Syria and returned to their countries of origin. The countries involved would include Arab countries not yet affected by the regional upheaval (such Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Persian Gulf) but which support the rebels; Arab countries that have been affected but which were not taken over by Islamist organizations and which lack an effective central administration (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia); and countries and areas where the embers of Islamist jihad still smolder (Chechnya and various Muslim communities under Russian rule).

9.    The State of Israel is also liable to be exposed to such threats, even if not necessarily in the near future (since the first priority of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad organizations is to overthrow the Assad regime). That is the result of the fact that a limited number of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria have joined the fighting. Fighters who fought in Syria may endanger Israel in the following ways: Israeli Arabs, veterans of the war in Syria, may be handled for espionage, subversion and terrorism; Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria may undertake subversive and terrorist missions (jihadists returning to the Gaza Strip may endanger both the de-facto Hamas administration and Egypt); and their presence of veterans of the Syrian war may increase the operational capabilities of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist networks along Israel's borders (Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip).

10.       Thus the issue of foreign fighters has become a global problem shared by the West, Israel and the Arab-Muslim world. Western countries which in the past underwent the trauma of the "Afghanistan alumni" exploited by Al-Qaeda for terrorist purposes are aware of the dangers, but so far they have not developed effective methods to deal with them (in the fields of monitoring, prevention, legislation and punishment). The returning foreign fighters are a ticking time bomb which can only be defused by international cooperation and joint systems to neutralize their terrorist-subversive potential.


Methodological Remarks

11.      This study is a comprehensive examinationof the foreign fighters in Syria, and is based on an analysis and the cross-referencing of a large amount of information from various Arabic and Western open sources. Some of the sources dealt with the Syrian civil war in general, and some related to the specific details of each of individual countries involved. In our study we used publications issued by think tanks and experts in Western countries, mainly the United States and Great Britain. Especially helpful were the articles written by Aaron Y. Zelin from the Washington Institute, who monitors the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Syria and runs the "Jihadology" website. We found useful information on websites reporting on foreign fighters killed in Syria, especially those sites affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad. The analysis of the foreign fighters killed in Syria also provided valuable information about the live foreign fighters.

12.      There were, however, many difficulties in analyzing the phenomenon of foreign fighters:

   1) Dynamics: The Syrian civil war is far from over and the numbers of foreign fighters are not static. During the second half of 2013 there was a significant increase in the number of foreign fighters who joined the rebels. On the other hand, groups of foreigners finished their fighting tours, returned to their home countries and were replaced by new groups, while other fighters were killed, wounded or captured.

   2) Monitoring: The authorities in the countries of origin, mainly Western countries, are faced with many difficulties in monitoring the passage of the fighters to and from Syria (related to monitoring, legal, political and societal issues). On occasion information arrives only after the foreign fighters have been killed.

   3) Secrecy: The foreign fighters and the networks supporting them usually try to hide the fact that they have gone to Syria, especially to fight in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front and other organizations affiliated with the global jihad. The Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations are usually careful not to reveal the true identities of the fighters and in most cases they use either nicknames or false names. In many instances the fighters do not tell their families why they are really leaving the country, either for personal reasons or reasons of security (in some cases the family only finds out that the fighter has gone to Syria or after he dies in the fighting and information about him is posted on the Internet).

   4) Distribution of fighters among the various units: Generally speaking the fighters are spread among many different military units operating in various geographical areas. One exceptional example was the concentration of foreign fighter in an organic unit of several hundred commanded by a Chechen jihadist (Abu Omar the Chechen), most of whose members were Chechen or other foreign fighters.[4] Many units have fighters from many different countries together with local Syrian fighters.

   5) Transfer between military units: Some of the foreign fighters join the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front or other Salafist-jihadi organizations. In other instances they join the Free Syrian Army and other nationalist Syrian organizations, but transfer from one to another. Many of them, for a variety of reasons (a more attractive extremist ideology, better conditions, higher motivation and morale), eventually find themselves in organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad for a variety of reasons: more attractive, extremist ideology; better conditions (including pay); better military capabilities in comparison with other rebel organizations; the influence of veterans of other Islamic combat zones; and higher motivation and morale.

6) Large number of countries: The foreign fighters come from scores of countries (We have counted almost fifty but according to another estimate there are more than seventy.). However, the hard core comes from the Arab-Muslim world with others from Muslim communities in Western European and other countries around the globe. Sometimes there are only isolated foreign fighters from each country and sometimes several hundred, and in certain instances more than a thousand.


13.      Generally speaking, the Western media refer to the young men who join the ranks of the rebels as foreign fighters or jihad fighters, or sometimes jihad volunteers. Most of them go to Syria because of religious, sectarian or jihadist ideological motivation. Thus they are not mercenaries in the classical sense, since they are not paid or receive extraordinary benefits.

14.      However, the Al-Nusra Front and other jihadist organizations use their own complimentary terminology rooted in the early days of Islam.

   1) Al-ghurabaa: Literally, foreigners (singular al-gharib). The term comes from the oral Islamic tradition of Muhammad (the hadiths), according to which "Islam began as an alien growth within a non-Muslim space and it will again be an alien growth [to break forth again]. Blessed be the foreigners." Thus, as the first Muslims were a tiny minority, aliens among masses of non-Muslims, in the fullness of time their numbers grew, and so Islam will break forth again after it is again an alien growth among masses of non-Muslims. According to the hadith, "blessed be the foreigners [al-ghurabaa]," hinting that paradise will be their reward. According to Islamic exegesis, the renewal of Islam is one of the signs that the end of days is approaching, when heresy becomes prevalent and as a result Islam rises again. Thus the term ghurabaa refers to the fighters in Syria as the vanguard of the renewed Islam. The analogy is made between the first Muslims and the foreigners fighting in Syria to glorify the foreign fighters as pioneering the renewal of Islam ( website).

   2) Al-muhajirun/muhajirin: Literally, immigrants. The term refers to the first small group of Muslim believers who supported the prophet Muhammad and migrated with him from Mecca to Al-Madinah, and were the nucleus of the Islamic nation. Currently, in the wake of the influence of the jihadist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in Egypt in 1966, the term has acquired the secondary meaning of Islamists who leave Muslim society to found a new nation, on the grounds of the claim that other Muslims are not sufficiently orthodox in their beliefs are in effect like infidels. By implication and analogy, the foreigners fighting in Syria are like the first Muslims who pioneered the spread of Islam.

   3) Al-ansar: Literally, supporters. The term refers to those who supported Muhammad in Al-Madinah and stood by him when he emigrated from Mecca. They are counted among the first converts to Islam and were instrumental in spreading Islam. In the Syrian context al-ansar refers to the vanguard helping to spread Islam in Syria and beyond.

The Structure of The Study

15.       This study contains the following sections:

            1) The appearance of foreign fighters in Islamic arenas of confrontation

            2) The estimated number of foreign fighters

                        i) Overall estimate

                        ii) Estimates provided by Western think tanks and experts

                        iii) Monitoring fatalities

            3) Overall profile of the foreign fighters

                        i) Overview

                        ii) Motivation

                        iii) Preparing for jihad in Syria

                        iv) Military capabilities

                        v) Suicide bombers

                        vi) Countries of origin

                        vii Center vs. outlying districts

                        viii) Age

                        ix) Religion

                        x) Education

            4) Arrival in Syria

                        i) Recruitment

                        ii) Journey

                        iii) Length of stay

                        iv) Distribution of foreign fighters to various units

                        v) Return to country of origin

                        vi) Difficulties in monitoring and oversight

16. In this section of the study we have collated the overall findings of research done on foreign fighters. The individual studies of foreign fighters in their countries of origin are in preparation and will be issued in four aspects in the near future:

            1) Western countries

            2) The Arab world

            3) Muslim and non-Muslim countries in Asia

            4) Israeli Arabs and Palestinians

[1]For a comprehensive analysis of the organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad participating in fighting the regime in Syria, see the September 19, 2013 bulletin 'The Al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra) is an Al-Qaeda Salafist-jihadi network, prominent in the rebel organizations in Syria."
[2]We have identified almost 50 countries from which the foreign fighters come. According to the updated estimate of Aaron Y. Zelin (December 17, 2013), they come from 74 different countries.
[3]According to other estimates, the number of European fighters in Syria is between 1,500 and 2,000, in our assessment, an exaggeration.
[4]Such a unit was called katibat al-muhajirin (battalion of immigrants, that is, foreign fighters). As the unit increased in number it was called kataib al-muhajirin (immigrant battalions) and eventually jaish al-muhajirin wal-ansar (army of immigrants and supporters). In this study they will be called the immigrant unit. According to Aaron Y, Zelin, this military unit is linked to the Islamic State, but in our assessment is also affiliated with the Al-Nusra Front.

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