Syria – Training Ground for Western Jihadists

By Rachel Ehrenfeld
Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 @ 1:54AM

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Western governments are increasingly voicing their concern that growing numbers of their Muslim citizens who volunteered to fight the jihad in Syria, are becoming “battle-hardened extremists,” who are “exporting terrorism” to their home countries.

Both Secretary of State John Kerry and Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper warned in the past week that al Qaeda-trained American Muslim terrorists pose a growing threat to the homeland. Yet, President Obama failed to warn the nation of this threat during his State of the Union address.

Was it because after the killing of Osama bin Laden he repeatedly declared that al Qaeda was destroyed?  Or because he believes, that while the jihadis in Syria may have “aspirations” to attack the U.S., it doesn’t mean they will?

Incredibly, after having been attacked by al Qaeda that used Afghanistan as its training ground, and the similarities between al Qaeda’s development in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and the evolution of al Nusra in Syria, most Western countries have not sounded the alarm until now. But according to the latest estimates there are now more than 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria. Most reportedly are Sunni, but many jihadis are said to be Shiite who joined the fighting.

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center has produced an assessment and analysis of European jihadis in Syria.

Foreign Fighters from Western Countries in the Ranks of the Rebel Organizations Affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihad in Syria*
From The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center   

A message to the West from an American foreign fighter killed in Syria 

A foreign fighter, probably American, calling himself Abu Dujana al-Amriki, killed in the fighting in Syria. He appears in an Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (henceforth the 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…” (Weaselzippers.us website).

Overview

1. This is a follow-up study of the ITIC’s in-depth study of foreigners in Syria. It deals with foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the Syrian rebels, mainly the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (henceforth the Islamic State). We estimate their minimum number as 1,600, and their maximum number as 2,100. Most of the Western foreign fighters are from Western Europe and a small number are from other countries. Reasons for the range of numbers will be presented below. Returning to their countries of origin after having undergone military training and ideological indoctrination, they pose a potential subversive-terrorist threat.

2. The study examines the countries of origin of the Western foreign fighters according to two categories:

1) Europe (the origin of most of the Western foreign fighters)

2) Other Western countries (the United States, Canada and Australia)

3. Our current estimate is higher than the previous one of a minimum of 1,000 Western foreign fighters. One reason is the sharp rise in their overall number during the second half of 2013, mainly foreign fighters from West. Another possible reason is a growing awareness of the phenomenon and its risks, as well as an improvement in monitoring the fighters leaving for Syria and returning to their countries of origin.[1]

Western Europe

Estimated Number of European Foreign Fighters

4. The estimated number of European foreign fighters falls into a wide range for a number of reasons: the rapid rate of enlistment, especially during the second half of 2013 (necessitating the update of the estimate); information about foreign fighters is incomplete; there is no systematic register of names; some foreign fighters have returned to their countries of origin; and deaths or/or wounding, which are not always taken into account when estimates are made.

5. At the International Economic Forum held in St. Petersburg in June 2013 Russian President Putin said that in his assessment there were 600 European foreign fighters in Syria, some of them Russian (RT.com website, June 21, 2013); since then hundreds of fighters from Europe have joined the ranks of the rebels. The American Gatestone Institute estimated that the number was approaching 1000, but in our assessment that figure has not been currently updated. Updated estimates have placed the number even higher. For example, according to “European intelligence services” the number is between 1,000 and 1,7000 (Newsmax.com website, December 9, 2013). According to Belgian Minister of the Interior Joelle Milquet, “With regards to the European figures, we estimate it’s between 1,500 and 2,000, given what we have heard from our counterparts” (European Jewish Press, December 15, 2013).

Number of Fighters from the Various Countries

6. European countries from which foreign fighters join the Syrian rebels can be divided into three categories:

1) Countries with high participation, from which the number of foreign fighters may reach several hundred. They include Britain, Belgium, France, Holland, Germany and the Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia). The largest number come from Britain (more than 300).

2) Countries with medium participation, from which between several dozen and 100 fighters have gone to Syria. They include Ireland, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria.

3) Countries with low participation, from which ten or fewer fighters have gone to Syria. They include Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Romania and Switzerland.

7. The following table summaries estimates of the European foreign fighters. They are based on estimates made by local intelligence and security services, or by governments, experts and institutions and published in the European and American media.

Country

1 Britain

200-350

Based on the estimates of the British intelligence services published in the British media.

2 Belgium

200-300

3 Ireland

10-26

According to the Irish media.

4 France

200-220

According to updated estimates issued in the media based on security and intelligence agencies.

5 Holland

100-200

According to the Dutch media.

6 Spain

Between 10 and several dozen

Most of the foreign fighters come from the Spanish Morocco.

7 Italy

45-60

According to information from the local Muslim community, among others.

8 Germany

More than 200

According to a report by the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BFV, published in the local media.

9 Denmark

About 65

Estimate of the Danish security services, published in the local media.

10 Sweden

At least 30

According to an annual report issued by the Swedish intelligence services published in the local media.

11 Finland

Several dozen

Estimate of the Finnish intelligence services published in the local media.

12 Norway

30-40

Estimate of the security services of Norway published in the local media.

13 Austria

Several dozen

According to the Austrian media.

14

Ukraine

Individuals

15 Hungary

About 12

According to an estimate of Hungarian intelligence published in the local media.

16 Luxemburg

1

17 Switzerland

1

18 Romania

At least 1

19 Bulgaria

1

20 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Several dozen

According to the local media, several dozen volunteers were in Syria and returned to Bosnia

21 Republic of Kosovo

About 100

22 Macedonia

Dozens

23 Albania

More than 100

The number includes volunteers of Albanian extraction living outside the country.

24 Serbia

Individuals

25 Russia

Individuals

The large number of foreign fighters comes from Chechnya and the northern Caucasus. They will be analyzed in another study.

26 Armenia

Individuals

There is one known Armenian death.

General Profile of the European Foreign Fighters

8. An overall examination of the European foreign fighters in Syria makes it possible to determine their general characteristics (Information about the individual countries will be given below.)

1) Countries of origin: Most of the foreign fighters come from Western European countries where there are large Muslim communities (Britain, Belgium, France, Holland and Germany). Large numbers of foreign fighter also come from Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) and the Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo).

2) Motivation: Most of the foreign fighters share a Salafist-jihadi ideology. Some of them volunteer to realize their ideology and later to import Salafist-jihadi Islam into their countries of origin. Other reasons include identification with the suffering of the Syrian people, desire to participate in the overthrow of the Assad regime, desire for adventure.[2]

3) Organizations joined by the foreign fighters: Most of them join the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. Some of them join the Jaish al-Muhajirin wal-Ansar, which is affiliated the Islamic State (the Al-Nusra Front is more selective in accepting foreign fighters than the Islamic State). Others join other Islamic organizations, both extremist and moderate, not affiliated with Al-Qaeda (such as Ahrar al-Sham or Liwaa al-Ummah), or the Free Syrian Army.[3] Foreign fighters have been known to move between the organizations. Proportionally, in our assessment, the number of Western foreign fighters joining organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad is higher than other foreign fighters who join the rebels.

4) Age, religion and country of extraction: Most of the foreign fighters are in their early 20s, Sunni Muslims, the second (and sometimes third) generation of Muslim immigrant communities. Conspicuous among them are volunteers of Moroccan extraction, but there are also those whose family roots are Turkish, Kurd, Syrian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Albanian and even Somali. There are even young Christians who converted to Islam and were radicalized (a minority).

5) Gender and family status: Most of the foreign fighters are single males, although in rare instances women and children join their husbands and fathers in Syria. During the second half of 2013 there were reports of married volunteers, most of whom left their families behind, some of whom brought their families with them to Syria. A German volunteer nicknamed Abu Talha used a jihadist forum to urge married fighters to bring their families to Syria and not leave them behind in “infidel countries.” However, he advised them first to go to Syria and rent apartments, and only then to bring their families (MEMRI, December 16, 2013).

6) Education: Educated men and middle-class professionals have been identified among the foreign fighters. There are also students who abandoned their studies to join the rebels.

7) Criminal record: Several foreign fighters have been identified as having criminal records (mostly for minor offenses). We could not ascertain their overall number.

8) Military skill: In our assessment most of the European foreign fighters did not acquire previous military skills. Once they arrive in Syria they undergo a short course in military training in designated military camps (about 45 days), after which they are sent to the various units. In some instances (Holland, Britain) there were reports of basic training being given locally in preparation for the departure to Syria. It can be assumed that such training is given in other European countries as well.

9) Combat zones the foreign fighters are sent to: Judging by the number of foreign fighters killed, most of them are sent to the region of Aleppo. However, European foreign fighters have been killed throughout the battle zones in Syria.

Financing and Support

9. Initially only individual foreign fighters went to Syria and apparently financed the trip themselves. In our assessment, as the fighting progressed, financing and support became more established and local Muslim networks and clerics in the various countries were recruited for support.

10. There are two categories for financing:

1) Financing the departure: Going to Syria, which is relatively cheap, is usually paid for by individuals or the local Muslim community. The funding comes from donations intended for various purposes (charity, humanitarian assistance for the Syrian population), collected primarily in the mosques and Islamic centers. The local Muslim population is not always aware that their donations are used to finance the departure of foreign fighters to Syria.

2) Financing the stay in Syria: Apparently the stay in Syria is financed by the organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and other rebel organizations joined by the foreign fighters. The fighters are housed in apartments or houses and the organizations provide for their needs. They are apparently also paid a monthly salary.

11. A German foreign fighter in Syria nicknamed Abu Talha called on volunteers not to allow lack of funds to prevent them from departing for Syria to join the jihad fighters. In a video posted on a jihad forum on December 8, 2013, he advised the volunteers not to pay social security in their own countries for two or three months and to collect donations (MEMRI, December 16, 2013). He also advised them to bring money with them to cover their expenses, including fare and the clothing necessary for survival, adding that once they had arrived in Syria the daily needs would be provided for.

12. Salafist-jihadi networks in various European countries are recruited for support for the rebels. Some of the networks, called Sharia4, were involved in helping foreign fighters join organizations affiliated with the global jihad.[4] In some cases the networks were interconnected. Most prominent among them is Sharia4Belgium, headed by a jihadist cleric named Fouad Belkacem, aka Abu Imran. He was involved in dispatching at least 70 Belgian volunteers to Syria (about one third of the total number from Belgium). The Belgian law enforcement authorities took steps against the network and its leader. Similar networks have been established in other European countries, among them Holland and Denmark. In Italy an attempt was made to establish Sharia4Italy. However, in some cases foreign fighters were influenced by Salafist-jihadi propaganda they found on the Internet, and not necessarily by local Muslim networks or clerics.

13. Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, in its annual TE-SAT report summing up 2012, said the following [ITIC emphasis throughout]: “In 2012 radical Muslim groups using a name composed of ‘Sharia4’ and the name of a country or region, such as Sharia4Belgium and Sharia4Holland, received widespread public attention due to their controversial demonstrations and statements. They have been careful not to incite their supporters to commit acts of terrorism. Nevertheless, they praise terrorist groups and present perpetrators of terrorist attacks as heroes. Through such activities, the Sharia4 groups contribute to spreading a highly intolerant interpretation of Islam, including the support of violent acts in the name of religion, in the public sphere, thereby exposing vulnerable individuals to radical ideas. Individual members of these groups, which actively seek to provoke non-Muslim sections of the public, violently resisted or attacked law enforcement forces in some Member States in 2012. There are indications that the ideology spread by Sharia4Belgium and other groups has contributed to the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict.”[5]

Arriving in Syria

14. The foreign fighters reach Syria through Turkey, which is their logistic lifeline. In most cases they fly to Istanbul, hiding their true destination from the authorities and sometimes from their families (by leaving from other countries, buying tickets at the airport at the last minute, not travelling as part of a large group). From Istanbul they fly or use public transportation, and go to safe houses in locations near the Syrian border. From there they are taken by local contacts and networks to the rebel organizations in Syria, especially the Al-Nusra Front, and others affiliated with the global jihad. Crossing from Turkey into Syria is relatively easy, the following photo illustrates:

From the Facebook page of a British foreign fighter (Vice.com website).

How Europe Copes with Volunteers Going to Syria

15. How significant is the number of young foreign fighters joining the ranks of the global jihad in Syria? Considering their absolute numbers and the size of the Muslim population in Europe, in most of the countries the phenomenon is still not widespread. However, their numbers are rising and it can be assumed they will continue to do so. The European security services consider the phenomenon serious. They are concerned that when the foreign fighters return to their countries of origin, after having undergone military training and radicalization in Syria, they will have the potential for spreading extremism in the local Muslim communities and possibly be involved in terrorist activities (as happened in the case of foreign fighters who returned from Afghanistan).

16. Their concerns led to an internal European dialogue about how to cope with foreign fighters. The approach of some countries is that local law enforcement authorities should take steps to prevent the young men from going to Syria. Others claim that their departure is a function of the difficult socio-economic conditions of the Muslim communities, wherethorough grass-roots activity in the economic, social and educational spheres is necessary to treat conditions outside the context of fighters going to Syria. In addition the EU is examining legal ways to keep the volunteers from leaving their countries of origin and to monitor them once they return. There is an awareness of the need for European and international collaboration in gathering information about the foreign fighters, although there are legal restrictions and practical difficulties involved. A desire was also expressed for cooperation with Turkey, which as noted, is the main transit country for the foreign fighters going to Syria.

17. In effect, the European countries are limited in their ability to deal effectively with foreign fighters going to Syria. One reason is that the rebel organizations fighting in Syria have not been designated by Europe as terrorist organizations (with the exception of the Al-Nusra Front, designated by only some of the countries). Therefore, going to Syria to fight does not necessarily break local laws, and in some instances it is consistent with the public call in Europe to topple the Assad regime. However, in some cases efforts to prevent European foreign fighters from leaving were made by local public figures from the Muslim communities, who were asked by the authorities to convince them not to join the fighting. In addition, steps have begun to be taken against Islamic activists, clerics, networks and agencies enlisting volunteers and helping them reach Syria. In our assessment, the steps are hesitant and the practical influence is as yet limited.

18. Regarding international cooperation, there are signs of a beginning. In early December 2013 Belgian Interior Minister Joelle Milquet organized a meeting of foreign ministers and secretaries from Holland, France, Britain, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, Australia, Canada and the United States. They dealt with the issue of foreign fighters in Syria and their influence on their countries of origin upon return. Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counterterrorism Coordinator, presented what he called the “major security threat” of the foreign fighters who joined the ranks of the Assad regime’s opponents. He also called for an improvement in the exchange of information among government officials in the various countries regarding the use of air routes to reach Syria (European Jewish Press, December 15, 2013).

19. In conclusion, the problem of foreign fighters is complex. Most of the European foreign fighters in Syria are fighting against the Assad regime, also opposed by European countries which want to see it toppled. However, the foreign fighters join the ranks of organizations affiliated Al-Qaeda and the global jihad, which consider the West and its ideology as enemies that have to be fought. In January 2014 the media reported that the European intelligence agencies were holding secret communications with senior figures in the Assad regime in order to counter the arrival of European foreign fighters who go to Syria to fight the regime in the ranks of jihad organizations. In response Khaled Saleh, spokesman for the Syrian National Coalition, told the BBC that if the reports of European intelligence contacts with Damascus were true, “it would show a clear contradiction between the words and actions of the Friends of Syria group” who had “clearly identified the Assad regime as a source of terrorism in the region.”[6]

* Continuation of the December 2013 ITIC study on foreign fighters in Syria: “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.’).”

[1]However, the number of Western fighters is not static. Estimates issued in Western countries in recent months are significantly higher than estimates for the first half of 2013.

[2]”Malik al-Abdo, a Syrian journalist based in the UK, explained why the conflict in Syria has pulled in these young fighters. Most of these people, he said, are essentially thrill-seekers wanting to experience the jihad, which for some people is a lot of fun. They get to carry a gun for the first time in their lives. They get trained up and it’s exciting. I think it’s inevitable that people from the UK would go to Syria. Fighting for God and fighting for Islam is one of the pillars of being a Muslim. There was an opportunity against the Soviets in Afghanistan, against the Russians in Chechnya, against the Serbs in Bosnia and now against the Alawites in Syria. They see it as another stop on the jihadi tour, if you like. And they have to be there otherwise they are missing out on a big opportunity'” ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19283578 ).

[3]For further information about the aforementioned networks and their ties to Al-Qaeda and the global jihad, see the September 2013 in-depth study about the Al-Nusra Front.

[4]Some of the networks were dealt with by local authorities, only to be replaced by other networks. It is unclear what the status of the various networks is, some of which are Protean in nature.

[5] https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/publications/europol_te-sat2013_lr_0.pdf (Section 2.2)

[6] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-25738178

Issued on: 03/02/2014


Categories: ACD/EWI Blog, Al Qaeda, Latest News, Middle East Conflicts, Syria, Terrorist Financing

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