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Assessing The Threat of Westerners Who Become Fighters
On Behalf Of Al Qaeda Insurgents In Syria

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

Western security services are highly concerned about the repercussions to their own countries' national security emanating from the waves of radicalized Western Muslims (whether Muslim-born or converts) who have been traveling to Syria to fight on behalf of the Sunni-based al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent groups against the Bashar al-Assad regime. With the al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents expanding their insurgency from Syria into Iraq, the presence of Western foreign fighters in Iraq is a growing concern, as well - although it is not covered in this analysis. The concern about these Western fighters is that assuming they survive their military experience in the Syrian civil war upon their return to their Western home countries they would be so imbued with heightened jihadist inclinations that they would not only further radicalize others, but in the worst case scenario conduct terrorist attacks against their own countries.

Such concern was warranted because of numerous cases involving such Western fighters in Syria. The spectrum of the types of individuals who volunteer to become such fighters included the following examples:

• American "volunteers" have included Michigan-born Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert to Islam, who was killed in June 2013 in a firefight between the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front - NF), along with several other fellow Western fighters. As a prototypical example of the type of individual who is drawn to becoming a foreign fighter in Syria, it is instructive that Mansfield was considered a "normal, yet susceptible" homegrown extremist, as her grandmother had explained to a reporter that "She had a heart of gold, but she was weak-minded… I think she could have been brainwashed."

• In another example of a prototypical American foreign fighter, Eric Harroun, a former U.S. Army veteran from Phoenix, Arizona, was arrested on his return to the United States in March 2013 and charged with conspiring to employ a rocket-propelled grenade in Syria. Investigators said he acknowledged fighting with NF. Harroun, who had converted to Islam, later committed suicide in an apparent drug overdose in April 2014.

While it is understandable why most of the "third-party belligerents" as these foreign fighters are known come from the neighboring Arab countries, since they share a common extremist outlook with the al Qaeda-linked anti-Assad insurgents, the involvement of Western-originating foreign fighters on behalf of these extremist insurgents was of particular concern because of its spillover implications to their home countries.

As explained by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the United States' National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July 2013 (as reported in a New York Times article), the insurgency against the Assad regime has been providing both a rallying point and a training ground for radical Islamists from other nations. As a result, he added, "Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world," and "The concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States." This concern was amplified by Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union's counterterrorism coordinator, who told the same conference that "The scale of this is completely different from what we've experienced in the past."

What is also different about their involvement is that these radicalized Westerners have been traveling en masse to Syria to fight other Muslims - whether Alawite or Shi'ite - rather than other jihadist hotspots, such as Kashmir, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. Adding to Western governments' concern is that violent fighting has broken out not only between the al Qaeda-linked insurgent groups and the FSA, but between ISIS and NF, as they competed for power and resources (including control of oil fields) in Syria, and that such intense rivalry between extremist and mainstream Muslim factions had the potential to spill over into the Muslim communities in their Western countries. As of mid-2014, the sectarian enmity in Western countries between extremist Sunnis and Shi'ite supporters of Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah had resulted in some violence in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, where some Shi'ite businesses had been attacked, with Sunni extremist neighborhoods becoming "no-go" zones for Shi'ites, but not in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods in other Western nations.


Motivations to Become Foreign Fighters in Syria
The Western "volunteers" to become foreign fighters in Syria (and, increasingly, in Iraq), are motivated by factors, such as the following:

• As Sunni Muslims (including some of whom are recent converts to Islam), they are motivated by a sense of duty to wage jihad against the Assad regime that is viewed as an evil, apostate, Alawite-Shi'ite-based dictatorship that is committing atrocities against their fellow co-religionists. This narrative was reinforced in late in late May 2013, when the Qatari-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the Muslim world's most influential Sunni clerics (and a leading ideological figure in the Muslim Brotherhood), called on Sunni Muslims worldwide to fight against the Assad regime and its Hizballah backer.

• Some of the Western foreign volunteers are idealists who are motivated - just like the leftist activists who joined the republican forces in the 1930s Spanish Civil War - by a "romantic" notion of becoming revolutionaries for a great cause.

• Like their counterparts who become homegrown violent extremists, many of these generally young Muslims may be dissatisfied with their employment situation, feel isolated from positive Western influences in their societies, and feel they have no future in their Western country.

• Finally, a family member or friend may have become a foreign fighter in Syria and they feel they cannot let them down by remaining in their Western country.

Influential Radicalizers
Influential radicalizers, whether in the form of local activists or "returnees," as well as extremist Islamist preachers who are active in the Internet's social media, also play crucial roles in transforming initial motivations into actual recruitment mechanisms to becoming volunteer foreign fighters on behalf of the al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents in Syria (and Iraq). While local radicalizers in the Western countries with connections to the networks that facilitate travel to Syria will radicalize their adherents through meetings at extremist places of worship or private homes, what is particularly important about extremist social media sites is that not only will they broadcast videos of Syrian government atrocities against their co-religionists, as well as Jihadi martyr videos, but with the proliferation of Twitter accounts, individual Western fighters now document their involvement in such fighting in 'real time,' thus providing potential recruits with an immediacy that is likely to hasten their decision to become foreign fighters themselves.
Who Are the Western Fighters in Syria?

Of the estimated 3,000 Western foreign fighters who had joined the al Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgency in Syria in varying capacities, most were reportedly from Western Europe, with smaller numbers from the United States and Canada. In addition, an estimated 250 foreign fighters had reportedly originated in Australia, 100 - 120 from Kosovo, and 800 from the Russian Federation. Please note that the actual total numbers of Western foreign fighters in Syria are unknown, and it is also unknown how many of them actually engaged in fighting as opposed to receiving training and indoctrination in warfare for their expected return to their Western countries. Assuming that the actual total and country-specific numbers may be lower or higher, published reports, such as by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, King's College London, and the Soufan Group, as well as others, had provided the following estimates for the number of foreign fighters from each country (including the numbers listed above) as of mid-2014:

• Belgium: 350
• Canada: 30
• Denmark: 100
• Finland: 30
• France: 700
• Germany: 270
• Ireland: 25 - 30
• The Netherlands: 120
• Norway: 40 - 50
• Spain: 50
• Sweden: 30
• Switzerland: 10
• United Kingdom: 500
• United States: 70 - 100

How Western Foreign Fighters Enter Syria
The overwhelming majority of the Western foreign fighters entering Syria travel first to Turkey, where, reportedly, paid facilitators link them up with the al Qaeda-linked insurgent groups along the largely porous southern border crossings with Syria. These Westerners are unlikely to enter Syria through Jordan, which exercises strict border controls, or Lebanon, where they might be confronted and apprehended by Hizballah or Syrian government agents.

Conclusion
While it is assumed that most of the Western foreign fighters will either remain in Syria (or Iraq), with a proportion of them killed in combat, a minority is likely to attempt to return to their home countries. The actual size of the returnee population, however, is unknown. The threat posed by their return to their own countries is considered severe, as demonstrated by the shooting rampage by Mehdi Nemmouche at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 and Western suicide bombers in Syria (and Iraq), such as Salman Ashrafi, of Calgary, Canada, who are used as propaganda tools by ISIS, NF, and their jihadi allies in urging Western Muslims to follow their "great example" by becoming foreign fighters as well as carrying out attacks in their own countries to change their "oppressive" policies towards the Muslim world.

What can be done to stop the flow of extremist Westerners to Syria? Preventive measures include bolstering Western nations' border exit controls and closely monitoring the travel of such susceptible Westerners to countries of concern such as Turkey, and placing them on no-fly lists barring them from returning home. Another measure is for Western security services, working with their Turkish counterparts, to intervene during the crucial transfer points along the Turkish-Syrian border by tracking those who are attempting to cross those border points.

A final measure, which has been introduced in varying degrees, is to mount public diplomacy campaigns in Western Muslim communities to seek the assistance of families whose members are considering such suspicious travel to Syria, as well as counter-narrative campaigns that alert those deemed susceptible to becoming foreign fighters that fighting in such foreign conflicts constitutes a violation of their countries' national laws and that more peaceful means are available to Westerners to counter the Assad regime's continued hold on power.

 

About the Author
Dr. Joshua Sinai, a Washington, DC-based consultant on counterterrorism studies, is the author of "Active Shooter - A Handbook on Prevention" (ASIS International, 2013).

 


 

This is only a partial version of the article published in the latest Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Int'l.
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