Reports of foreign volunteers fighting and dying in Syria’s civil war have been a constant element of the conflict’s narrative.
To observers who would rather to be anywhere other than the war-torn country, the idealism or ideology motivating others to leave the comfort of their homes to go fight someone else’s war is both absurd and fascinating. Some of their deeds have been horrific, and the prospect of the fighters' eventual homecoming has scared the hell out of their home governments.
In recent months, reports emerged that the declining fortunes of some rebel groups were starting to dampen foreign fighters’ enthusiasm for the war, even sending several hundreds of them packing. This led some to speculate about where these fighters might take their jihad next — to the North Caucasus, maybe, or possibly Crimea.
'He went to Syria, without my consent and without the consent of his mother.'
But as it turns out, most foreign fighters in Syria aren’t going anywhere. Not yet, at least, and if they have it their way, not ever.
“They’re going to stay for the long term,” Aymenn Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who has written extensively about Syria’s militant groups, told VICE News. “Their intentions are very clear: they are in Syria to establish an Islamic caliphate. It’s not really part of their vision to go home and carry out a random attack targeting British civilians.”
Al-Tamimi referred specifically to the hundreds of foreigners who have joined ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
“They joined ISIS because it has emphasized this goal of setting up this caliphate there,” Al-Tamimi added, explaining that the group is the “number one banner for foreign fighters,” most of whom were already active in radical circles before the Syrian civil war started.
Just how many foreign fighters are in Syria is not exactly clear. Estimates claim there are up to 11,000 volunteers from 74 nations, though the figure includes fighters that might already have left, been arrested, or killed.
While about 70 percent of foreign fighters hail from the Middle East and North Africa, the number of Western Europeans has increased threefold in the last year, according to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR), which has been monitoring the phenomenon. Fighters have also come from as far as North America, Australia, and Southeast Asia.
Reports of foreign fighters “martyred” in Syria have also been on the rise. On Friday, social media sites were abuzz with news that 18-year-old Abdullah Deghayes was killed in the conflict earlier this month.
Very sad to hear that Abdullah Deghayes has been killed in Syria. I met various members of family during campaign to free his uncle Omar.— Luke Walker (@LukeReayWalker) April 18, 2014
Deghayes, who was the nephew of a former Guantanamo detainee, reportedly told his parents that he was visiting family in Libya. His parents said that they learned the news from a picture of the dead teenager that was shared on Facebook. Two of his brothers have also reportedly joined the insurgency in Syria.
“As far as I know he went to Syria, without my consent and without the consent of his mother, to fight against the dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his regime,” the teenager’s father told reporters. “I never encouraged him and he went there of his own free will. I am sad for the loss of Abdullah, but at the same time, I can feel some comfort as he went for a just cause.”
'They are our brothers who have stood beside us.'
Deghayes’s young age — he was supposed to start college in the fall — has shocked the UK, but he is just the latest of several of British citizens killed in Syria’s war.
Earlier this year, Abdul Waheed Majeed, another British citizen, exploded himself in a rebel operation at Aleppo’s central prison. He was reportedly the first foreign suicide bomber in Syria.
The video below shows Majeed, a 41-year-old father of three, smiling and posing for pictures minutes before driving an explosive-filled truck into the prison’s compound. The relevant segment starts at 25:36. ‘’
"My tongue bro... it's got, like, a knot in it," he says.
Abdul Waheed Majeed was reportedly the first British citizen to become a suicide bomber in Syria.
While exact numbers are extremely hard to determine, particularly because most volunteers don’t travel to Syria through established networks, their presence in the county has grown massively — tenfold last year alone, according to US officials.
“When I took command about a year ago, we were talking about 800 to 1,000 foreign fighters being in that country,” Lloyd Austin, the top US general in charge of the region, said at a conference on Wednesday. “Now, the intelligence community says it’s 7,000 to 8,000, which means it’s grown by orders of magnitude within one year.”
Austin called Syria “the most complex problem I have seen” in his four-decade career. Echoing the concerns of others, he acknowledged the threat posed by returning fighters.
In the video below, a fighter who identifies himself as Abu Muhammad al-Ameriki — Abu Muhammad “the American” — speaks about infighting between different rebel groups.
Abu Muhammad al-Ameriki lived in the US for about a decade before going to Syria to join the insurgency.
Of course, Syria’s war is not the first to attract foreign fighters. International jihadi groups have fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere.
What’s makes Syria different is the staggering number of foreigners involved, and the fact that, with significant exceptions, many of them are fighting on the side that most Western governments support.
But Syrian rebels haven’t always welcomed the more radical foreign fighters with open arms — far from it.
Earlier this year, anti-ISIS sentiment ran high among other rebel groups. As a result, they started targeting foreign fighters that they associated generally with ISIS.
“Many rebels did take out their anger on ISIS, and there was an attempt to target anyone who was a foreign fighter,” Al-Tamimi said. He added that the anti-foreign sentiment ended up taking a toll on foreign fighters who were not, in fact, affiliated with ISIS.
The infighting between the rebel groups caused some foreigners to leave Syria altogether. The Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups, was even moved to put out a statement trying to reassure Syria’s expat fighters.
“They are our brothers who have stood beside us and we appreciate and thank them for their jihad,” the group said. “We must protect them and preserve their dignity.”
'They are in Syria and they are there to stay.'
As groups and alliances have consolidated, most foreigners have since developed “good working relationships” with other rebels, Al-Tamimi said.
“As ISIS consolidated its position away from most of these rebel attacks, the trend of foreign fighters wanting to leave because they felt they were being targeted has trailed off,” he said. Anti-ISIS sentiment persists, he said, but is less specifically targeted against foreigners.
While rebel groups have struggled to hold on to the ground they’ve gained, they’re position is not yet dire. If it gets worse, some foreigners “might think twice about staying,” Al-Tamimi said, but that’s not their plan.
“I think there’s this overemphasis on concerns about them going back and wanting to carry on attacks” in their home counties, Al-Tamimi said. “Some of them, regardless of infighting, may eventually want to leave because they have had enough and they don’t want find it to be as glamorous as they think it is. But the general trend I see is that they are in Syria and they are there to stay.”
For many of them, even if they wanted to return home, doing so wouldn’t be easy.
Neighboring Jordan, for instance — the single largest contributor of foreign fighters to Syria’s war — has been cracking down on returnees. The government — a US ally that also needs to keep up diplomatic and commercial relationships with Assad’s regime, just in case it doesn’t fall — has turned a blind eye to Jordanian citizens going to fight in Syria, but its posture is different when those same fighters have tried to come back, either for short visits or because they got sick of the war.
Jordanian returnees have been increasingly picked up, charged with “acts not authorized by the state that sour relations with legitimate Syrian authorities," tried quickly by military courts, and thrown in jail with two to five year sentences — which is not exactly an incentive to return home.
But Jordan is not alone. Eric Harroun, an American who fought in Syria and died earlier this month, was picked up by the FBI, charged with terrorism, thrown in solitary, and threatened with the death penalty. UK authorities, for their part, have stripped several Britons fighting in Syria of their citizenship in an attempt to keep them out of the country for good.
About 250 foreign fighters have reportedly returned to the UK from Syria. But those that are still there are not exactly dying to go back.
'I haven’t seen yet a foreign fighter say, ‘Man, I wish I could go home'.'
“It’s not a good idea to have laws that criminalize these folks,” Joseph Carter, one of the researchers behind a recent ICSR report on Syria’s foreign fighters and social media, told VICE News. “If anything, we support creating programs that will help when they come back, to deal with issues like trauma, to monitor them, maybe if they come back and they are extremely radicalized, to prevent them from doing anything further, but certainly not criminalizing them.”
Most foreign fighters, observers said, seem committed to Syria and building an Islamic state there.
But for anyone who is unsure about staying because they have realized that the conflict is a lot less fun than they thought, the prospect of going home to face terrorism charges and years in jail is no great alternative.
“When Theresa May came out and said we’re going to start stripping people of their passports, some of these foreign fighters on Facebook and Twitter came out and said, ‘So what? We’re here to establish an Islamic state. We’re here to fight, and protect the Syrian people and Sunni Muslims,’ ” Carter said. “I haven’t seen yet a foreign fighter say, ‘Man, I wish I could go home.’ ”
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi
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