The Syrian civil war has resulted in the deaths of 150,000 people, more than 500,000 injured and millions displaced internally and outside Syria. The country is increasingly viewed as a hotbed and training ground for transnational (especially Sunni) jihadists. This troublesome phenomenon, including the possibility that Syria will become a safe haven from terrorists, as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11 – and is still to some extent – merits further elucidation.
According to James Clapper, Director of U.S. National Intelligence in January 2014 U.S. congressional testimony, there are some 100,000 rebels fighting Assad’s forces, of which about 25,000 are “extremists.” Director Clapper further estimated that foreign Sunni jihadi fighters traveling to and participating on behalf of disparate Syrian insurgent forces originate from more than 50 countries, and number some 7,000 persons. In February 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry estimated the number of foreign fighters in Syria between 7,000 and 11,000 persons from about 70 nations. These foreign fighters have come from across the globe (e.g., Canada, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Kosovo), although mostly from the Middle East and North Africa.
The allure of fighting in Syria has even reached Australian shores. In 2014, Australia’s Attorney General, George Brandis, stated that between 120-150 Australians traveled to Syria to participate in the conflict.
By 2013, more than 1,200 European Muslims – mostly from Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany – were believed to have traveled to Syria, looking to fight on behalf of the rebels, mostly Sunni-linked. Interest by Europeans in participating in the Syrian conflict stems, in part, to the relative ease and low cost of reaching Syria through Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon.
By 2014, some 500 British citizens were estimated to have traveled to Syria to fight in the civil war. In 2014, Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary, warned, “We are concerned about the threat to the UK from Syria-based groups and the threat of foreign fighters returning to this country.”
Concurrently, some 6,500 foreign Shia fighters (mainly those affiliated with the Shia, Lebanese-based terror group Hezbollah; Iranian soldiers; and Iraqi volunteers) have fought to buttress the efforts of the Assad regime. In sum, Sunni and Shia foreign fighters have contributed to the aggravation of this sectarian conflict, although other elements of the population – Christians, Druze and Kurds – further complicate prospects for reconciliation post-conflict, whenever that will occur.
American Fighters in Syria
Analogously, it is estimated that more than 70 Americans have traveled (or attempted to travel) to Syria to participate in the conflict, primarily, again, to aid Sunni jihadi rebels. Among some of U.S. citizens who tried (or were able) to join various insurgent groups against the Assad regime include:
- Eric Harroun: A former U.S. army soldier, Harroun was arrested and charged in March 2013 with conspiring to use a rocket propelled grenade while fighting with al Nusrah Front, often referred to al Qaeda in Iraq. More specifically, he was charged with conspiring to use a destructive device outside of the United States. Harroun apparently entered Syria in January 2013, and later trained and fought with al Nusra. Ultimately, Harroun pled guilty to a conspiracy to export defense articles and services in a September 2013 plea agreement. He was sentenced to time served in jail.
- Abdella Ahmad Tounisi: In April 2013 Tounisi, an 18-year-old high school student from Illinois, was arrested as he attempted to board a flight from Chicago to Istanbul, on his way to ultimately travel from there to Gaziantep, on the Turkish-Syrian border, and then to Syria. Tounisi, who interacted both online and offline with an undercover FBI employee, was charged with attempting to provide material support to al Nusrah Front, an alias for al Qaeda in Iraq. A trial is expected in 2014.
- Nicole Lynn Mansfield: In May 2013, Mansfield was killed with two men by Syrian government forces. According to Syrian government media reports, she was fighting with an al Qaeda affiliate, believed by press reports, to be Ahrar al-Sham, the “Free Men of Syria.” Mansfield’s family claims that Nicole was media coordinator to one of the Islamist rebel groups. According to some reports, Nicole was imbued with extremist tenets by her second husband, a Saudi, who she met online. A subsequent marriage to a man from the United Arab Emirates, who she also met online, ended in divorce as well. In any case, Mansfield is believed to be the first American killed in the conflict.
- Amir Farouk Ibrahim: In July 2013, Ibrahim’s passport was found with the identification documents of other foreigners in Syria, at a base abandoned by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al Qaeda affiliate. He is presumed to have been killed fighting Assad’s forces.
- Gufran Ahmed Kauser Mohammed: In August 2013, Mohammed, 30, and Mohamed Hussein Said from Kenya were charged with conspiring to provide money and recruits to al Qaeda, al Qaeda in Iraq/al Nusrah Front (in Syria), and al Shabaab (in Somalia). Mohammed sent wire transfers to a person he believed was a fundraiser, recruiter, and supplier for al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq/al Nusrah Front with the goal of supporting those organizations. Also, Mohammed and Said agreed to aid al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq/al Nusrah Front by recruiting and transferring experienced al Shabaab fighters to Syria. A trial is expected in 2014.
- Nicholas Michael Teausant: In October 2013, Teausant was arrested for attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS), a merger – in April 2013, subsequently unhinged – between the Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Nusra Front. Teausant came to the attention of U.S. law enforcement through his anti-U.S. and pro-jihadists rants on various social media sites. Subsequently, Teausant interacted with a confidential informant and undercover FBI agent, and the three discussed Teausant’s plans to travel to Syria and fight with ISIS. He was arrested as he commenced his travels abroad. A trial is expected in 2014.
- Basit Javed Sheikh: In November 2013 Sheikh, 29, was arrested as he attempted to board a flight from North Carolina with a final destination to Lebanon, believing that an individual – who turned out to be a FBI covert employee – could smuggle him to Syria. Sheikh was charged with attempting to provide material support and resources to Jahbat al-Nusrah, an alias name for al Qaeda in Iraq. Sheikh told the FBI covert employee that he was ready to fight and be a martyr there. In 2012, Sheikh spent several weeks in Turkey, while attempting to enter Syria to fight wit Jahbat al-Nusrah. A trial is expected in 2014.
- Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen: In December 2013, Nguyen pled guilty to attempting to provide material support to Jahbat al-Nusrah, an alias name for al Qaeda in Iraq, in Syria. Nguyen claimed that for several months he was in Syria, fighting with Jahbat al-Nusrah, and then returned to the United States. While in the United States, Nguyen interacted with a confidential informant, who he thought was an al Qaeda recruiter. Nguyen offered to travel to Pakistan, where he sought to train al Qaeda fighters for an attack against ISAF forces.
Three U.S. naturalized citizens of Somali descent undertook suicide bombings in Somali on behalf of the Somali terror group al Shabaab. The concern is that U.S.-based individuals would fight in Syria, return to the United States, and participate in a terror attack on U.S. soil.
While the majority of the Americans who travel to Syria are presumed to aspire to fight with one of the Sunni jihadist groups there, some Americans travel abroad to fight in support of Syrian government forces, including Hezbollah forces, or assist the Syrian regime while based in the United States. An example of the latter is Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, who in March 2012, was convicted of unlawfully acting as an agent of Syria. Soueid was convicted of collecting videos and audio recordings and other information about individuals based in Syria and the United States who were protesting the Syrian government as well as providing this content to Syrian intelligence agencies in order to intimidate and target the protesters. In July 2012, Soueid was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Analogously, in March 2014, Mohammad Hassan Hamdan was charged with attempting to provide material support to Hezbollah. Hamdan, a Lebanese immigrant to the U.S., was a Hezbollah member when he lived in Lebanon, including fighting with them against Israel in 2006. In 2014, Hamdan was arrested at Detroit Airport before boarding a flight to Beirut. In Beirut, Hamdan planned to rejoin Hezbollah, get paid between $500-$1,000/month and fight with Hezbollah members in Syria against varied insurgent forces.
Under U.S. federal law, 8 U.S. Code sec. 1481, an American born or naturalized citizen may lose his citizenship if he: (3) enters or serves in a foreign army and that entity is engaged in hostilities against the U.S. or the person serves as a commissioned or non-commissioned officer in that fighting force; or (7) engages in a conspiracy to destroy the U.S. government or levy war against it. As such, U.S. citizens who participate in fighting abroad or at home against the United States are subject to losing their citizenship, among other sanctions.
Combating the Participation of Foreign Fighters
In addition to understanding the dispositions and goals of prospective foreign fighters, it behooves governments to take steps to reduce the frequency and negative ramifications of fighters leaving far away lands for Syria. Among such measures governments can pursue include:
- Outlaw travel to Syria except for limited reasons (e.g., media, humanitarian or religious activities) and require notice to government officials of travels to neighboring countries.
- Enact (or enforce existing legislation) to prohibit citizens to fight on behalf of a sovereign state or a sub-state group, including rebel organizations.
- Expand enforcement of attempts by individuals, groups and organizations to provide material support to foreign terror and rebel groups.
- Increase intelligence sharing domestically and internationally in this regard.
- Raise efforts on the information-driven and community policing fronts in order to gain tips about individuals who plan on participating in the Syrian conflict – whether through fighting, recruiting, raising money, or acquiring weapons and supplies.
- Continue the use of sting operations online and offline to ferret out prospective terrorists.
- Strengthen local communities in their struggle against radicalization.
- Undertake de-radicalization activities among returning fighters and others who have embraced extremist tenets.
- Expand counter-narratives against the alluring pitch of Syrian-themed recruiters.
- Accelerate inquiry into non-profit entities and charities that have a nexus with Syria as they may serve as terror funding fronts.
- Increase training in relation to terrorists profiles, terrorist indicators, suspicious activities and suspicious financial transactions.
These foreign fighters, coupled with the aid offered by sovereign states, exacerbate the Syrian civil war. While an internally crafted solution to the bloodshed is unlikely in Syria, external sovereign state interference, too, complicates and prolongs the conflict. As such, it is likely that the Syrian civil war will continue for several more years, or some variant of the conflict for more than a decade (as we have witnessed prolonged insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan). Nevertheless, as noted, governments can adopt steps that undermine the prospective participation of their citizenry in the Syrian conflict.
About the Author: Dean C. Alexander is Director of the Homeland Security Research Program and Associate Professor of Homeland Security at Western Illinois University.