Foreign jihadists flocking to Syria exploited by extremists

Foreign fighters have been joining extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) in
					Syria. Above, members of Liwaa Hamza, a newly-formed Islamist brigade from Deir
					Ezzor, hold JAN flags. [Zac Baillie/AFP]

Foreign fighters have been joining extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) in Syria. Above, members of Liwaa Hamza, a newly-formed Islamist brigade from Deir Ezzor, hold JAN flags. [Zac Baillie/AFP]

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Hardly a day goes by without news or reports of jihadists of Arab or foreign nationality travelling to Syria to fight alongside the opposition against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Many of those jihadists leave their home countries driven by religious or humanitarian conviction, expecting to join the battle against an oppressive regime.

However, some either arrive with an extremist agenda, or find extremist groups waiting to exploit them in a way reminiscent of how al-Qaeda used foreign recruits to plunge neighbouring Iraq into a bloodbath, all in the name of jihad.

From Iraq to Syria

In Iraq, Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi and his group, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), succeeded in exploiting a stream of Arab jihadists, some of whom came to join what they viewed as a holy war against foreign troops and the new Iraqi government.

Al-Qaeda sent a number of them on missions to carry out suicide bombings that resounded across the media because they caused countless deaths, injuries and destruction.

Iraqi citizens saw people calling themselves "jihadists" -- who had allegedly come to defend Iraqis, not kill them -- gradually destroying their country and killing their countrymen in operations.

Over time, the jihadists' operations and their imposition of an extremist interpretation of sharia rule created a rift between them and Iraqi citizens, a rift that later led to al-Qaeda's expulsion from large swaths of the country on the part of citizens, Iraqi and foreign armed forces, and Sahwa forces.

In Syria, foreign jihadists are joining the fighting in this country, specifically in the ranks of Islamist groups that now number in the dozens. A number of these volunteers -- which some estimates put between1,000 to 5,000 fighters -- have joined the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN).

According to a study by the counter terrorism think tank Quilliam, JAN is an AQI offshoot. Many suicide attacks carried out by JAN members resemble operations carried out by al-Qaeda.

Even though these bombings have yet to produce an end result in Syria similar to the one precipitated by al-Qaeda's operations in Iraq years ago, some indications have begun to surface that Syrian citizens opposed to the Assad regime do not approve of JAN.

Last week, for the third day running, civilian residents of al-Mayadeen city in Deir Ezzor province came out to protest the presence and control of JAN over their community, where JAN set up a religious police force and held a military parade, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

For analysts and observers, JAN, which counts many foreign jihadists, including AQI members, in its ranks, is simply trying to revive the old Iraq formula.

"Jabhat al-Nusra is an extension of al-Qaeda's plan; it [recycled] al-Qaeda's old format, circa 2003 in the [Syrian] framework and revived it anew," former Libyan jihadist Noman Benotman told Al-Shorfa.

Al-Qaeda's entry into any struggle eliminates all other players, says Benotman.

"Wherever al-Qaeda set foot, there was no room for others," he said. "The entry of al-Qaeda and its strict ideological programme [into the country] would cause unnatural disaster. Syria urgently needs pluralism, even before democracy, and al-Qaeda does not accept such pluralism."

Foreign fighters join extremist groups seeking to impose strict rule

As was the case during al-Qaeda's time in Iraq under al-Zarqawi's leadership, various groups are calling fighters from around the world to jihad in Syria.

Last October, a UN commission investigating abuses in Syria said foreign fighters could contribute to an increased "radicalisation" of the conflict.

Commission head Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said the commission feared foreign combatants were not fighting to "build a democratic state in Syria" but "for their own agenda".

The commission said the fighters came from 11 countries, not only neighbouring countries.

Morocco's Al-Massae newspaper recently published a report on the recruitment of Moroccans to fight in Syria, some of whom have carried out suicide attacks. In August, a group calling itself Ansar al-Mujahedeen posted a video online showing a man preparing to attack a Syrian regular army encampment in Nayrab, near Aleppo. The newspaper reported that the man is a Moroccan named Rashid Wehbe, who holds a Spanish citizenship and resides in the Spanish city of Ceuta.

"Networks of Islamists saturated with jihadist ideology" are actively recruiting young Moroccans "to fight against the Syrian army and carry out suicide attacks", Al-Massae wrote, detailing an example of recruitment methods in a clothing market located between Fnideq and the Ceuta border point.

In this small market, well-planned recruitment operations are carried out with modern communication techniques and "a heavy dose of religious ideology that renders the recruits unable to think rationally, so they abandon everything in favour of an idea they believe in to the death", the newspaper said, providing examples.

The Tunisian media published similar reports on jihadist networks that recruit young men and send them to fight in Syria, a phenomenon that repeats in every Arab country, from Egypt and Libya to Jordan and Gulf countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

In December 2012, AFP correspondents interviewed a number of foreign fighters in north-western Syria.

One AFP correspondent made the journey from Turkey into Syria through olive groves and holes in the barbed wire alongside an Egyptian fighter, who said he had made the journey to "help my Muslim brothers."

Another fighter, 26-year-old Anas from Algeria, said he was already a war veteran. He fought in his homeland's Kabylie region, east of Algiers, as well as in Kashmir. Now, he was on his way to join JAN near the town of Harem.

For Abdel Taha, who said he hails from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, language has been a problem, as he takes part in the siege of the Sheikh Suleiman army base near the northern city of Aleppo.

A speaker of neither Arabic nor English, he resorted to phrases which cause mirth among his comrades, including "kill the Christians and the unbelievers".

In the heavily bombed town of Maaret al-Numan, a Libyan welcomed the AFP journalist at the front line. "Do you speak Italian?" he asked in the language he knows best, before rushing back into the fray.

In Jebel al-Akrad, four Saudi men run the online websites of Islamist groups such as JAN. They live in an abandoned apartment in the town of Salma, with a rocket-propelled grenade sitting in the living room.

Asked what they are doing in Syria, they replied: "Tourism".

Many of these fighters come to Syria with an agenda involving the establishment of an Islamist state that follows a strict interpretation of sharia law. Such a state would not necessarily be agreeable to all segments of the Syrian population, which has a diverse mix of religious sects and ethnic origins.

In January 2012, JAN leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, who nicknamed himself "the conqueror", said JAN had come "to restore the authority of God to his land and avenge violated honour" when he formally announced the formation of the organisation.

And while a considerable segment of the opposition may be hoping that an Islamic-oriented government is established on the ruins of the former regime, the difference between these groups and JAN is that the latter seeks to forcibly impose its vision of an Islamist state on Syria.

These differences in methodology and ideology between JAN and the rest of the Syrian opposition were the reasons researchers at the Quilliam Foundation warned that should Assad fall, JAN would attack the other opposition immediately or "occupy strategic places to negotiate their own ends".

"They see themselves as representatives of Syria's Sunni population, which is a dangerous falsehood," the Quilliam study said. "Even amongst the rebels, only a minority shares their ideology and goals, with many others, tens of thousands of activists, calling for a democratic system of government rather than an Islamist state."

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  • READER COMMENTS

    محمد ربابعه ابن الاردن

    2013-9-26

    May God grant you victory.

  • منةالله

    2013-6-6

    What is happening in the Arab world is a real farce created by the terrorists, who want to confiscate the sources of the wealth and exploit the suffering of the people. Unfortunately, we see that the media focuses on what is in their favor, and hides the rest, as was the case with Afghanistan. After that, the west forsook us and we became terrorists who must be fought.

  • ali

    2013-6-5

    God be with you.

  • اخوكم المسلم

    2013-6-5

    Peace be upon you all. I am unhappy, tired and perplexed. Is there anyone to advise me about my religion?

  • احمد الطائى

    2013-6-5

    The Syrian revolts were joined by extremist people who have their own thinking. They do not believe in the balance of power and do not consider the fact that Bashar is supported by states like Russia, China, Iran and all their allies. The situation is very strange because we have states versus individuals. They kill the innocents and the children just to make Bashar stay in power.

  • مد

    2013-6-2

    Good.

  • علي

    2013-6-2

    The men of the Free Syrian Army are mad dogs.

  • ابن العراق

    2013-5-31

    I feel very sorry when I see the intellectuals and journalists speaking without differentiating between those people. The title says, “Foreign jihadists flocking to Syria exploited by extremists”, but do not you think that those scum have destroyed the states under such names? What is the difference between extremism and jihad?

  • احمد محمود

    2013-5-29

    The regime of Bashar Al-Asad and its supporters represent Terrorism incarnate. This regime and its supporters kill children, elders, and women. O God, be with our brothers in Syria.

  • قاسم الشكعي الضالع

    2013-4-8

    You are liars, hypocrites, and disbelieving traitors. Those people have fulfilled their promise to God, and He will never forsake them.

  • اسماء

    2013-4-7

    Those people are not mujahidin, but real terrorists. Whoever attacks the shrine of Zainab, may God be pleased with her, is not a Mujaahid. The whole world must know the reality of those criminal villains.

  • ابو يعقوب العراقي

    2013-4-6

    Those who call such people as mujahidin are either ignorant or liars. They are terrorist criminals and no UN agreement applies to them upon capture. They gathered because of financial incentives, religious ignorance, and unawareness about the tolerance of Islam. The oil princes are responsible for the bloodbath in Syria.

  • يحيى صاحب الامر

    2013-4-6

    First, I would like to ask about the party that works in favor of the interests of Israel and who wants to achieve their objectives in Syria. This was started by Israel a few years ago against Lebanon and it failed. Today, it is led by Arab states that are only motivated by sectarian considerations against an Arab and Muslim state. However, they plot and God plots and He is the best of all plotters.

  • عمار المنفلوطى

    2013-4-6

    There is no power but from God! I see we should not keep silent about this; it seems as if we don't want to have mercy in Syrians nor let God have mercy on them! This is really wrong, what the extremists do is not allowed. From the beginning we heard that jihadists entered Syria to, support the Syrians and they try to help the opposition to make them withstand, but what actually happens is beyond imagination, we don't see any need for what is going on also and it exceeds limits; we don't want to hear about all these accidents every now and then! I don't know what is the end of these incidents in Syria and the only hope which Syrians owned, does not exist now? O God I hope you have senses and return to your minds and realize that these accidents must have an end, but they need some time in order to achieve stability, security and political stable orders.

  • محمود جياش

    2013-4-5

    May God grant victory to Bashar over the killers of imaam Ali.

  • سيف الحسني

    2013-4-4

    I have a question to those who support the mujahidin. Why do they not go to Palestine to fight Israel? Is it because they will not receive dollars there?

  • قصي السيد علي

    2013-4-3

    You have destroyed Syria. May God destroy you and destroy all those who contribute to this destruction. You take the religion as a cover and you do not know what the religion is? Fear God because this is prohibited.

  • الاسم مطلوب ياسر العراقي

    2013-4-3

    Where have Al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front been when the Jews occupied Golan? What was the role of the sheikhs regarding jihad against the Jews? On what basis did they legalize jihad against Muslims? Is this a prophetic Sunnah? Do not listen to those sheikhs and remember the day when you will stand in front of God.

  • االحنان

    2013-4-3

    I wish that those mujahidin only went to Syria to help their brothers in Syria. .

  • زينب

    2013-4-3

    I think that jihad is not just a word, but it is doing things in the right place and time.

  • dasel mou

    2013-4-2

    May God protect the Syrian patriots.

  • انسان

    2013-4-2

    What do they want to say? Lying is free, but honesty needs honest people, but unfortunately, we do not have people like that in the authority.

  • عمربهلولصحيحصحيح

    2013-4-2

    This is untrue.

  • مهند السعبري ..العراق

    2013-4-2

    I expect that the Syria resistance is the head of the terrorism and Al Qaeda in the world today.

  • محي الدبم

    2013-4-1

    You are traitors, without a conscious or honor.

  • salem

    2013-4-1

    I have read the article and all the comments. With regard to the article, everything must be handled rightly, were it not for the occupation none of this would have happened. However, after the withdrawal of the US forces, they left the treacherous and sectarian forces. So, what do you expect them to do? Do you expect them to fight these forces to impose the liberal agenda? Palestine by God, do you think it is easy to speak, in Palestine we are ruled by a party and the party is ruled by an individual. This is the situation, you need people to go along, I am on the inside for more than 7 years but I will not carry any flag for any party.

  • حسين حزين

    2013-4-1

    O God! Grant victory to president Mursi over his enemies and grant victory to the people of Syria over the Syrian tyrant. Amen O lord of the worlds.

  • العزاوي

    2013-4-1

    Jihad is a magnificent thing, but becoming tools in the hands of our enemies means the total loss; the loss in this world and the hereafter.

  • خريوش ابو فاروق

    2013-4-1

    What about the mujahidin of the devilish Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guard and militias of Muqtada Al-Sadr??

  • عابر سبيل

    2013-3-31

    Do you not know that those who go to Syria are extremists and if extremism means adherence to the creed, then let the whole world witness that I am an extremist. Damn you!

  • الهام مطر

    2013-3-29

    We don't want to know the conditions of the foreign mujahidin who come to Syria to fight on side of opposition against Bashaar El Assad and the Syrian army; the only picture that we can convey is that of the Syrian people who need help, and this help can reach them if the whole world united with Syria because we need more and more needs and requirements and auxiliaries to support the Syrians there, because the Syrians are the only side that pay the price, and they must be given the chance to determine their attitude towards these mujahedeen, I see that the Syria will support the side that would help and assist them because the true conditions in Syria needs fighting, but there are many extremists who try to use those mujahedeen, so be careful.

  • صلاح رسلان

    2013-3-29

    It is very difficult to see the Syrians in such a mess and suffering from all these crimes, because it is impossible for life to go on like this in Syria. Every day we see civil wars, or fight between the people and the army, therefore it was very important that mujahedeen should reach Syria to help Syrians get rid of their surroundings; the solution may be to stop wars, but the problem is that the extremists try to attract the mujahedeen. O God protect them, we don't want more losses in Syria and there is no need to see these daily fights.

  • فيروز الديلمي

    2013-3-28

    The writer is ostensibly a hired pen and he is one of those who don’t want Islam to prevail. They don’t want Muslims to implement the Shariah law and they want to have stinking secularism, which has torn Muslims apart. They forgot that America and its treacherous allies were the ones who killed the Iraqi people. In addition, they forgot that the pro-American traitorous Syrian coalition is one of those that are killing our brethren in Syria in collaboration with the abject (Arab) rulers.

  • taiba

    2013-3-27

    This is not true and it is nothing but a blatant distortion of the image of Islam and Muslims. The aim here is to force Muslims to relinquish their freedom to foreign colonists and to the media, which is being oppressed by foreigners who are taking control over everything. But I swear that colonialism, wrongdoers and traitors will demise.

  • حنان

    2013-3-26

    May God protect them, and grant them victory.

  • احد القاعدين المتاخذلين عن الجهاد

    2013-3-26

    No matter how you lied to satisfy the USA and the West, you must realize that God’s promise will inevitably be fulfilled. The Nusra Front and the soldiers in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq will come. The Prophet, peace be upon him, if you know or hear about him, told us about those heroes and you can search for his hadiths if you do not know them to realize what is going on Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

  • كريم السيلاوي

    2013-3-26

    Wonderful website.

  • عيدالناصر اسماعيل

    2013-3-25

    We wish that the Free Syrian Army would beware of the free Iranian, Russian and Syrian spies who work with the Syrian regime because they can set up attacks to kill the largest possible number of the free revolutionaries and fighters.

  • يزيد معاويه

    2013-3-24

    You are liars and you are mouthpieces of the regime, which will fall soon.

  • عد نا ن جبا وي محرو م من حقو قي خر يج 1985

    2013-3-24

    I am with anyone who defends our rights, and freedom. Who are those swindlers and hypocrites? Crush those swindlers.

  • ابو مجاهد

    2013-3-24

    The purpose is very clear and it aims at destroying Syria for the benefit of the Zionists and their agents among the Arab regimes. All the martyrs from any side, whether the regime or the opposition, represent loss for the whole nation.

  • متابع

    2013-3-23

    Such articles are not beneficial, but they represent a way to tarnish the image of the revolution and the revolts. In ancient times, people once said: may Allaah have mercy upon a person who spoke and won or kept silent and survived. I wish that such articles would disappear forever.

  • fatma al kasadi

    2013-3-23

    The jihad is an Islamic concept whether it was against the enemies of Islam externally, or the destructive regimes internally. The arrogance and subordination of the regimes to the USA in general and looting the homes that are adopted by the rulers imposed upon the armless citizens to engage in jihad, because the necessity legalizes the prohibitions.

  • mohmead

    2013-3-22

    Regardless of the validity of the report, these are the polices of the major powers to destroy you and to impose their agenda. The USA and the west remained watching and sometime speaking while the brave Syrians are being slain by the corrupt regime with their knowledge, but they did nothing. On the other hand, the situation in Mali was different, because no one was killed, but France interfered to end this, because the Islamists‎ destroyed the monuments and the shrines (ironically of course). On the other hand, the whole world indifferently watched the Syrian regime destroying the monuments and killing the people, which are supposed to be more precious. The Syrian regime, the USA, and the West are responsible for the entry of Al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. If the situation continued, we will hear about more names. This is only a small part of what I want to say.

  • طارق اليمني

    2013-3-21

    Those jihadists seek to eliminate the religion and the Sunnis. However, they are not Sunnis, but they are jihadists who came to the Promised Land. All glory is to Allah who collected them from all the Arab states to fight in Syria, while they have never gathered to fight in Palestine.