Archive

Syria

The backlash within Syria to the U.S. decision to designate the Syrian-based jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization has been swift. Opposition to the designation, which was officially announced on Dec. 11, extends well beyond groups ideologically sympathetic to Jabhat al-Nusra’s radical goals. After more than 40,000 deaths, the starvation and torture of many, and the sadistic tactics of the Assad regime, Syrians now want the fall of the regime more than ever — even if that means temporarily embracing groups with suspect long-term goals.

The Barack Obama administration’s designation of Jabhat al-Nusra asserts that the group is an extension of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — merely one of the terrorist organization’s aliases. Whether this is the case or whether the administration is issuing the designation as part of a political effort to convince the opposition to shun Jabhat al-Nusra, the move will likely fail to marginalize the group at this juncture. Following the fall of the regime, however, it could help sideline the most destructive influences trying to gain a foothold in post-Assad Syria.

The reaction among anti-Assad Syrians was perhaps best captured by an image that appeared on Facebook shortly after news of the planned designation broke last week. In the picture, residents of the northwestern town of Kafr Anbel hold up a poster showing Obama pointing accusingly toward aflag associated with Jabhat al-Nusra, saying “Terrorism.” Behind the U.S. president, however, is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad standing triumphant on a pile of murdered Syrian civilians.

The image reflects the reality that the Syrian opposition simply does not view Jabhat al-Nusra as the primary threat to the country — that designation still belongs to Assad’s murderous army. Nor is it lost on Syrians that the Obama administration has provided scant military assistance in their efforts to topple the regime — but is now singling out a rebel group that has become perhaps their revolution’s most effective fighting force. This is a view that seems to extend well beyond Jabhat al-Nusra’s ideological milieu: None of the individuals in the Kafr Anbel picture, for example, look like Islamists or Salafis.

Click here to read the rest.

President Barack Obama’s administration is reportedly planning to designate the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Support Front”) as a terrorist organization. The group, which was firstannounced in late January 2012, has become a growing part of the armed opposition due to its fighting prowess — perhaps no surprise, as many of its fighters honed their skills in battlefields in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra has carved out an important niche in the fight to oust the Syrian regime even as it remains outside of the mainstream opposition.

The U.S. administration, in designating Jabhat al-Nusra, is likely to argue that the group is an outgrowth of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). While there is not much open-source evidence of this, classified material may offer proof — and there is certainly circumstantial evidence that Jabhat al-Nusra operates as a branch of the ISI.

There’s no denying that Jabhat al-Nusra is deadly: It has claimed responsibility for more than 500 attacks since its creation, including a series of suicide bombings. Unique among rebel groups operating in Syria, it has also earned the legitimacy of top global jihadist ideologues, who have called for grassroots supporters across the world to help fund or join up with the group. And foreign fighters have answered the call: Based on data from al Qaeda’s online forums, of the 46 individuals for which the forums have provided “martyrdom” notices and announced their group affiliation, 20 fought with Jabhat al-Nusra. Since Oct. 1, almost all of the notices that mention affiliation have reported that the fighter was aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra.

Click here to read the rest.

Unlike other actors in the current Syrian conflict, gaining access to Jihadists is fraught with security concerns on all sides.

Broadly, a “Jihadist” is a Sunni Muslim pan-Islamist who subscribes to a worldview that taking part in a violent, military holy war, or Jihad, in the name of Islam is the best means for bringing about the end to “apostate” regimes. The Jihadists then aim to replace these governments with ones that administer Islamic Shariah law based on their interpretation. While Jihadists have been most associated with al-Qaeda over the past decade, not all Jihadists are al-Qaeda and not all Jihadists agree with its global focus even if there is some ideological overlap.

For journalists and researchers, there is hesitation about coming into contact with Jihadists, due to the potential of kidnap or even execution. For Jihadists, concerns over operational security and the potential for infiltration and espionage has loomed large when meeting unknown outsiders.

But there is another way to understand them, and gain access to the Jihadist mindset, conversations and ideology: the Internet. Jihadists provide extensive information about themselves in online forums, on websites and social media platforms — information that can be used to better understand their ideological debates as well as the activities they are conducting on the ground.

The Syrian case is no different. The changes in focus and messaging over time helps one better understand how Jihadists entered the conflict and how far they have come in the past 19 months.

Click here to read the rest.

120727023606-syria-libya-training-story-top

It is well known now that there are indeed foreign fighters in Syria. It is not yet though a full-fledged foreign jihad and mainly a Syrian contest. Estimates are difficult to come by, but journalists and news sources suggest numbers are at the very least currently in line with estimates from the Bosnian conflict (~1,000) in the 1990s and have yet to reach the levels of Afghanistan in the 1980s (~5,000-20,000) or Iraq this past decade (~4,000-5,000). While the number of foreign fighters in Syria is relatively small compared to Iraq, the rate of the influx is much higher. Most have joined up only in the past 6-8 months. If the conflict in Syria drags on, it will greatly outstrip Iraq. Each conflict though is of course different and within them there have been differing types of foreign fighters that have joined up.

The Syrian Conflict and Limitations

The Syrian conflict has confounded some of the assumptions on foreign fighters regarding conflicts of the Muslim world from the past 30 years. This is because earlier paradigms focused mainly on different shades of Salafis that joined the fight since they were the overwhelming majority. In this way, with regard to Syria, there is a portion of non-Islamist and secular Muslims who are riding the wave of the Arab uprisings and therefore do not necessarily fit in previous schemas. These individuals fought their tyrants at home, some then moved onto Libya to assist in the fight against Qadhafi, while others only came to Syria as their first exogenous action. For instance, recently, a Libyan by the name of Firas told the AFP “in the Libyan revolution, many Syrians fought on our side, so it is now time to return the favor.”

In an overall sense, though, there are major limitations in capturing the percentages of foreign fighters from a variety of ideological and motivational categories. The very nature of tracking foreign fighters will always only provide a snapshot. War makes it difficult to distinguish differing actors since there becomes an overlap effect. A basic spectrum, though, can help provide a map to better under the differing trends.

Typology of Foreign Fighters

Tourists:

These individuals go abroad to help fight with their fellow Muslim brethren and are moved by altruistic motivations. Once the conflict ends they go home and continue their normal lives. This category is where many of the Arab youth of the uprisings fit in. More prominently, are the Libyans in Syria. They are most associated with the Irish-Libyan commander Mehdi Harati, formerly of the Tripoli Brigade in the fight against Qadhafi in Libya and currently the leader of Liwa’ al-Ummah in Syria.

Tribal:

These individuals go abroad because of familial ties that stretch borders. The cases of the tribes on the Syrian-Iraqi border are most notable. Tribesmen have now reversed the flow of their smuggling operations from during the time of the Iraq war.

Jihadis:

There are two main types of foreign jihadis within Syria: homeward bound revolutionaries and outward bound revolutionaries. The former is interested in overthrowing their local “apostate” regime. Homeward bound revolutionaries go to the areas of war to hone their skills and train fighters for their future battle against their state. The latter once the conflict ends will move onto another country where a non-Muslim military is occupying a Muslim territory. The end goal is to return all formerly run Muslim territory back to Muslims. Among these outward bound revolutionaries are a subset that are associated with al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview and are motivated by not only attacking the West and local apostate regimes, but setting up enclaves or emirates governed by their interpretation of the sharia and to eventually grow into a reestablished Caliphate.

There is only one known foreign fighter-dominated jihadi organization in Syria at this juncture: Fatah al-Islam, fighting under the banner of the al-Khilafah Brigade. Fatah al-Islam is the Lebanese-based organization, which is most known for its fight with the Lebanese military at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May and June 2007 and later moved to the Ain al-Hilweh camp as a base. While not all Lebanese foreign fighters are associated with Fatah al-Islam, its leader Abdel Ghani Jawhar died in April 2012 constructing a bomb in Syria. Fatah al-Islam has also taken responsibility for two major operations: killing less than thirty Syrian soldiers in rural Aleppo on July 18 and ambushing Syrian army tanks and killing more than thirty in al-Qastal on July 22.

While many news outlets have reported that al-Qaeda in Iraq has infiltrated the Syrian rebellion, there has yet to be any proof that they are currently operating there. It is possible that members in individual capacities have joined up in the fight, but organizationally this has yet to occur, but could happen in the coming months. There is one organization in Syria that has been carrying the flag for the global jihadi movement: Jabhat al-Nusrah, which was founded in January 2012. Currently there are no confirmed figures on how many members they have, but news reports suggest that they have a few hundred and some among them are foreign fighters including Lebanese, Jordanians and Iraqis. Foreign jihadis are also believed to be fighting with Kata’ib Ahrar ash-Sham. The jihadi forums have also announced more than thirty martyrdom notices for foreigners since the beginning of the year.

Implications

The first two foreign fighter categories are difficult to pin down currently because they are not organized in the same way as jihadis and far lower key in their efforts. This is also why many have had a difficult time ascertaining differences among foreign fighters and painting them all as hardcore jihadis. The concern in terms of counterterrorism is that the longer the Syria civil war festers there is potential for the overall radicalization of the rebel movement. It is also possible that as the rebels and foreign fighters get more radicalized they could become more susceptible to jihadi ideology that is sympathetic to the worldview of al-Qaeda. That being said, at this point, there is no evidence that jihadis are at the head of the rebellion – they are mainly force-multipliers insofar as experience and expertise in bomb making from past “jihads” procuring funding and weaponry through their networks, and in tactical skill in combat.

Recommendations

Distinguishing among the different types of foreign fighters is important for developing sound policy, especially when thinking about what happens after the conflict against the Assad regime ends.

It is thus crucial for Washington to begin working closely with its allies in Ankara, Beirut, Baghdad, and Amman to help locate any potential fighters with ill intentions when passing through their countries returning home or off to another conflict zone. At the same time, it is important to not make the mistakes of post-Afghanistan 2001 where some individuals were arrested and jailed without actually being associated with a terrorist or insurgent organization. The task will not be easy, but care needs to be put into place so as not to cause a further backlash.

In this light, Washington along with its European counterparts should encourage local governments of the region to provide amnesty to individuals that return in good standing and want to return to their past occupations or even enticing individuals by providing them with jobs in the military or local police force. Washington should also discourage the scenario that enfolded in Yemen when former president Ali Abdullah Salih used “Afghan Arabs” against his enemies in the south in the 1990s after they returned. The use of ex-foreign fighters for local governments’ own ends, as militias, should not be tolerated.

Additionally, Washington ought to continue its pursuit of further deepening intelligence ties with governments of the region to help stem any potential attacks within or originating from a particular country. This is crucial because as noted in “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous,” an August 1993 declassified report by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), which examined the fallout from the anti-Soviet jihad, showed that the information passed and logistical and financial networks established in the crucible of the war helped spur new avenues for other fights in the Muslim world and the West once the Soviets left Afghanistan.

One potential area of concern and backlash is attempting to work with the current rebels and future government of Syria. As a consequence of not assisting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and many battalions, which are currently being helped by a contingent of foreign fighters as well as jihadi elements, the future Syria government might not be willing to work with Washington to rid the country of these individuals. At the very least, as the influx of foreign fighters continues, it is necessary for Washington along with its allies to start preparing to contain whatever fallout might occur in the aftermath of Assad’s fall.

 

When the Syrian uprising first began, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s justifications for his harsh crackdowns against protesters and, later, armed elements was because he considered them foreign terrorists. At the time, this claim was ludicrous. The overwhelming majority of individuals were Syrians looking to shake off the yoke of Bashar and his father Hafiz’s decades-long Baathist dictatorship.

While most individuals involved with the current rebellion are still Syrian, foreign fighters now have a very real presence that should worry not only the Assad regime but also Syrians in the opposition. Most foreign fighters go abroad to defend their fellow Muslim brethren from being slaughtered. Once in the area of battle, though, many come into closer contact with hardline jihadis as well as fighters from other countries and are exposed to new ideas. Therefore, portions of foreign fighters are not fighting to help establish a future state for Syrian nationals. Rather, they hope to annex it to be part of their grander aims of establishing emirates that will eventually lead to a reestablished Caliphate, however fanciful this project might be.

At this point, on-the-ground media coverage in English, French, Arabic, German, and other languages reports between 800-2,000 foreigners currently in Syria, accounting for less than 10% of the fighters. Most have come since the beginning of the year: a large contingent comes from the states surrounding Syria: Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, while a smaller North African contingent hails from Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. The presence of Westerners at this point has been minimal.

These individuals are linking up with not only the Free Syrian Army (FSA) but also jihadi organizations.The Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Fatah al-Islam, both of them Lebanese jihadi organizations, have entered the fray. So, too, have less-established, but growing organizations like Jabhat al-Nusrah, believed to be the strongest jihadi actor in Syria, as well as Ahrar ash-Sham. Another group, Liwa al-Ummah, comprising 90 percent Syrian fighters, is led by the Irish-Libyan Mahdi al-Harati, previously a commander in the Tripoli Brigade that helped topple the Qadhafi regime a year ago in Libya.

What is problematic with all of this is that although jihadis remain a small portion of the resistance, many have past experience fighting in jihads in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. Therefore, they have sharper skills as well as connections to networks of funding and weapons, which the FSA has dearly needed in the face of lack of support from the international community. As a consequence, jihadi fighters can be force-multipliers as was seen in Iraq during the height of the insurgency against the United States. FSA fighters, in media interviews, explain that because of jihadi experiences, resources, and technologies they have started to begrudgingly work with them, even if they consider them extreme and do not believe in their end goals.

Online jihadis have also posted videos on their forums showing how some jihadi brigades have coordinated operations with elements of the FSA in places like Aleppo. This, however, can cause cross-pollination in ideology and radicalize factions within the FSA. It could also turn these different groups against one another once the fighting ends against the Assad regime, creating further instability in a country looking to regain normalcy and transitioning to a better future.

Unfortunately, this challenge from the jihadis will not go away any time soon. As can be seen in Iraq, although jihadis there are weak compared to a few years ago, the residue from the fighting lingers, continuing to be a spoiler. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community not only work up a plan for dealing with jihadis in Syria post-Assad, but also work with the opposition to help eject these foreign and poisonous elements, which will do more harm than good for Syria’s future.

 

Ever since the Syrian uprising began to show signs of becoming an armed rebellion, President Bashar al-Assad and other regime officials have painted the opposition as terrorists or other foreign actors who have penetrated the country in order to create anarchy. Although that general characterization is inaccurate, a small but steady stream of foreign Islamists is entering the fight against Assad’s forces. More worrisome is that some mainstream clerical voices as well as violent Islamists are now calling for jihad in Syria.

WHY SYRIA?

One of the reasons why the ground is fertile for greater jihadist penetration in Syria is because the regime turned a blind eye to foreign fighters passing through the country to join al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2004-2007, the height of the post-Saddam insurgency. Although the facilitation networks established during those years became less active in 2009-2010, they appear to have reignited of late. Therefore, the jihadist elements currently entering or already active in Syria are not starting from scratch — they probably still have contacts to help them bring in more fighters from Iraq, North Africa, and Europe.

In Libya, many worried that NATO’s involvement would spur jihadist penetration, but that did not occur on any appreciable scale. In Syria, however, the past six months have seen the arrival of significant numbers of foreign fighters. One difference is that al-Qaeda and key global jihadist ideologues have actively incited individuals to join the fight in Syria. For example, Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, a Mauritanian considered the most important such ideologue still at large, has endorsed the new Syrian jihadist organization Jabhat al-Nusra.

HOW MANY ARE THERE?

Although no reliable data is available regarding the number of foreign fighters in Syria, many sources have discussed their presence. A broad survey of reporting on the issue found at least thirty-three English, Arabic, and French news accounts that mentioned statements by foreign fighters and facilitators in Syria, confirmed deaths of such individuals, or confirmed arrests at the border. Jihadist forums also discuss such fighters, occasionally mentioning individuals who have been “martyred” in Syria (though it is uncertain whether these sources are describing the same individuals or separate cases).

Click here to read the rest.

Syria suffered its worst terror attack in decades this month when two car bombs exploded near a military intelligence branch in Damascus, killing 55 people and wounding hundreds more. Syria’s state-run news agency was quick to publish gruesome pictures of the victims of the attack, which President Bashar al-Assad’s regime pinned on “foreign-backed terrorist groups.”

At first, the Syrian regime seemed to have evidence to back up its case. On May 12, a video was distributed on YouTube, purportedly from a Palestinian branch of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah (“The Victory Front” or JN), claiming credit for the attack. But the release turned out to be a fake: On May 14, JN released a statement denying that it was behind the video. At the same time, it did not deny conducting the attack. Rather, JN’s media outlet said it had yet to hear from JN’s military commanders if they perpetrated the bombings.

Whether or not JN was involved in the Damascus attack, the organization has become a real force in recent weeks — and one that threatens to undermine the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of defectors and local militia fighting the government. Its main goals are to awaken Muslims to the atrocities of the Assad regime, and eventually take control of the state and implement its narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law. To that end, in the past month alone, JN has perpetrated a series of suicide bombings and IED strikes — and the pace of attacks seems to be growing.

Click here to read the rest.