Between 6,000 and 7,000 foreign fighters have arrived in Syria to take up arms
with rebels against the Assad regime, with a large majority of them joining
jihadi organizations, the Nusra Front being foremost among them, a study
released Thursday said.
The Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and
Terrorism Information Center that published the study is a part of the Israeli
Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center, founded in the 1980s by leading
members of the Israeli intelligence community.
Researchers who spent
several months putting together the study warned that in Syria, foreign jihadis
gain military experience, and undergo a process of radicalization.
are liable to continue terrorist and subversive activities in their countries of
origin when they return,” the document said. It added that “this past year saw a
marked increase in the involvement of foreigners in the fighting against the
The two central jihadi organizations, the Nusra Front,
headed by al-Qaida’s central leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its competitor, the
Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, a branch of al-Qaida in Iraq, have a
combined membership of 9,000, of which an estimated 6,000 are foreign
volunteers, according to the study.
Additional, smaller Salafi-jihadi
groups fight alongside their larger counterparts.
“Some of the volunteers
[an estimated 1,000] either returned to their countries of origin or were killed
or wounded in the fighting, or captured by the Syrian army. We estimate
the number of foreign fighters killed at about 500-700, that is, between 8
percent and 10% of the total number,” the report said.
“Most of the
foreign fighters come from the Arab world. We estimate their number at
about 4,500 from Libya, Tunisia, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Others
come from Western Europe and other Western countries, especially young men who
are second and sometimes third-generation Muslim immigrants [especially
Europeans of Moroccan extraction]. We estimate their number at more than 1,000.
Most of them come from Belgium, Britain, France, Holland and Germany. A
third group is represented by fighters who come from Muslim countries and Muslim
regions in Asia, and they number an estimated 500. Among them are skilled
operatives, some with previous military- terrorist experience gained in Chechnya
and Pakistan,” it continued.
There is a small number of Arab-Israelis
fighting in Syria, between 15 and 20, as well as dozens of Gazans and a handful
of volunteers from the West Bank. There are hundreds of Jordanian-Palestinian
fighters among Nusra’s ranks, the center said. When they return to their home
countries, some of volunteers can pose a real threat to international security,
and “may be handled by al-Qaida and global jihad organizations, exploiting the
personal relationships formed in Syria with other fighters,” the document
“It is sufficient for al-Qaida and global jihad organizations to
create a network of skilled manpower in order to carry out terrorist attacks, as
happened after the war in Afghanistan,” it added.
The threat is highest
for Western European states with large communities of Muslim immigrants, due to
the heavy representation of European volunteers in Syria, who become hostile to
the West while exposed to jihadi propaganda on Syrian
“Syria’s geographical proximity to Western Europe; the
relative logistic and operational ease of maintaining contact between the
leadership of al-Qaida and global jihad organizations in Syria and the terrorist
and subversive networks in Europe; and the legal, political and societal
difficulties encountered when combating Islamic terrorism on European soil” are
all significant risk factors.
Reuven Erlich, head of the center, told The
this week that the research “touches on a phenomenon that worries
many countries in the world, including Western states. And I think should worry
many Arab and Muslim states, [who will be exposed to terrorism by the Arab
volunteers upon their return].”
The number of nationalities within rebel
ranks in Syria “could be has high as 70,” Erlich assessed.
recruitment rate of foreign volunteers to the jihadi war effort in Syria “is
much faster than what it was during the war in Afghanistan,” Erlich
“It’s faster than ever. The volunteers are expected to pose a
threat to their countries of origin,” he said.
Unlike Afghanistan, which
is geographically remote, Syria is easy to get to from Western Europe, Erlich
said. He called for the international community to cooperate in drawing up
legislation and joint policy to tackle the threat.
effort – not just an intelligence response – was needed, Erlich said.