Up to 7,000 foreign jihadis fighting in Syria, new study finds

Majority come from Arab countries; volunteers undergo radicalization, continue terrorist activities in countries of origin.

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters 370 (photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters 370
(photo credit: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)
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.
“They 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 Syrian regime.”
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 stated.
“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 battlegrounds.
“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 Jerusalem Post 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.
The 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 added.
“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.
A multi-disciplinary effort – not just an intelligence response – was needed, Erlich said.