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American and International Militants Drawn to Syria

This report was originally released June 18, 2013

Update - September 8, 2014: For the most recent information on this growing trend, see the ADL blog

Increasing numbers of foreigners, including Americans, are attracted to the conflict in Syria. Motivations include continuing accusations of war crimes and the use of chemical weapons by multiple factions, along with the increasing involvement of international and foreign elements.

According to reports, there are somewhere between 6,000 and 11,000 foreign fighters already in Syria. Approximately 600 of them are believed to have Western passports, primarily from European countries. Various rebel groups have claimed “martyrs” from Britain, Denmark, France and Ireland.  

Americans have also been drawn to the conflict, though not in the same numbers. This is likely in part due to more established recruitment pipelines in Europe. In November, 2013, US intelligence officials estimated that “dozens” of Americans have travelled to Syria to fight. Nevertheless, Syrian rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Al Qaeda affiliates in Iraq, have created social media space and various propaganda to raise awareness, support and potential recruits for their cause in the English-speaking world.

One such propaganda video highlights the concern that foreign fighters in Syria may eventually return to pose a threat to their home countries. The video, allegedly created by ISIS, features an apparent American calling himself Abu Dujani al-Amriki who urges “the people in the West” to join rebel groups in Syria and then threatens that Islamists will eventually “bring the right of Islam to rule all of the entire world, over Europe and America, over Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Africa” and “kill the infidels.”

In addition to al-Amriki’s alleged presence, there have been six publicly disclosed cases of Americans allegedly involved in fighting with rebels. 

  • Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen, also known as Hasan Abu Omar Ghan­noum, report­edly trav­eled to Syria in Decem­ber 2012 and fought against the Assad regime. It is believed that he returned to the U.S. around May of 2013 and was arrested in October 2013 for attempting to travel to Pakistan to join al Qaeda as well as for providing false information on a passport application.
  • Eric Harroun, a former American soldier, was arrested in March 2013 for conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction while fighting with Jabhat Al-Nusrah in Syria. While Harroun was not necessarily recruited, after arriving in Syria he appeared in a propaganda video put out by Jabhat Al-Nusrah. Eric Harroun pleaded guilty to non-terror-related charges in September, 2013, and was sentenced to time served. That Harroun fought in Syria is uncontested; however, reports differ as to whether he fought with Jabhat al Nusra.
  • Amir Farouk Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American born in Pittsburgh, reportedly travelled to Turkey around March 2013, and then crossed into Syria. His American and Egyptian passports were discovered in a compound once held by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization composed of several Sunni insurgency groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. He is presumed dead.
  • Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, who was arrested in Chicago in April 2013, allegedly researched ways to join Jabhat al-Nusrah on the internet. He purportedly found a website advertising itself as providing information to those interested in joining “your lion brothers of Jabhat Al-Nusrah who are fighting under the true banner of Islam.” The website, however, was created by the FBI to attract potential extremists. 
  • Nicole Mansfield, a convert to Islam from Michigan, was killed in Syria in May 2013. According to Syrian state-controlled media, she was killed in a car along with two others, including a Briton, while fighting with the rebels. Syrian media claimed that JN’s flag was found in the car.  It should be noted that the Syrian regime considers all rebel fighters and their allies to be terrorists. Mansfield’s family did not know she was in Syria, but say that she had been interested in the Arab Spring.
  • Basit Javed Sheikh, a Pakistani-born US permanent resident residing in North Carolina, was arrested on November 2, 2013 while at the airport en route to Syria. According to an affidavit presented for his arrest, Sheikh regularly posted to Facebook about joining Islamist rebels in Syria and was a member of the Jabhat al-Nusrah Facebook group.
  • An unnamed individual using the name Abu Dujana al-Amriki was featured in a video allegedly created by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an Al Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria. The video was posted to YouTube on November 18, 2013. Based on his name and accent, al-Amriki appears to be American. The video also alleges that he died in Syria.

Sheikh, Harround, Tounisi and Mansfield all purportedly have links to JN.

Americans have proven willing to join foreign causes in the past. Since 2007, at least 52 American citizens and permanent residents have been arrested or charged in connection with making trips abroad in attempts to reach terrorist groups, receive training, or to participate in terrorist attacks. Many of these individuals joined Al Shabaab, with others joining Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Additional Information on Jabhat al-Nusrah

The most prominent Islamist militant group in Syria is Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN), also known as the Nusrah Front, with various spellings. On December 11, 2012, the U.S. Department of State included Jabhat al-Nusrah as an alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI/ISI), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization. As part of its announcement, the State Department noted that in a little over a year, JN claimed responsibility for nearly 600 attacks, including suicide bombings.

In April 2013, AQI/ISI released an audio message confirming that JN is a front group and that its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, is one of their deputies. In the same message, AQI/ISI changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and announced that the two groups would formally merge. JN responded by issuing its own message, confirming links with AQI/ISI but denying a formal merger. The same message reaffirmed JN’s allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In June 2013 it was reported that Zawahiri intervened to clarify the relationship between AQI and JN. He reportedly made clear that no merger should have taken place and called on both factions to cooperate, while also appointing a representative to Syria to make sure his orders were followed.

JN is considered to be one of the more successful militant factions and also one of the most popular “due to their courage,” according to one rebel representative. This perceived courage may be due to the fact that, according to a rebel representative, the majority of rebel fighters who have died or been injured in Syria have been affiliated with JN. This is in part because of the successful reversal of the recruitment pipeline that brought fighters from Syria into Iraq during the insurgency, before the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2012. By reversing the pipeline, JN has enabled veteran fighters to reach Syria.

A June 2013 UN report on the situation in Syria raised “concerns about Syria’s becoming embroiled in the global jihadist cause” and that “radicalization among anti-Government fighters” has accelerated due to the prolonged nature of the conflict. In fact, other jihadists have already claimed the conflict in Syria as their own. A recent audio release from Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for jihad in the Levant, using an Arabic word that traditionally refers to Syria. Adam Gadahn, Al Qaeda’s American spokesman, also praised the uprising in Syria in his audio series addressed to the Muslim world on the Arab Spring. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s English-language Inspire magazine has also highlighted quotes from fighters in Syria, noting the plight of Syrians and accusing the West of deliberately failing to intervene to stop the “oppression” of the Assad regime.

The same UN report noted that “there appears to be growing support for this group [JN] from regional extremist groups in terms of recruits and equipment” due to its association with Al Qaeda, and that “foreign fighters with jihadist inclinations, often arriving from neighbouring countries, continue to reinforce its ranks.”

In September 2013, JN significantly broadened its reach with the creation of a new coalition called the “Islamist Alliance.”  The Alliance is comprised of 11 rebel groups including JN, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) and claims to represent 75 percent of rebel forces. It rejects the Syrian National Coalition and strives for an Islamist state. ISIS is not a member; although the groups sometimes coordinate tactics, there remains significant tension between them.

Hezbollah and Iranian Support for Assad

The Assad regime, not just the rebels, is also benefiting from foreign assistance. There have been reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is assisting the regime. In February 2013, General Hassan Shateri, an IRGC general listed under American sanctions, was reportedly killed in Syria by rebels. According to Iranian-controlled Press TV, however, he was assassinated by Israel in Lebanon. Hezbollah has also committed to supporting the Assad regime, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaking publicly on April 30, 2013, to announce that “Syria has real friends… who will not let it fall.” Hezbollah fighters are widely believed to have aided the Syrian army in the two-week siege of Qusair, a strategic border town that controls access to major highways, which ended in a victory for the regime. A leader of the Syrian National Council, the internationally recognized representative civilian body of the rebels, said in a recent interview that the involvement of Hezbollah increases the risk that the conflict will spill over Syria’s borders.