Increasing numbers of foreign fighters, including Americans, have been attracted to the conflict in Syria and are attempting to join the rebels fighting against the Assad regime.
According to some observers, there are somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 foreign fighters already in Syria, comprising about 10% of the rebel forces. Estimates of fighters arriving from Europe vary widely, from fewer than 200 to over 600. Various rebel groups have claimed “martyrs” from Britain, Denmark, France and Ireland.
To date, there have been three publicly disclosed cases of Americans involved in fighting with rebels. Each has been linked to Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN), a State Department-designated alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq (it is unknown how many Americans have entered the conflict on the side of rebel factions unaffiliated with Al Qaeda).
- Eric Harroun, a former American soldier, was arrested in March 2013 for allegedly 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. On June 20, Harroun was indicted on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization and conspiracy to use a destructive device overseas. 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.
- Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, who was arrested in Chicago in April 2013, allegedly researched ways to join Jabhat al-Nusrah on the internet. He allegedly 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.
Syrian rebel groups, including JN, have created social media space and various propaganda to raise awareness, support and potential recruits for their cause in the English-speaking world. These include the exploitation of Facebook, blogs, Twitter and other platforms.
In the past, Americans have proven willing to join militant groups abroad. For example, 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, but other individuals traveled abroad to receive training in Pakistan or to join Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The conflict in Syria has attracted foreign support not just for the rebel cause, but for the Assad regime as well. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is reportedly assisting the regime, and Hezbollah fighters have joined with the Syrian army in combating the rebels.