Vol. 6, No. 15-16 (August 15, 2013)

A fourth jihadist generation takes shape in Syria

Jahangir E. Arasli
Independent security analyst
Baku, Azerbaijan 

As the Syrian crisis continues, ever more foreign jihadis have joined the opposition.  That phenomenon like the crisis itself has passed through several stages.  It began when during the winter months of 2011-2012, the Gulf States have intensified efforts to strengthen military capabilities of the Free Syrian Army by transferring to Syria seasoned fighters from the just ended Libyan civil war.  By May 2012, the Liwa al-Umma, a “volunteer” formation within the ranks of FSA, was formed, led by Mahdi al-Harati, a former deputy chief of the Tripoli Military Council, a participant of the “Free Gaza” raid, and an Irish citizen (Fitzgerald 2012).  In August 2012, the Brigade claimed having 6,000 fighters in its ranks, some of them locals, but mostly expats, including the Westerners.

In February 2012, Al Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri issued an appeal calling on all its supporters to come to Syria to topple the Asad regime.  That coincided chronologically with the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist entity believed to be created by the mostly Syrian war veterans who had fought against the U.S. in Iraq.  But the foreign jihadist presence in Syria became prominent during the summer of 2012 when the Aleppo stalemate and seesaw fighting in other areas allowed anti-regime forces the time to restructure and consolidate the zones of control. 

In the nature of things, there are little hard data on this subject, but various researchers have made estimates.  According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization, there were approximately 5,500 foreign fighters present in Syria as of March 2013, of whom 11 percent were Europeans (BBC News 2013; Zelin 2013).  Security officials have expressed concerns that these figures will rise (Economist 2013; Gebauer & Salloum 2013).  Several dozen Canadians, mostly of the Mid-Eastern descent, have joined fighting in Syria too (Bell 2013), and there are reports that a few Americans have done so as well (Owen & Harding 2013; Reilly 2013).  But if foreign jihadists from the Western countries number in the dozens, those from the former Soviet space and especially from the North Caucasus and Central Asia number in the hundreds (Gazeta.ru 2013).  In addition, there are Australians, Chinese (the ethnic Uyghur from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), Malaysians, Bangladeshis, and a few others (Malaysian Insider 2012; Valiente 2012). 

Most of the Syria-related activities are based on, or loosely connected to, previously existing Salafi-influenced networks.  Among these are Shariat4Belgium (Belgium), Millatu Ibrahim (Germany), Profetens Ummah (Norway), and Svenska Mujahidin fi-Bilad al-Sham (Sweden).  The individuals involved have been active for some time.  Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a Danish jihadist who fought in Afghanistan in the 90s, spent time in Guantanamo, and tried to get to Chechnya, has finally made his way to Syria.  Raphael Gendron, a.k.a. Abu Marawa, a French convert to Islam, four years before he was killed in Syria last April, has been already convicted to prison terms for his involvement with the Islamist propaganda network in Belgium.  Another case is Denis Mamadou Cuspert, a.k.a. “Deso Dogg,” a notorious jihadist rap star, a German convert to Islam of Ghana origin, who fled to Syria to avoid legal investigation at home. 

Almost all of these foreign jihadists in Syria have a record of violence and the glorification of violence.  The Norwegian Profetens Ummahhas, for example, has threatened violence for what it sees as insults to Islam (Gates of Vienna 2012a) and appears to have among its members several who fired shots at the Israeli embassy in Oslo in 2006.  And the Svenska Mujahidin fi-Bilad al-Sham group earlier issued death threats in relation to the Prophet cartoons’ controversy.

Most of those who can be identified range in age from 18 to 30.  They are typically members of homegrown second generation of European Muslims, first generation-migrants, or indigenous European converts to Islam.  Many come from the mixed parentage.  For instance, the above named Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane is of the mixed Algerian-Danish descent; Abu Kamal al-Swede from Sweden, who was killed in March 2013, was of the Sudanese-Finnish origin; and Ayachi Abdel Rahman, a commander of the Falcons of Levant Brigade and the Belgian citizen, comes from the Saudi-French family.

All these organizations have an active and multi-pronged recruitment effort and operate channels for sending new people to Syria as well as providing them with military and ideological training.  The Shariat4Belgium Salafi network is believed to have helped to arrange a transfer of the estimated 33 Muslims, mostly at the age between 18 and 24, from Northern Belgium area between Antwerp and Brussels to Syria, until its recruitment pipeline was suspended by the police raid (Associated Press 2013).  And the Profetens Ummah group tried to facilitate weapons training for its affiliates in the hunting courses in Norway, perhaps aiming at the further legal procurement of firearms (Gates of Vienna 2012b).  These groups raise money both from supporters and via various kinds of criminal activities. 

Over the last few months, Western officials have begun to focus on the problems these foreign jihadists represent in Syria.  An early warning came from the UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who speaking at the RUSI conference on February 14, 2013, referred to Syria as an “acute case” and “the number one destination for jihadists anywhere in the world today.”  Furthermore, he said, the jihadists “may not pose a threat to us when they first go to Syria, but if they survive some may return ideologically hardened and with experience of weapons and explosives” (Royal United Services Institute 2013).  Similar statements then came from Gilles de Kerchove, the EU CT coordinator; Michael Peirce, the Assistant Director, Canadian Security and Intelligence Service; Lieutenant-General Kjell Grandhagen, head of the Norwegian Intelligence Service; Hans-Peter Friedrich, the German Interior Minister; and Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bell 2013; Gebauer & Medick 2013).  And following these comments, Western countries sought to tighten control over their nationals’ travel to Syria (e.g. Netherlands Ministry of Justice & Security 2013). 

The situation with regard to jihadists from the former Soviet republics is different.  Most of the jihadists coming from that region are not amateur fighters as is the case with the Europeans, but rather seasoned fighters in the Chechen war and other conflicts.  Chechens have been prominent in Syria since at least the summer of 2012.  Their exact number is unknown, but it appears that they have assumed control of a group calling itself the Kataib al-Muhajireen or “Battalions of Émigrés.”  In November 2012, Doku Umarov, the emir of Imarat Kavkaz, endorsed the creation of the unit and praised the mujahidin in Syria, as well as the fighters from the Caucasus.  Both Abu Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the KM, who reportedly comes from the Pankisi Gorge area in Georgia, and his deputy Abu Abdurrahman, an ethnic Chechen killed in action in April 2013, had ties to Umarov’s group.  However, the ethnic composition of the Battalions of Émigrés is not limited to Chechens and other North Caucasians, but includes Azeris, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, as well as people from Middle Volga, some ethnic Russian converts to Islam, and Turks (for more on the KM / JMA, see Long War Journal 2013; Roggio 2013).  The group uses Russian as its lingua franca.

On March 26, 2013 the battalions merged with some indigenous jihadist outfits, including Kataib Khattab and Jaish Muhammad, into the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar or the Army of Émigrés and Supporters, under the command of Abu Omar al-Shishani (Batal 2013).  That merger suggests a disturbing trend, one reminiscent of Afghanistan when foreign volunteers in the late 1980s joined local people to establish a “firm base.”  It is worth noting that the Arabic for this concept is “qaeda,” which has become infamous because of Al Qaeda.

In addition to this group, an Azerbaijani Jamaat under command of Abu Yahya al-Azeri, has emerged, even as some ethnic Azerbaijanis are fighting on behalf of the Asad regime (Kavkazcenter.com 2013).  There are also Central Asian groups, in particular involving Kyrgyz citizens (Blua & Ashakeeva 2013).  And at the end of May 2013 there were reports on jihadist sites referring to the existence of the “Crimean Tartars’ Battalion” led by a certain Abdul Karim. [1] Turkey is believed to be a main entry point for the foreign jihadists in Syria (Boeke & Weggemans 2013). 

There are a number of motivations that “pull” people out of home environment to the battle zones.  Religious zeal, extremist ideologies and related prejudices and resentments are likely to top the list.  In addition, a search of identity and a “need to belong” create a special subgroup within pulling drivers’ category.  Friendship and family connections are important, and there are many examples of people volunteered to fight in Syria after being radicalized by their hardcore friends or next-to-kin.  An additional factor is what might be called the “bleeding heart syndrome.”  For instance, Yusuf Toprakkaya, a.k.a. Abu Waleed, an Australian jihadist of Turkish descent, has been “pulled out” to Syria, where he was eventually killed, by the TV-images of the government forces’ atrocities against the civilians (Shelton 2013a).  Given that, the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube have become a force multiplier for the jihadists.

In addition, there are several “push” factors as well.  Being an alienated, disenfranchised and (or) uprooted person with modest life perspectives often means not much left to lose.  The Syrian-type war is viewed by many such people as a window of opportunity of altering their ways of life by people beaten down.  The security environment in the countries and areas of origin of many FJs makes them looking for favorable conditions to wage jihad.  Strict military and security control imposed by governments in places like Chechnya, Uzbekistan or Xinjiang, or lethal drones in the sky over Waziristan are narrowing window for overt insurgent warfare, unlike in Syria where vast areas are already out of the regime’s power.

Many foreign fighters coming to Syria are not necessarily affiliated with the hardcore Islamist outfits.  Some are linked with the “moderate” opposition forces, such as the FSA (Shelton 2013b).  The Syrian battlefield, however, is increasingly dominated by Al Qaeda groups boosting the status and attractiveness of radical groups and threatening to spark more conflicts elsewhere (Hashim 2013).  Such groups thus become an alternative explanation for why the resolution of the Syrian conflict is likely to be so difficult and why that in turn threatens neighboring countries and those further afield.  

Many analysts are already calling the foreign jihadists of Syria the Fourth Jihadist Generation (Gunaratna 2012).  The first generation was initiated in the 80s in Afghanistan, while the second—in the 1990s again—appeared in Afghanistan, also Bosnia, Chechnya and some other places.  The third jihad of the 2000s already began on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan and internationally in the virtual world.  And with Al Qaeda having abandoned its centralized system in recent years, the Syrian war is becoming a new fourth generation.

The “Syrian Alumni” will likely become the core of this generation.  It will be centered on radical narratives, networking, operational connections, and expertise from the current conflict.  Its members are unlikely to mount another 911 attack, but more violence of the kind seen in Toulouse, Boston, and Woolwich are likely.  Such actions would clearly conform to the strategic vision of Abu Musab al-Suri, the Al Qaeda theoretician who had argued the case for the need to make the West bleeding through multiple minor blows (Black 2006).

If Al Qaeda affiliates gain control over parts of Syria or at the vicinity, the imported Syrian jihad will quickly be exported to other countries.  As King Abdullah II of Jordan said in Davos this year, “The new Taliban we are going to have to deal with will be in Syria” (Dickey 2013).  This danger needs to be more widely recognized, and governments east and west need to focus greater attention on it, focusing on the groups involved in each of their countries, the Turkish pathway, and Syria as a radicalizing center.  If that is done, there is a chance of containing the new generation of jihadists; it isn’t, the future ahead looks extremely bleak. 


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[1] See FiSyria (in Russian), 29 May 2013, at http://fisyria.com/?p=477 (accessed 29 May 2013).