Is Syria the New Afghanistan? Foreign Fighters Arrive by the Thousands

Friday, June 06, 2014
ISIS fighters in Syria (AP Photo)

Syria has become the new (or rather old) Afghanistan, attracting more foreign fighters than the Soviet Union’s invasion of the south Asian country more than 30 years ago.


More than 12,000 foreign fighters from 81 nations have flooded into Syria since the start of its civil war three years ago, according to The Soufan Group, a security intelligence organization. Soufan’s estimate is considerably higher than those of the United States and Israel, which put the total at about 7,000.


It is also more than the 10,000 fighters estimated to have snuck into Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion of 1979 that sparked a war lasting 10 years.


Recent news accounts in the U.S. have made considerable noise about Americans and other Westerners joining the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad.


But former British intelligence official Richard Barrett, a U.N. specialist on al-Qaeda and author of the Soufan report, estimates less than a hundred individuals left the U.S. for the Syria campaign, and perhaps 3,000 total from all Western countries.


That’s about a quarter of all the foreign jihadists and others to join one of the many Syrian rebel groups. In contrast, more than half of all the foreign fighters have traveled from three Arab nations: Tunisia (3,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500) and Morocco (1,500).


The three rebel groups that have recruited the most foreign soldiers were all founded by former members of al-Qaeda. They are Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).


“These groups tend to be more inclusive, better organized, and better financed

than their more moderate counterparts,” Barrett wrote in his report (pdf).


They also potentially pose a greater terrorist threat to the world. “Leaving aside what may happen in Syria, if al-Qaeda can maintain a network of even a small number of motivated returnees, or recruit fighters to its terrorist agenda while they are still in Syria, it may once more pose a significant global threat,” the report says.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Foreign Fighters in Syria (by Richard Barrett, Soufan Group) (pdf)

Syria Conflict Spawning ‘New Generation of Terrorists,’ Report Warns (by Karl Vick, Time)


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