One was a nightclub bouncer in Sydney’s red light district and an aspiring actor. Another had a promising music career in London, rapping about smoking weed. And then there was the Swedish couple who drove from Turkey to Idlib in Syria, asking in broken formal Arabic how they could join a fighting group.
More than 12,000 foreigners are believed by intelligence services to have traveled from across the planet to fight in extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. The volunteers come from at least 81 countries — around one quarter of them reportedly hold Western citizenship — but their backgrounds are so varied that it's difficult to discern a single shared narrative driving their decisions. The flood of young men and women from all corners of the globe to join the Islamic State (IS) and other groups operating in the power vacuums of northern Iraq and Syria has prompted concerns among security agencies in their home countries over the potential threat they represent if and when they return.
In a report on foreign fighters in Syria published in June, the Soufan Group — an independent security consultancy based in New York — said that more foreigners have enlisted in Syrian fighting groups than the number that had traveled to Afghanistan to join the mujahedeen fight against the communists a generation earlier. And it's worth remembering that Al-Qaeda was created by volunteers who'd fought in Afghanistan.
While the majority of Syria volunteers are from the Arab world, there are also many who barely speak Arabic, who are recent converts to Islam and sometimes, are scarcely able to articulate the reasons behind their decision to join the fight.
“Extremist groups are better able to absorb foreigners who do not speak Arabic and generally have no military training,” wrote Richard Barrett in his report for the Soufan Group. “The extremists are also often the first rebels that independent travelers meet on crossing the border, and are well placed to exploit the enthusiasm of a new fighter who will want to get involved as quickly as possible. Once caught in the group dynamic, the foreign fighter is unlikely to leave to join a rival."
Among the countries of origin of Syria volunteers listed by Barrett are Algeria, Australia, Canada and Finland as well as Switzerland, Tunisia, the U.K. and the U.S. The greatest numbers appear to come from Tunisia (3,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500), Morocco (1,500) and Russia (800).
These recruits are from a generation that came of age using social media, and their tweets and postings — intended either to reassure families left behind, or encourage others to join — offer unprecedented glimpses of their lives at war. Their output includes everything from reports of 21 British girls joining 500 of their male compatriots and tweeting to each other about making pancakes, to a Florida man posing with kittens who later went on to kill himself in a suicide bombing.
Transnational volunteers who are joining extremist groups will top the agenda next week when President Barack Obama chairs a U.N. Security Council session. Obama plans to seek a resolution for governments to create laws designed to stem the flow of foreign recruits to Syria and Iraq, arguing that such fighters pose a domestic security threat if they return to their home countries.
The fact that so many IS fighters are foreign was highlighted during the execution videos of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, in which the killer who addressed the camera spoke in a British accent. The Australian government recently identified Mohammad Ali Baryalei, an Afghan refugee from Sydney, as a senior member of the Islamic State group. He is reported to have recruited Khaled Sharrouf, the man whose photos of himself and his young son carrying severed heads went viral, and a 22-year-old woman from Australia’s northern beaches along with her husband, a dual Australian and U.S. citizen.
The Russian contingent is predominantly composed of battle-hardened Chechen fighters, whose expertise has seen them rise quickly into leadership roles. They see the war in Syria as an extension of their own campaign against Moscow — Russia makes the same connection in explaining its support for the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. European volunteers are more commonly drawn from among the continent's disaffected immigrant youth.
Barrett notes that there is also a strong focus on “martyrdom” among foreign volunteers, many of those coming to fight in Syria often becoming suicide bombers in Iraq.
“Another attraction of the Syrian war to Islamists is the opportunity to live in a place where rules and behavior are supposedly fully and solely in accordance with the teachings of Islam,” Barrett wrote. “Their knowledge of religion is often rudimentary and so they do not question the authority of their leaders and believe what they are told.” A number of the foreign volunteers, however, became so rapidly disillusioned by the reality on the ground created by these extremist groups that they have left Syria within a day or two of arriving, according to Barrett.
The response has varied among those countries from which volunteers have traveled to Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, for example, issued a royal decree earlier this year penalizing anyone who joins any group the kingdom designates a terrorist organization. Those who return are sent to a luxury rehabilitation center where they are counseled and attend religious lectures designed to change their interpretation of religious texts. In Algeria and some European countries, attempts have been made to reach out to families — who are often shocked to discover their sons or daughters have gone to fight in Syria — and enlisting their support to persuade the volunteer fighter to return home.
Other countries are trying outreach programs and call centers to allow families to report any signs of radicalization in family members.
“How the international community deals with this threat will determine the trajectory of terrorism over the coming years,” writes Barrett in his report. “Governments can and should address the conditions conducive to terrorism, but communities are best placed to prevent it. It is important therefore that both sectors of society work together to address the challenges posed by foreign fighters in Syria, and that they do so with some urgency.”