ICSR Insight: British Foreign Fighters in Syria
By Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow
Arrests in London earlier this week underscore the problem of British citizens seeking to join jihadist causes abroad.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, ICSR has compiled a database of foreign fighters travelling to the country. Based on an update of our earlier estimates (published in April), we now believe that between 200-350 British citizens have travelled to the country with the intention of becoming fighters. This figure includes deceased individuals and those who later left the conflict and returned to the United Kingdom.
We continue to monitor the flow of foreign fighters from Western countries as part of a multi-year project exploring this aspect of the conflict. Below are some initial findings of our research, the full and final results of which will be presented next year.
Who becomes a foreign fighter?
Though it may be too early to draw general conclusions, our data suggests that many of those travelling to Syria as foreign fighters are:
• In their twenties;
• Of South-Asian ethnic origin;
• With recent connections to higher education; and
• With links to individuals or groups who have international connections.
Why do they go?
The reason why some British Muslims would seek to engage in jihadist activity abroad remain varied. However, some general observations about the key drivers can be made. These are:
• The ‘ummah consciousness.’ This viewpoint tells Muslims they belong to a global fraternity where issues such as loyalty and allegiance are defined through confessional identity (rather than a civic one). Some Muslims may, therefore, feel obligated to defend their “brothers and sisters” in Syria.
• Ease of travel. The proximity of the Syrian conflict to Europe makes it particularly attractive to potential fighters. Moreover, the main transit country, Turkey, does not require British citizens to have a visa and is also relatively inexpensive to reach.
• Lack of counter-narrative. While British involvement in previous conflicts over the last decade has been contentious, there was nonetheless an alternative narrative which counselled young Muslims against travelling abroad for jihad. With Syria, would-be jihadists find themselves adopting a not dissimilar view to Western governments — that Assad is guilty of committing atrocities against civilians, and that he should be removed.
How do they travel to Syria?
Travel to Syria is typically through Turkey, which provides immediate access to rebel held territory in the north (much of which is controlled by Islamists).
Communiqués issued by jihadists inside the country advise foreign fighters against arriving in the country without a pre-existing connection. The emphasis, therefore, is on first establishing a reliable link with fighters inside the country who will then facilitate safe passage to jihadist groups on the ground.
Our research suggests that one of the principal means by which British foreign fighters travel to Syria is via charity or aid missions. It should be stressed, of course, that most charities delivering aid to Syria are reputable and engage in legitimate humanitarian work. Yet, the rapid proliferation of aid groups concerned with Syria has made it difficult for appropriate due diligence to decipher which groups are facilitating the transfer of foreign fighters.
What do they do in Syria?
We understand that some Western volunteers to the conflict are gathered together in a ‘muhajireen’ unit. That is, a specific unit of foreign fighters (with the Arabic word ‘muhajir’ referring to an individual who makes a spiritual migration, in this context, for the purposes of jihad).
This muhajireen unit then serves as an auxiliary fighting force and is not directly aligned with, for example, groups like Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham [Levant/Syria]. Their primary role is to provide additional manpower for other Islamist groups, while not be directly aligned to any specific outfit.
There is clear evidence that some of the British foreign fighters in Syria are using the internet to communicate with, and incite, both friends and family in the UK.
ICSR research on Syria
ICSR continues to monitor and track the flow of foreign fighters from Western countries to Syria. Interim findings published earlier this year found that Europeans comprise around 10% of the overall foreign fighter contingent in Syria. The largest number come from North Africa, then the Gulf.