Recently, Senior Research Fellow Shiraz Maher was asked to conduct a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), on the subreddit /r/SyrianCivilWar, about his on-going research on the Syrian civil war and foreign fighters travelling to take part in the conflict. Founder and moderator of /r/SyrianCivilWar, Christopher Kingdon had this to say about organizing the event:
Having seen Shiraz Maher’s work quoted widely in the media from the Jerusalem Post to the Telegraph, I was extremely interested in having him conduct an AMA on the subreddit in order to discuss his research and the methods behind it. Maher has clearly conducted excellent research on the topic of foreign jihad from western countries in Syria. We were interested in how he and the ICSR were coming up with their numbers, what he thought the contributory factors were, what ideology and tactics were accelerating the rise of this curious phenomenon and finally what impact he thought their presence was having on the Syrian conflict. Maher took the time to answer these questions and more and we are extremely grateful. It’s always a pleasure to connect users of the subreddit with analysts and it was very cool of Maher to facilitate this possibility.
Below is an excerpt from the AMA; to read the rest please visit /r/SyrianCivilWar.
Brown_Moses – During my meetings with various organisations one issue comes up again and again, turning the vast amount of videos and other information coming from Syria into usable information. Some organisations use systems like Palantir to organise this data, but generally they focus on particular areas as there’s far too much information for the sort of teams their willing to pay for to process. Is this an issue your organisation has come across, and what steps has your organisation taken to deal with this issue, if any?
ShirazMaher – You’re right about the overall amount of information coming out of Syria – it can be incredibly difficult to make sense of it at times. There’s a team of us at ICSR, so that always helps, when you have colleagues to bounce ideas off etc.
I don’t think I would say we have a perfected system just yet. We’re learning and responding to this as it happens. Platforms like Twitter, for example, have become really important in the Syrian context. There’s lots of software out there to capture and make sense of all this data. We’re exploring a few options in this regard.
Uptodatepronto – How do you think Assad could win this war when, as you note in your pieces, 75% of the Syrian population is Sunni and the war has long moved to being fought along sectarian lines? Do analysts make too much of short term gains and ignore the fact that Assad has alienated the majority of his Sunni populace? Is there anything he can do to win them back or will tactics of ISIS/ JAN and the influx of foreign fighters do that for him?
Secondly, on your piece for Syria Deeply- http://beta.syriadeeply.org/2013/11/brits-die-syria-questions-impact-western-jihad/#.UpuXgRY5tcM, you talk about the number of British jihadists fighting in Syria. (300-350). How do you determine these numbers? Does social media play a part? You briefly discuss possibilities of their return to Britain, when will we start to see this? And why haven’t there been attacks as of yet? Have they been restrained to do so up until this point to encourage more western support for the opposition to Assad?
ShirazMaher – I’m not sure how anyone “wins” this war. Both sides are locked in a stalemate which has effectively divided the country into regime areas and rebel areas. The sectarian aspect has, I think, become an increasingly significant factor of the conflict. Although the revolution did not start off as a sectarian affair (despite what Assad said at the time), it can’t now be ignored. The truth is that people fall back on sectarian identities in times of crisis – and that’s happening in Syria now. Minorities rightly feel intimidated and threatened by the rise of hard line Islamists (particularly AQ aligned jihadists), while the Sunni majority is alienated from the regime. I don’t see how any of this is reconciled. I think the conflict endures for many years until people get tired.
With regards to your second question, we use a range of means to work out numbers. Social media is an important part of that. We also look at jihadist pronouncements (sometimes on social media, or their own websites), and we also talk to people in law enforcement – who sometimes share information on numbers with us.
Gissisim – Do you have any insight into how these groups are recruiting from European countries like the UK, Germany, France etc? I think it’s interesting how they are able to get so many people to go fight from these countries.
ShirazMaher – We do have some interesting ideas on this, but we’re going to be publishing a lot of material on this from January onwards – so I don’t want to spike our own research just yet!
Lots of people are also just ‘self starters.’ They go to Turkey alone and make connections with groups in the border towns. A few of the early Europeans to go over have now established routes, safe houses, and other mechanisms to facilitate the transfer of foreigners.
Time_IsAnIllusion– What percentage of the fighters in Syria do you think are foreigners?
What percentage of the fighters in Syria do you think are Islamists/radicals?
What you think will happen when the European fighters come back home?
ShirazMaher – I think it’s generally pretty difficult for anyone to accurately estimate numbers. The picture on the ground appears to be pretty fluid and constantly evolving. What I can say is that foreigners are becoming an increasingly important component of the conflict.
With regards to what percentage are Islamists/radicals, I think the fighting opposition is increasingly being dominated by them. The secular FSA types are largely melting away or being absorbed by more hard line groups. Obviously you have al-Qaeda aligned groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra; but then you also have reams of conservative Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa Tauhid etc.
At present we haven’t seen a substantial number of fighters return to Europe. I think this will become a bigger issue over the coming years. In terms of what happens – everyone expects them to present a security risk in one form or another. Thomas Hegghammer has done interesting work on foreign fighters returning home from previous conflicts which suggests only a minority will do things once they return – but my sense is that those fighting in Syria will pose a unique set of challenges.
To read the entire AMA please visit /r/SyrianCivilWar.