From: Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2014)

BY: Dr. Joshua Sinai.

Dr. Joshua Sinai, a Washington, DC-based consultant on counterterrorism studies, is the author of “Active Shooter — A Handbook on Prevention” (ASIS International, 2013). He can be reached

Western security services are highly concerned about the repercussions to their own countries’ national security emanating from the waves of radicalized Western Muslims (whether Muslim-born or converts) who have been traveling to Syria to fight on behalf of the Sunni-based al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent groups against the Bashar al-Assad regime. With the al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents expanding their insurgency from Syria into Iraq, the presence of Western foreign fighters in Iraq is a growing concern, as well — although it is not covered in this analysis. The concern about these Western fighters is that assuming they survive their military experience in the Syrian civil war upon their return to their Western home countries they would be so imbued with heightened jihadist inclinations that they would not only further radicalize others, but in the worst case scenario conduct terrorist attacks against their own countries.

Such concern was warranted because of numerous cases involving such Western fighters in Syria. The spectrum of the types of individuals who volunteer to become such fighters included the following examples:

* American “volunteers” have included Michigan-born Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert to Islam, who was killed in June 2013 in a firefight between the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front — NF), along with several other fellow Western fighters. As a prototypical example of the type of individual who is drawn to becoming a foreign fighter in Syria, it is instructive that Mansfield was considered a “normal, yet susceptible” homegrown extremist, as her grandmother had explained to a reporter that “She had a heart of gold, but she was weak-minded…I think she could have been brainwashed.”

* In another example of a prototypical American foreign fighter, Eric Harroun, a former U.S. Army veteran from Phoenix, Arizona, was arrested on his return to the United States in March 2013 and charged with conspiring to employ a rocket-propelled grenade in Syria. Investigators said he acknowledged fighting with NF. Harroun, who had converted to Islam, later committed suicide in an apparent drug overdose in April 2014.

* In another illustrative case, 22-year old Moner Abu-Salha, from Florida, using the nom de guerre of Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki, who had joined NF, became the first American to conduct a suicide bombing attack in Syria in late May 2014.

* In an example of how such foreign fighters are utilized in jihadi propaganda videos, Salman Ashrafi, of Calgary, Canada, a suicide bomber on behalf of ISIS in Iraq (his bombing had killed 19 Iraqis in November 2013), was highlighted in a jihadi video that urged Muslims to follow his “great example” by becoming a fighter and threatening Canada to change its “oppressive” foreign policies towards the Muslim world.

* Finally, in a case demonstrating how returnees pose a threat to their home countries, on May 24, 2014 29-year old Mehdi Nemmouche, the primary suspect in the Brussels Jewish Museum shooting of four people, including two Jews, was a jihadist fighter for ISIS in Syria prior to his return to France, his home country, in late 2013.

As of mid-2014, more than two years after the Syrian civil war began intensifying, an estimated 11,000 foreign fighters had reportedly joined the al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni insurgent organizations, with NF numbering an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 fighters and the Syrian-based ISIS estimated at 7,000 to 10,000 fighters. An estimated 8,000 of the foreign fighters in the two insurgent organizations originated in the neighboring Arab countries, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The remaining 3,000 foreign fighters, according to various estimates — which were not based on an actual census and may be at the low or high end — came from Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and even as far as Australia. Some 80 percent (a figure that had not been independently verified) of the foreign fighters had reportedly joined ISIS, which is reported to be less strict than JN in its “admission” of these Western volunteers.

While it is understandable why most of the “third-party belligerents” as these foreign fighters are known come from the neighboring Arab countries, since they share a common extremist outlook with the al Qaedalinked anti-Assad insurgents, the involvement of Western-originating foreign fighters on behalf of these extremist insurgents was of particular concern because of its spillover implications to their home countries.

As explained by Matthew G. Olsen, director of the United States’ National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, in July 2013 (as reported in a New York Times article), the insurgency against the Assad regime has been providing both a rallying point and a training ground for radical Islamists from other nations. As a result, he added, “Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world,” and “The concern going forward from a threat perspective is there are individuals traveling to Syria, becoming further radicalized, becoming trained and then returning as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States.” This concern was amplified by Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, who told the same conference that “The scale of this is completely different from what we’ve experienced in the past.”

What is also different about their involvement is that these radicalized Westerners have been traveling en masse to Syria to fight other Muslims — whether Alawite or Shi’ite — rather than other jihadist hotspots, such as Kashmir, Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. Adding to Western governments’ concern is that violent fighting has broken out not only between the al Qaeda-linked insurgent groups and the FSA, but between ISIS and NF, as they competed for power and resources (including control of oil fields) in Syria, and that such intense rivalry between extremist and mainstream Muslim factions had the potential to spill over into the Muslim communities in their Western countries. As of mid-2014, the sectarian enmity in Western countries between extremist Sunnis and Shi’ite supporters of Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah had resulted in some violence in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia, where some Shi’ite businesses had been attacked, with Sunni extremist neighborhoods becoming “no-go” zones for Shi’ites, but not in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods in other Western nations.

Motivations to Become Foreign Fighters in Syria

The Western “volunteers” to become foreign fighters in Syria (and, increasingly, in Iraq), are motivated by factors, such as the following:


  • You can read the full article at the Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security International Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2014)