Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has done two amazing documentaries on AQAP in Yemen and the revolution in Syria, recently published a piece in The Guardian describing the foreign fighters infiltrating the fighting in Syria. Having spent many years researching why people travel from one country to join the fighting of an unknown group in another conflict (See here, here, and here), I found this article enlightening and consistent with other foreign fighter accounts.
Ghaith’s article is excellent and I encourage all those interested in the debate over whether al Qaeda is infiltrating the Syrian rebellion to check out his article. Here’s some of the quotes I focused on:
- For every conflict, there’s usually a different pattern of foreign fighter migration. I believe Syria is highly attractive to al Qaeda types and a last great hope for a terror group that is under strain.
Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
- Not all foreign fighters are created equal. In Iraq, those with skills became fighters and those lacking real ability were more inclined to become suicide bombers. In Syria, there appears only one or two outfits dedicated to suicide bombing thus far, so foriegn fighters coming into Syria predominately take on roles of fighters with varying degrees of success. Ghaith notes:
The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.
- Jihadi veterans are invaluable. Ghaith notes the presence of one former fighter from Iraq, Abu Salam al Faluji, who had some harsh words for his comrades in arms.
One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off.
“Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?
“Our work has to focus on IEDs and snipers,” he told the gathering. “All these roofs need fighters on top and IEDs on the ground. You hunt them in the alleyways and then use machine-guns and RPGs around corners.
“The problem is not ammunition, it’s experience,” he told me out of earshot of the rebels. “If we were fighting Americans we would all have been killed by now. They would have killed us with their drone without even needing to send a tank.
“The rebels are brave but they don’t even know the difference between a Kalashnikov bullet and a sniper bullet. That weakens the morale of the men.”
- Casualties are mounting in Syria and especially for foreign fighters. While its not unusual for foreign fighters to expire, they usually stick around long enough to make a significant impact. However, a band of Chechens led by Abu Omar have already taken 25% casualties in merely two days.
But Abu Omar was angry. There had been 40 muhajiroun few days earlier but by the end of fighting that day they were down to 30. They had lost 10 men in two days.
- Not all foreign fighters are welcome in Syria. While Ghaith’s NPR interview noted that while there is a common enemy, the Assad Regime, the FSA is inclined to work with jihadi types. However, the seeds of a post Assad battle between foreign fighters and the FSA already appear to be planted.
I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. “I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,” he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. “Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.”
The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. “I managed to stop them,” he said, “and I won’t let them spread here.”
Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.