The growing success of jihadi groups in Syria has appealed to what is slowly becoming a transnational jihadi fraternity. In recent months, hundreds of Saudis, Kuwaitis, Tunisians, and Jordanians (as well as other Arabs) have answered the call for jihad in Syria. In a region where traditional political systems are slowly unraveling, this trend will have far reaching consequences.
According to a recent report published by the Global Post, hundreds of young Saudis are flocking to fight a “holy war” against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al Qabas, a Kuwaiti daily, has also reported that dozens of Kuwaitis are fighting alongside the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In addition, Tunisian newspapers have underlined that hundreds of nationals have gone for jihad after being “indoctrinated in mosques where holy war is glorified.” Also according to the Quilliam Foundation (and confirmed by Lebanese Salafi Sheikh Omar Bakri), Dr. Abu Muhammad al-Suri, a veteran Syrian jihadi, the leader of al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (“The Islamic State”), a small jihadi group, has “enabled a handful of British Muslims to take part in the fighting in Syria,” and over 50 French jihadis have joined radical groups in Syria, according to French daily Le Figaro.
In spite of a plethora of reports pointing to the growing participation of jihadis in Syria, one has to keep in mind that the country’s prominent Salafi-jihadi groups (like Jabhat al-Nusra among others) remain on the fringes of the rebellion in terms of numbers of followers compared to the FSA. But the impact of the increasing role of jihadis in the revolution is no more Syria-centric by being limited to the radicalization of the Syrian street alone. It will also have significant consequences on the region itself, as foreign jihadis fighting alongside radical organizations in Syria are one day bound to return home. Karim Emile Bitar, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic (French acronym, IRIS), underscores this point, noting: “Western countries like France and Britain are wondering what will happen when jihadis return to Europe after having acquired military training. The situation is particularly worrisome in Jordan where many nationals worry that these militants will one day return to their native country wanting to pursue the struggle.”1
Syria’s unfolding events thus bear a particular resemblance with the Afghanistan war scenario. During the 1980s, foreign fighters flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation; decades later and hundreds of miles away, the experience that fighters acquired during this conflict continue to reverberate. Former militants from this conflict have come to control and define terrorist activities in a number of countries in recent decades, and as a result, analysts talk of what is increasingly perceived as the growing “metastasizing” of jihad. Journalist and author of The Lonely Salafi, Hazem al Amine, explains: "These individuals return with experience in fighting in armed conflict and training in the use of weapons and explosives. Countries that facilitate the export of fighters to Syria tend to forget that one day they will return home as members of terrorist sleeper cells.”
In recent interviews in Lebanon2 with jihadis returning from Syria, they revealed they were taught the basics of guerrilla warfare, including how to make improvised explosive devices, and how to set up landmines. They were also instructed on the use of light and medium weapons, as well as combat and reconnaissance techniques. Many noted that they were trained by army defectors; however, Palestinian sources in Lebanon underlined that some members of local terrorist groups—such as Kataeb Abdullah Azzam and Fateh al-Islam—have also provided hands-on training to Syrian rebels. Fighters who return to their home country also carry a long list of international contacts and useful groups of individuals with various skills; instructors, facilitators, and other brothers-in-arms. This allows them to further expand their own networks to carry on the struggle as necessary.
Another challenge facing the region’s regimes is the Sunni-Shia dimension of the conflict—one that is gaining momentum with the prolongation of the Syrian war. Sectarianism within this conflict is becoming more of a reality, and repeated violence (massacres and abductions) between Alawis and Sunnis will only worsen the rivalry between communities. The growing divide there also finds a strong resonance in countries like Lebanon and Iraq—and even places like Yemen, adds al-Amine. He notes: “The Syrian sectarian divide is already having an impact on Iraq, which is home to rivaling Shia and Sunni communities. In addition, we have noticed that a growing numbers of Yemenis are going to fight in Syria. The number of flights between Yemen and Turkey has gone up from one to five a week.”
“In light of the destructive energies bestirred by the Syrian conflict, one wonders if we are not witnessing the end of the post WWI territorial configuration,” says Emile Bitar. The old territorial framework seems to be slowly shattering. “Throughout the region, we are witnessing the weakening of central authorities, the flourishing of old solidarity networks, and the negative reactivation of sectarian and tribal loyalties,” he concludes. Jihadi organizations generally thrive in such situations of chaos, which allow them to assume more political saliency. Much like starfish, these entities can survive by coalescing around a shared ideology or a communication platform alone.
Syria’s collapse and the resulting change in the balance of power between Sunni and Shia region-wide will undoubtedly have significant repercussions on the power structures of neighboring countries and on independent regional groups. The return of jihadis to their home countries will only exacerbate this tendency—particularly so in countries facing their own domestic sectarian tensions. One has to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of jihadis is to establish an umma—a goal that might seem more and more attainable with the weakening of home countries’ traditional power centers.
Mona Alami is a French-Lebanese journalist covering business and political developments in the Middle East. She is currently focusing on Salafi groups in the region.