Two Jordanian men, a wealthy businessman and a salesman got into explosives-rigged trucks last month and blew themselves up at a base occupied by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the southern province of Daraa.
Nasser al-Dalqamouni, 32, and Mahmoud Abdel-Aal, 30, belonged to Jordan’s banned, ultra-religious Salafist movement, according to Mousa Abdallat, a lawyer representing radical Islamists in Jordan. “They were driven to go to Syria by the images they saw on TV of the massacres that Assad’s gangs were committing,” Abdallat said in a telephone interview from Amman.
The two men are part of “increasing numbers” of foreign fighters joining the Syrian insurgency, said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar, in an interview. This has raised fears among Western nations that the conflict is becoming a magnet for radicals, and that it may spawn a new strain of al-Qaeda, as in Iraq and Somalia.
“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition,” President Barack Obama said on Nov. 14. The U.S. must ensure “we’re not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks who would do Americans harm, or do Israelis harm.” Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron said in a Nov. 6 television interview that the longer the Syrian conflict, “the more that it can promote and drive extremism.”
While the militants are not yet a decisive force in the uprising and their numbers are low, their involvement should be examined for what it foretells, Shaikh said.
It means “a more sectarianized conflict, both inside the country and also in terms of the region,” he said. “And some of those fighters will have an agenda which is beyond a Syrian nationalist agenda,” one that is anti-Western, he said.
Foreign fighters began trickling into Syria a few months after the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, according to Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident who is a fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Most of the opposition is made up of Sunni Muslims while Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam. Not all the foreign fighters are extremist or al-Qaeda affiliates. Some are moderate Muslims or liberals, driven by romantic notions and a sense of Arab solidarity, Abdulhamid said.
Assad’s government has played up the issue of Islamic radicals, portraying its crackdown as a fight against armed extremists. State media regularly report the death or arrest of dozens of jihadists, usually referred to as “mercenaries.”
Syria’s civil conflict has left more than 35,000 people dead, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Attempts to pressure the Assad government at the United Nations Security Council have foundered on Chinese and Russian objections, cease-fires have collapsed within hours or days and the UN’s peace envoy Kofi Annan resigned in August in frustration at international disunity.
Accounts from foreign jihadists fighting in Syria suggest they are able to enter and operate with relative ease compared with other theaters of war such as Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a September report by Torbjorn Soltvedt, Senior Analyst at Maplecroft, a U.S.-based risk consultant. Most fighters reportedly cross by foot via Turkey, although Iraqi and Jordanian fighters enter Syria along the long and porous borders in the east and south, it said.
Abdallat said the Jordanian government has arrested some Jordanians trying to sneak across the border into Syria. He said there are about 200 Jordanians, not all of them Salafists, fighting in Syria. British police this month charged two U.K. citizens, one of them a doctor, following their arrest for suspected terror-related activities in Syria, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported. The men are accused of kidnapping two news photographers in the country in June, the BBC said.
The jihadists have taken advantage of Syria’s chaos to enter the country, Abdelbaset Sieda, a member of the newly formed National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, said in an interview from Istanbul. Their presence “doesn’t reflect the real picture of the Syrian revolution” and their influence will dissipate once the fighting groups unite under a military council now being formed, he said.
Radical foreign fighters number in the low thousands and come from Senegal, Pakistan, Chechnya, Yemen and elsewhere, according to Omar Lamrani, military analyst at geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor in Austin, Texas. With a Syrian rebel force of almost 100,000 members, the extreme jihadists, including Syrians, are a “distinct minority,” he said.
The overwhelming majority are considered “dead weight,” said Abdulhamid. Tensions between rebels and foreign fighters mean that “oftentimes, foreign fighters stay in separate camps with a few like-minded Syrian recruits who help them secure their basic needs from nearby villages.”
Even so, the fighters bring much-needed combat experience, including the manufacturing of road-side bombs. Some groups are funded by individual donors, most likely from the Gulf, said Lamrani. They are also more willing to stage suicide operations, giving the rebels a tactical advantage, he added.
There’s also worry over a rise in sectarianism as the jihadists bring the idea that the Alawites “may be heretical or they deserve no mercy,” Lamradi said.
Then there’s the concerns of outside powers.
“When a country like the United States, Turkey and others look at these foreign fighters coming in they’re much more hesitant to support the rebels if they think weapons might fall into the wrong hands,” Lamrani said.