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Q+A: On Foreign Fighters Flowing Into Syria

The flow of foreign fighters to Syria has become a regional concern: the number of fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia and Iraq has spiked, as groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have consolidated their power and expanded their fighting forces.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

We asked Thomas Hegghammer of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, a specialist in militant Islamism with a particular focus on transnational jihadi groups, to weigh in on differences in the trajectories of militants from the region.

Syria Deeply: How big of an issue is this?

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Thomas Hegghammer: I think foreign fighters pose more of a challenge for the regional [Middle East] governments than for Western governments. Everyone says that the Tunisians, Lebanese and the Saudis are the biggest groups. When you get testimonies from people on the ground, they seem to corroborate that. There are 800 fighters from Saudi in Syria right now; that’s what the Saudi government says. I think they’re spread out across the opposition, but a high proportion are fighting with the Jabhat al-Nusra and the extremists.

The groups in Syria don’t recruit in the region, they just accept fighters. They don’t do anything, they just receive and produce propaganda.

SD: How do they get there? Is Turkey the gateway for fighters from the region?

TH: Yes, Turkey is to Syria now what Pakistan was to Afghanistan in the 1990s. Antakya is the Peshawar of Syria. Turkey is the main passageway for fighters from the West, and from the rest of the region.

 SD: What are the major differences between the experience of fighters coming from the region and the smaller number coming from the West?

TH: The process is quite similar for both groups: you head to southern Turkey and someone takes you across the border. The difference with regional fighters is that the departure, the process of leaving your home country for Syria [is easier]. It’s the scale, there are more people going, there’s a bandwagon effect. There’s critical mass in places where the numbers are so large. Most people going already know someone who’s already gone, or are going with someone.

The other difference, especially talking about the Gulf countries, is that generally the political environment is supportive of helping the rebels. In the West there’s a kind of sympathy towards the Syrian people and the opposition, but it’s not nearly the same in the Gulf: the view is much more pronounced, especially in Saudi, where you have state-sanctioned fundraising and so on for Syria. So a prospective recruit is more likely to discover that the people around him to want him to go more than they would if he were living in the U.K. And not only that, it’s a society that would appreciate him going.

And you don’t have as many female foreign fighters coming in as you do from the other regions. They make up 10 percent of the Western fighters, and I would be very surprised if 10 percent of the regional fighters were female.

Women have been coming since the beginning. It’s picked up recently. Most of the women don’t fight. They help with logistics, they cook for the fighters and that kind of thing. It’s the norm among these groups that women shouldn’t have combat roles. But there are lots of Syrian women in combat roles, so the norm against women Islamists in combat roles is eroding.

SD: From which regional countries are fighters most sought after?

TH: Looking back at previous conflicts, the Saudis were pretty sought after because they come with cash. I haven’t seen specific evidence of that, or those kinds of views, in Syria. My sense is that it’s very much an egalitarian movement, and that’s part of the selling point to the global jihad: they’re now all equal on the battlefield.

We see people go back and forth between Europe and Syria. People are moving all the time, so I’m assuming that this is also happening in the region. The flow doesn’t show any sign of declining.

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