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June 20, 2013 0

Syrian Front Attracts American And Foreign Fighters

eric-harroun-jabhat-al-nusrah-syria

Eric Har­roun

Update — Octo­ber 15: Arrest of Orange County man and fate of Pitts­burgh man drawn to Syr­ian front under­scores emerg­ing trend.

Increas­ing num­bers of for­eign fight­ers, includ­ing Amer­i­cans, have been attracted to the con­flict in Syria and are attempt­ing to join the rebels fight­ing against the Assad regime.

Accord­ing to some observers, there are some­where between 5,000 and 6,000 for­eign fight­ers already in Syria, com­pris­ing about 10% of the rebel forces. Esti­mates of fight­ers arriv­ing from Europe vary widely, from fewer than 200 to over 600. Var­i­ous rebel groups have claimed “mar­tyrs” from Britain, Den­mark, France and Ireland.

To date, there have been three pub­licly dis­closed cases of Amer­i­cans involved in fight­ing with rebels. Each has been linked to Jab­hat al-Nusrah (JN), a State Department-designated alias for Al Qaeda in Iraq (it is unknown how many Amer­i­cans have entered the con­flict on the side of rebel fac­tions unaf­fil­i­ated with Al Qaeda).

  • Eric Har­roun, a for­mer Amer­i­can sol­dier, was arrested in March 2013 for allegedly con­spir­ing to use a weapon of mass destruc­tion while fight­ing with Jab­hat Al-Nusrah in Syria. While Har­roun was not nec­es­sar­ily recruited, after arriv­ing in Syria he appeared in a pro­pa­ganda video put out by Jab­hat Al-Nusrah. On June 20, Har­roun was indicted on charges of con­spir­acy to pro­vide mate­r­ial sup­port to a for­eign ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion and con­spir­acy to use a destruc­tive device over­seas. Eric Har­roun pleaded guilty to non-terror-related charges in Sep­tem­ber, 2013, and was sen­tenced to time served. That Har­roun fought in Syria is uncon­tested; how­ever, reports dif­fer as to whether he fought with Jab­hat al Nusra.
  • Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, who was arrested in Chicago in April 2013, allegedly researched ways to join Jab­hat al-Nusrah on the inter­net. He allegedly found a web­site adver­tis­ing itself as pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion to those inter­ested in join­ing “your lion broth­ers of Jab­hat Al-Nusrah who are fight­ing under the true ban­ner of Islam.” The web­site, how­ever, was cre­ated by the FBI to attract poten­tial extremists.
  • Nicole Mans­field, a con­vert to Islam from Michi­gan, was killed in Syria in May 2013. Accord­ing to Syr­ian state-controlled media, she was killed in a car along with two oth­ers, includ­ing a Briton, while fight­ing with the rebels. Syr­ian media claimed that JN’s flag was found in the car.  It should be noted that the Syr­ian regime con­sid­ers all rebel fight­ers and their allies to be ter­ror­ists. Mansfield’s fam­ily did not know she was in Syria, but say that she had been inter­ested in the Arab Spring.

Syr­ian rebel groups, includ­ing JN, have cre­ated social media space and var­i­ous pro­pa­ganda to raise aware­ness, sup­port and poten­tial recruits for their cause in the English-speaking world. These include the exploita­tion of Face­book, blogs, Twit­ter and other platforms.

In the past, Amer­i­cans have proven will­ing to join mil­i­tant groups abroad. For exam­ple, since 2007, at least 52 Amer­i­can cit­i­zens and per­ma­nent res­i­dents have been arrested or charged in con­nec­tion with mak­ing trips abroad in attempts to reach ter­ror­ist groups, receive train­ing, or to par­tic­i­pate in ter­ror­ist attacks. Many of these indi­vid­u­als joined Al Shabaab, but other indi­vid­u­als trav­eled abroad to receive train­ing in Pak­istan or to join Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula.

The con­flict in Syria has attracted for­eign sup­port not just for the rebel cause, but for the Assad regime as well. Iran’s Islamic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps is report­edly assist­ing the regime, and Hezbol­lah fight­ers have joined with the Syr­ian army in com­bat­ing the rebels.

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