Who are the jihadis in Syria—and where are they coming from?
A lengthy uprising and the growing radicalization of the Syrian street have fueled the rise of jihadi fighters. Over recent years, the al-Qaeda franchise has been bolstered by the ruthless violence used by the Assad regime against what started as peaceful protests. Today, demonstrations have turned into a sectarian war, pitting in some instances a “Sunni Umma” against a “Nusayri” regime. This has strong appeal for jihadi fighters from neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine.
A few months after the beginning of the uprising, bloggers on Salafi websites began asking jihadi scholars for fatwas allowing them to join the protest movement. Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti advised bloggers to join the protests as long as they avoided calling for democracy or any other secular slogan. At the end of 2011, Ousama al-Shehabi, a commander in Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, called for armed struggle in Syria on the Shumoukh al-Islam online forum.1 This was followed by a fatwa posted by Sheikh al-Shinqiti on Minbar al-Tawhid Wa al-Jihad, allowing for the use of violence against the Assad regime.
In February 2012, al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on militants in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to rise up and support what he called “their brothers in Syria.” Around the same time, Jordanian Salafi Sheikh Abou Mohamad Tahawi released a fatwa calling for jihad in Syria. “I called for any man able to go for Jihad in Syria; it is the responsibility of any good Muslim to stop the bloodshed perpetrated by the Nusayri regime,” the sheikh said in an interview.2 Tahawi was arrested a few months ago by Jordanian intelligence.3
Currently, several jihadi groups feature prominently in the Syrian uprising. In January 2012, al-Manarah al-Bayda Media touted the creation of a new jihadi organization called Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), led by Abu Muhammad al-Joulani—believed to be a Syrian national hailing from the Golan Heights. Jabhat al-Nusra holds particular appeal for Jordanian fighters, who lead many of its battalions, according to Al-Hayat journalist Tamer Smadi. According to Smadi , over 25 Jordanians have been killed while fighting alongside JN forces in Syria. While Jabahat al-Nusra has no public affiliation to al-Qaeda, al-Joulani has sworn allegiance (bayaa) to Abu Hamza, one of the emirs of al-Qaeda in the Islamic State of Iraq. Jihadis wishing to join JN need to obtain tazkiyya—a personal assurance from JN commanders who can vouch for their religious commitment and military skills. Currently, however, the group is comprised of only a few thousand fighters—small when compared to the leading Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is over 100,000 men strong.
It remains that the majority of jihadis fighting in Syria are from neighboring countries, such as Jordan and Iraq, and (to a smaller extent) Lebanon. According to Sheikh Omar Bakri, a member of the local Salafi community in Lebanon, there are also small contingents from Libya and Tunisia, as well as from Belgium, France, and Sweden—mostly of North African descent. Based on interviews with Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian sources,4 it is estimated that about 100 Lebanese fighters have participated in the Syrian conflict, along with some 40 to 80 Palestinians from Lebanese refugee camps. Not all of those are jihadis: some are there because of affiliations with Syrian families or hatred for the Assad regime, which occupied Lebanon for over 19 years. Tamer Smadi has noted that almost 300 Jordanians are currently waging jihad in Syria, though there is no data indicating what percentage they make up amongst the foreign fighters.5
Jihadis from Lebanon belong to a new generation. “Most of them are comprised of youngsters from 17 year olds to those in their late 20s, who have very little Islamist and military knowledge,” noted Nabil Rahim, a Salafi sheikh from Tripoli. Fighters recruit other fighters—as in the case of Malek Hajj Deeb and Abdel Hakim Hajj Deeb, who were recruited by Hassan Srour, a fighter previously of the Farouk Brigade, say family members. Salafi sources in Tripoli—a city home to one of the largest Salafi communities in Lebanon—say that Syrian sheikhs also encourage local youngsters to join the conflict.
Similarly, this trend seems to be taking place in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon—particularly Ain el Bourj el-Barajneh and Shatila. Sources have reported that former members of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Fatah al-Islam, and Jund al-Sham—as well as some former members of Osbat al-Ansar and the Islamist Jihad Movement—have regrouped into five factions, each comprised of five to 25 members. These groups are currently training in the Basatin region with light to medium weapons. Many of these fighters recently split from Osbat al-Ansar and Islamist Jihad because they objected to the groups’ newfound “moderation” and collaboration with “apostates”—that is, the Lebanese army and the intelligence services.
As the Syrian conflict draws in more fighters from across the region, it will facilitate the spread of al-Qaeda’s regional agenda, the goal of which has not been changed by the Arab Spring—to bring jihad to all “apostate states.” Regardless of whether it has the actual means or followers to do so, this further globalization of jihad could destabilize vulnerable countries—a concern already present across the region.
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.