Small Wars Journal

A Ticket to Turkey and a Desire to Fight: Why Some Foreign Fighters Travel to Syria

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A Ticket to Turkey and a Desire to Fight: Why Some Foreign Fighters Travel to Syria

Chelsea Daymon

In recent months the ongoing violence in Iraq and Syria perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS), otherwise known at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL), and other groups such as Ahrar ash-Sham, al-Qaeda’s (AQ) Jabhat al-Nusra Front, and what could be termed its AQ co-affiliate, the Khurasan Group have grabbed the attentions of Western, European and Middle Eastern nations alike. Putting aside the brutality, the daily attacks, and ongoing skirmishes between battling groups, this epic battle in Syria and more recently Iraq, has created a phenomenon which is not new to insurgencies and civil wars yet has been greatly amplified and incubated in the current Levantine theatre.  

The foreign fighter, who has been seen in conflicts such as the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, in the ongoing conflict in Somalia, the confrontations in the southern Philippines between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the 1980s war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union to name a few, has taken center stage once again. Some might claim the most memorable example of the foreign fighter trend is Afghanistan due to its great number of foreign recruits estimated of up to 20,000 individuals.

Afghanistan seemed to change the playing field with some Muslims conceptualizing the jihad as a personal obligation to help free the region from Soviet invasion. One of the forerunners of this notion was the Palestinian Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. During the years of the Soviet influx, Azzam published two pieces of work, one of which was a religious ruling otherwise known as a fatwa. Both his fatwa titled Defense of the Muslims Lands: The First Obligation after Faith and his 1987 written piece Join the Caravan, called on Muslims to mobilize together to protect the ummah, or what could be termed as the nation/community of Muslim believers. He stressed that the ummah was a whole body and therefore it was important for all members of the ummah to come together to protect any region of Muslim territory that came under threat; home country or not. Azzam was so adamant about this notion that he became a leading figure in the recruitment and organization of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, marshalling thousands of foreigners to the jihad with the help of Osama Bin Laden.

Today we see a new influx of foreign fighters recruited to Syria. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact reasons why an individual would leave their home country to join the jihad since every person has their own particular motivations. On the other hand, varying cases of foreign fighter have shed light on some of the incentives that have driven these individuals to take action and travel to the region. By looking at these cases and their motivations, we begin to see certain patterns emerging which can add to our understanding of why someone would ultimately go down this path.

Yilmaz: Dutch

Many foreign fighters have expressed their desire to rid the country of Bashar al-Assad’s grip, freeing the Syrian people of his rigid rule. This aspiration can be seen in cases such as that of Yilmaz, a Dutch foreign fighter who has been in Syria for around two years. He was a soldier in the Dutch military prior to leaving the Netherlands which made him a desirable catch as a recruit able to train other militants in the art of battle. As a foreign fighter Yilmaz has been quite vocal, expressing his motivations and desires in a number of news interviews, through social media platforms, and Skype conversations. He asserts that he was drawn to the jihad after viewing hundreds of YouTube videos exhibiting the Assad regime’s violent crackdowns on Syrians. In a Channel 4 interview in July 2014, he stated that “The goal at the moment for me and for many of the fighters and groups that are around me, is still always getting rid of this tyrant al-Assad, first and foremost”. He once again expressed this sentiment in a CBS news interview that aired at the beginning of October.

More recently, with the announcement of the Caliphate by its leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014 which made ISIS into IS; we have witnessed other foreigners traveling to, or wanting to travel to Syria to be a part of this greater creation deemed the Islamic State. Support for the new found Caliphate has begun to resonate across borders. “The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful,” said a young Tunisian supporter by the name of Ahmed in an October 21, New York Times interview. The Islamic State is “action, not theory, and it will topple the whole game.” There are some like Ahmed who view the forming of IS as a new age of Muslim rule under sharia law. Thirty-one-year-old Saif Ul Islam also expressed his support for IS to the BBC News in mid-August; "It is quite a revolution we're witnessing now happening in Iraq and Syria. Basically from what I've seen on the news and reports on the ground I believe they have restored the mighty caliphate that has been missing for so long."

Mohammed Hamzah Khan: American

A desire to be a part of the supposed Caliphate was witnessed on October 4, 2014, when nineteen-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan was arrested at O'Hare International Airport on allegations of attempting to provide support to ISIS/IS. These allegations carry a maximum penalty of fifteen years in prison and a $250,000 fine. To many, Khan appeared to be a typical young American studying engineering science at a suburban university until his attempted travel to Syria via Turkey. During a search of Khan’s home investigators found drawings and multiple hand-written documents which seemed to have been created by Khan and/or other persons which display support for the Islamic State. One of the documents, a note allegedly written by Khan to his parents, expressed an obligation to "migrate" to the "Islamic State" now that it had "been established." He also revealed ager over western morality, "we are all witness that the Western societies are getting more immoral day by day" and displeasure that his United States taxes were being used to kill his "Muslim brothers and sisters," presumably referring to the ongoing U.S. Coalition airstrikes. A notebook of drawings was also found with an image of an IS flag and another sketch depicting a fighter placed within an IS flag with “come to the jihad” written below in Arabic.  

Andre Poulin: Canadian

Building on this, another reason that seems to present itself in a number of foreign fighter cases is the need to belong; the desire to be a part of something taking place that they deem monumental. We see this impulse in the case of Canadian Andre Poulin, of Timmins, Ontario also known by his alias, Abu Muslim al-Kanadi. Poulin is presumed to have traveled to Syria in late 2012 where he is thought to have joined a unit controlled by Omar al-Shishani, otherwise known as Omar the Chechen; a twenty-eight-year-old Caucasus, Georgian who is now believed to be the military chief for the Islamic State. This assumption stems from Poulin appearing in a video which featured a gathering of al-Shishani’s unit. Poulin was later killed in a fight between rebels groups and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at the Mennegh Airport in August 2013. Just like Yilmaz, Poulin stressed that his initial motivation for traveling to Syria was to fight against the Assad regime however, an ISIS recruitment video released in the summer of 2014 featuring Poulin, also displays this desire of belonging to an esteemed cause. The video, believed to be one of the first ISIS enlistment videos featuring an English-speaking North American, features a then deceased Poulin speaking about his pleasant life in Canada before arriving in Syria. In the video titled The Chosen Few of Different Lands, Poulin goes on to stress that even with this good life he could not continue to live in Canada due to it being a nation at war with Islam. Just like Khan, Poulin alludes to his taxes being used to kill innocent Muslims which made it impossible for him to stay in his home country. Later in the video he compellingly declares that “there’s a role for everybody” in the Islamic State and calls on everyone to contribute something to its cause. “If you cannot fight, then you can give money,” and if one cannot give money they can assist in “technology”, or by coming to the region to build houses and roads and by doing so, an individual can earn a high station in the next life. “The trade is a very good” one he resolves “it’s like trading something worthless for the most precious diamond in the world”.         

Portsmouth Six: British

The Portsmouth Six also known as the al-Britaini Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys, made up of Ifthekar Jaman, twenty-three, Muhammad Hamidur Rahman, twenty-five, Muhammad Mehdi Hassan, twenty, Mamunur Roshid, twenty-four, Mashudur Rahman Choudhury, thirty-one, and Assad Uzzaman, twenty-five, all young men of Bangladeshi descent; provides a superior example of what I call the community element of joining the jihad in Syria as well as what Thomas Hegghammer, a renowned academic on violent extremism terms as “adventurism”. Five of the Portsmouth Six traveled to Syria back in October 2013, to join ISIS and to meet Jaman who was already there. As of late October 2014, four of the six have died in Syria leaving Assad Uzzaman as the only active foreign fighter of the gang. Choudhury on the other hand, became the first person in the United Kingdom to be convicted of terrorists offences related to the conflict after having spent time in Syria and then returning to the U.K. Many believe that Choudhury was potentially a ringleader of the four Britians who also traveled to the Levant with him. In the summer of 2013, Choudhury had contact with his friend Jaman who at that point was already in Syria. Choudhury asked questions on what to expect if he joined the jihad and what type of military training would be available. Investigators also recovered tweets and online conversations in which Choudhury expressed his desire of dying as a martyr. Furthermore, it is understood that he joked about forming a group of Portsmouth fighters destined for Syria called the al-Britaini Brigade Bangladeshi Bad Boys. Unbeknownst to mosque authorities in July 2013, Choudhury, Rahman, Hassan, Roshid, and Uzzaman gathered together at the Portsmouth's Jami Mosque to privately plan their journey to the battlefields of Syria making their visions into reality that coming October.

Ibn Zubayr: American

Being opposed to the ways of one's government has also been expressed by an American fighter who has been aligned with the al-Nusra Front for the past two years. He dropped out of college to study Islam in the Middle East and was moved by the predicament of the Syrian people in their struggle with the Assad regime. In a recent October interview with CBS News the Midwestern, Somali-American who goes by the nom de guerre of Ibn Zubayr expressed his reason for moving to Syria and joining the fight; “I don’t hate America, that’s my home; that’s where I grew-up but the government and their policies as far as the Muslim lands...then that’s another story.” In the interview, Ibn Zubayr is keen to hide his identity by covering his face, wearing his fatigue jacket’s hood pulled close around his head, and covering his hands with gloves as he alludes to the U.S. waging a war on Islam referring to the recent airstrike campaign. He makes an effort to point out that the airstrikes, one of which recently destroyed his home in Syria, will help to create people who will want to strike back at the U.S. in retaliation. In a very matter-of-fact way, he declares that “there is no threat from us if we don’t get hit” and when asked if he would support a terrorist attack in the U.S. he said that he would not consider it a terrorist attack; “I would consider it a reaction to this...to this action”.         

When looking at all of the cases above, every individual has their own reason for traveling to Syria to become a foreign fighter however, there is a distinct impression of a conscious idea of being part of a bigger picture; giving oneself to a higher calling that is perceived to be divine. The captivating call of Andre Poulin in The Chosen Few of Different Lands is a fitting example of this. The power of this video is that Poulin is sincere in what he professes unlike numerous recruitment videos that display individuals who sound, harsh, angry, or even staged. Poulin’s call is absorbing, real and could be highly seductive to an individual wanting to be part of a bigger picture.    

When considering a number of foreign fighter cases we see an overwhelming majority of young, impressionable and one could say vulnerable individuals taking the initiative to travel to Syria to join the jihad. Cases such as that of Khan’s is a good example of this, where a perceived idea of obligation and morality trump actual reality of what everyday life in war-torn Syria is like. Khan’s IS inspired drawings reveal an adolescent quality to his concepts of the group as a whole. They portray an almost fairy tale notion of IS and the jihad, glorifying something that is far from glorious. Contrarily, cases such as those of Yilmaz, Andre Poulin and Ibn Zubayr’s display the conscious decision to help a nation under attack by its government by being a fighting aid in the bloody battle. Anyone with a conscious can feel outrage at the brutal treatment of Syrian civilians by the hands of its government however, only a few will take this outrage and act on it by joining an opposing, militant group. It is interesting to note that most of the cases not only feel indignation at the Assad regime but also disgruntlement at their home country's policies towards the Muslim lands. This is evident in Poulin, Khan, and Ibn Zubayr’s words. One might claim that this stems from a lack of knowledge on foreign affairs however, it is best to keep in mind that an individual’s perceived ideas tends to be an individual's actuality ergo, reality to them. This combination creates a toxic mix of escapism, in this instance to Syria, and retaliation towards their native lands. Another cause impossible to ignore is the community element, where an individual(s) influences another to join the jihad. There is no question that social media has played an active role in this with numerous Twitter, Facebook, and chat room options available to impressionable minds, those with a chip on their shoulders, or someone looking for a purpose in their life. Yet as the case of the Portsmouth Six displays, a personal interaction with a jihadi-minded individual can have a mammoth effect. Adding to this, the idea of “the boys” going off on a grand adventure could make the choice of traveling to Syria even more alluring.  

There will never be a way to prevent individuals from traveling to Syria to join the jihad, no matter how hard governments and law enforcement try to make it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and someone with the desire will find that way no matter what. However, by looking at the cases of those who have ultimately made this choice we can hopefully pinpoint certain reasons and warning signs gaining a better understanding into the minds of foreign fighters.

About the Author(s)

Chelsea Daymon is an independent researcher living in Washington D.C. She holds an M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern studies from University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and B.A. in Oriental Studies from Cambridge University (UK).