From the Guy Next Door to the Fighter Overseas: A Look at Four Foreign Fighters who Joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
With the recent eruption of violence in Iraq and the ongoing civil war in Syria the topic of foreign fighters has once again been brought to the forefront. A number of Western intelligence officials have reiterated concerns as to the growing numbers of Westerners and Europeans traveling to Syria to join the jihad. It is impossible to accurately figure how many foreign fighters have joined militant groups since the fighting in Syria began in 2011 however, the consensus estimates that anywhere from five to fifteen-thousand foreign fighters, from eighty-one countries have gone to the region to join groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); formally declared a Caliphate and the Islamic State (IS) by its leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi on June 29, 2014.
The main concerns with foreign fighters are simple: individuals that have traveled to a region steeped in conflict; in this case Syria, are gaining military training while undergoing an ideological transformation towards a radical view of Islam and potentially the West. The worries are that if and once any of these fighters ever return to their home countries, there is the potential that one of them may initiate an attack. This is a legitimate concern when looking at past patterns of individuals who have had training in camps affiliated with radical groups. For instance, in October 2013, four British men who had returned to the United Kingdom from Syria were arrested on suspicions of preparing a Mumbai-style gun attack on British civilians, possibly in London. The four suspects had been under MI5 surveillance for some time after intelligence was received that they were plotting an attack and trying to get their hands on weapons. Little is known about the details of the plot or the four suspects due to a closed-door trial that began in June of this year. A few months later, a twenty-three-year-old French man, identified as Ibrahim B, was arrested by French police on February 11, 2014 when soda cans filled with explosives, nuts, nails, and bolts, along with bomb-making instructions were found in his French Riviera apartment. French authorities claimed that an “imminent” attack on the French Riviera had been foiled. The suspect had returned to Europe after having spent time in Syria and he was also allegedly linked to the Cannes-Torcy cell which, back in 2012 was suspected of planning a grenade attack on Jewish businesses.
This is not to say that all foreign fighters who return home will perpetrate attacks on their homeland as one Dutch national foreign fighter, going by the name of “Yilmaz” pointed out in a Sky News interview on July 9. Although, he did add that there was “always the chance of a loose cannon doing something stupid, doing something crazy."
With that being said, there are a number of reasons an individual would travel to Syria to join a militant group. Many, including Yilmaz, expressed that their reasoning stemmed from wanting to help the Syrian people rid themselves of the tyranny of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. On the other hand, there are some foreign fighters who seem to have other motives for their enlistment.
One such fighter is Omar al-Shishani, otherwise known as Omar the Chechen; a twenty-eight-year-old Caucasus, Georgian shaped by decades of brutal fighting in his homeland. He was born Tarkhan Batirashvili and served in the Georgian national army, fighting in the 2008 war with Russia until he was later discharged in 2010 due to being diagnosed with tuberculosis according to the Georgian military. A few months after his discharge, he was arrested by Georgian police for illegal arms possession. However, he was released from prison early; never serving his three year sentence. There are conflicting reports on the cause of his release, with it either being due to his health condition or an amnesty being granted. One might surmise that his health condition may have been connected to his amnesty. Nonetheless, when he had emerged from prison, he had embraced a much more militant view of Islam. His father, Teimuraz Batirashvili, noted that after al-Shishani’s release, which also ultimately lead to his leaving home and traveling to Turkey, al-Shishani removed all family photos from the house in accordance with his strict, new, beliefs. In that same year, al-Shishani left Georgia and went to Turkey; ending up in Syria a few years later during the beginnings of the civil war. It is assumed that with his military training he was able to successfully move up through ISIS’s ranks. Presently, there are speculations that he may be the military chief for the Islamic State after the former holder of the title; Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbar was killed in Mosul this past June. Unlike some militants and the leader of IS, Abu Baker al-Baghdadi; al-Shishani has not shied away from becoming somewhat of a poster boy for the Islamic State, appearing in videos and photos released by IS’s aggressive media promotion. In a recently released video appearance at the beginning of July, al-Shishani makes his point and the desires of the Islamic State clear; “Our path is toward the caliphate. We will bring back the caliphate, and if God does not make it our fate to restore the caliphate, then we ask him to grant us martyrdom."
Around the middle of June, three foreign fighters appeared in a recruitment video released via social media accounts linked to ISIS militants. The video purports to show three young British men who left the United Kingdom to join the group in Syria. Reyaad Khan and Nasser Muthana, both twenty-year-old friends from Cardiff appear in the video along with a third Briton from Aberdeen known locally as “Raqib”. Recent reports claim that Abdul Raqib Amin was killed in fighting near Ramadi in mid-July.
In 2010, a sixteen-year-old Khan was featured in a video for a project on local youth shot at the Riverside Warehouse youth center in Cardiff. In the footage, Khan looks the spitting image of a sixteen-year-old teenager, with no hints of any desire to join a jihad. Although, during the interview he did express feelings of being stereotyped due to his ethnicity and youth and that he thought people looked at youngsters as trouble makers. He also elaborated on the challenges of avoiding criminality within the neighborhood where he grew up saying that at times it was hard to stay “pure at heart”; adding that places like the youth center provided wholesome, safe-havens where he and his friends could interact. The filmmaker did note that for a young man, Khan had an impressive knowledge of politics and a strong desire to bring about positive change, making statements such as, “the future of Britain is the youth” and for a better future, money should be invested in youth-focused projects instead of “illegal wars”. It is not clear what “illegal wars” Khan was alluding to but perhaps this was the budding of his personal call to Syria.
Khan’s school friend, Nasser Muthana seems to have been a well-educated, quiet young man according to his father, with standing offers to study medicine from four universities. His father claims that he left the United Kingdom to join the jihad in Syria in November 2014. Two weeks after Muthana appeared in the recruitment video, pictures of home-made bombs were posted on a Twitter account by an individual claiming to be Muthana. The photograph appeared to show around fifteen improvised explosive devices (IEDs) packed inside metal containers with a caption stating, “So the UK is afraid I come back with the skills I’ve gained”. He also posted a photo of a home-made, chain-like weapon with the caption, “Look what we found on this shi’i, glad tidings we’ll make sure his head is detachable”.
Social media accounts thought to be linked to both Muthana and Khan also praised the June announcement of the IS Caliphate. Additionally, graphic comments describing the killing of a number of people were posted on what is thought to be an account associated with Khan, including a photo of the killings which are understood to have been perpetuated by ISIS.
Then there is Abdirahmaan Muhumed, a twenty-nine-year-old, Somali-American from Minnesota who is known to have traveled to Syria to join forces with ISIS according to FBI officials. Muhumed’s Facebook account seems to also back up this theory; showing pictures of him in military wear and making references to fighting for ISIS. Many who knew Muhumed were surprised to hear about this development since he seemed consumed with his own life in Minnesota, his family, and his children. In a series of Facebook messages between Muhumed and Minnesota Public Radio News (MPR); Muhumed is reported as saying that he is fighting for ISIS to save the global Muslim community and that if this caused people to consider him a terrorists, he was “happy with this”. He also alluded to ISIS "trying to bring back the khilaafa," and said that "Allah loves those who fight for his cause." In the past number of months, FBI officials have been investigating up to fifteen Somali-American men who are thought to have left St. Paul, Minnesota to join ISIS in Syria; Muhumed being among them. Due to such a large number of men traveling to Syria from the same area, it is believed that there may be an ongoing radicalization and recruitment element taking place within Minnesota’s Somali community.
After considering the cases of al-Shishani, Khan, Muthana, and Muhumed, it is clear that a number of elements are at play. Not all foreign fighters are motivated to join militant groups for the same reasons, nor are their circumstances similar. Al-Shishani’s case is of particular interest due to his assumed, prominent position in IS, as well as, his poster boy status in the organization. Unlike al-Shishani, the majority of foreign fighters end up being foot soldiers for militant groups; staying in this position until they either end their jihad, are killed in fighting as we saw with Raqib, or commit suicide attacks. Al-Shishani’s swift move up through the ranks, is atypical. One common component involved in all four cases is what I will call the community element. Someone within each foreign fighter’s community, whether this element is just a friend or consists of a vaster network; played a role in shaping their desire to join ISIS in Syria. In al-Shishani’s case, this is not surprising on two points: there are a number of accounts of prisoner radicalization both here in the United States; with cases such as the Washington and Patterson, Jam’iyyat Ul-Islam Is-Saheeh (JIS) plot on Southern Californian targets, and other cases abroad such as, the early 90’s case of Khalid Kelka, who was radicalized in a French prison, later went on to murder a moderate Imam in Paris, and was also involved in an attempted bombing of a high-speed train. Secondly, the Pankisi Gorge region where al-Shishani grew up, has gained a reputation for being an area of Islamic militancy. Hence, it is highly likely that al-Shishani gained some if not all of his radical beliefs from within his community whether this was while incarcerated, outside of prison, or a combination for the two. In an interview with al-Shishani’s father, Mr. Batirashvili noted that all three of his sons had converted to Islam with the middle son having also become radicalized. This potentially points to forces at work within their community which al-Shishani may have been exposed to prior to his imprisonment. The cases of Khan and Muthana reflect elements of this component as well. Unlike Khan, Muthana had a younger brother, Aseel, aged seventeen, who also became radicalized and left for Syria in February to join his brother. This points to the Muthana brothers having some connection to the influences of radical Islam whether within their community, through social media, or a combination of the two. Consequently, it is not surprising that Khan also fell into a similar ideology being friends with Muthana. In Muhumed’s case, the ongoing investigation into the fifteen Somali-American men from Minnesota who are thought to have traveled to Syria seems to be pointing in the direction of a community aspect at play. Additionally, ISIS’s aggressive social media promotion surely adds an element of making their jihad cool and sexy to individuals who may or may not have experience on the battlefield. Unlike some of the more traditional media campaigns of terror organizations; ISIS and its supporters are highly western media savvy; not shying away from methods that appeal to a western palate with posts and videos written increasingly in English. There is no doubt that this helps promote foreign recruitment, as well as, funding. As mentioned earlier, some foreign fighters express their desire to join the jihad in the hopes of ridding Syria of Bashar al-Assad’s regime while Thomas Hegghammer, a noted academic on violent Islamism observes; “adventurism” also plays an important factor in this choice.
Unfortunately, as the fighting continues in Syria and Iraq and the IS preservers in its endeavors, foreign fighters will continue to be an issue. It will be up to their communities and home countries to monitor and evaluate what their citizens are doing abroad; regulating and weighing any potential threats. Measures such as, better sharing of traveler information between countries, as well as, community programs in mosques to try to dissuade and prevent recruitment in the first place, may help. In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has even recommended that Britons known to be fighting in Syria have their passports revoked.
The one wild card in this affair would be if western nations got drawn into the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. In such an instance, the conflict would surpass borders causing the west to be a valid target. Under these circumstances, it could potentially make it easier for undetected foreign fighters to enact attacks back in their homelands. The verdict is still out to whether foreign fighters pose a forthcoming threat or not nonetheless, as Yilmaz pointed out, all it really takes is one.