the killing moon : europe’s foreign fighter mobilisation in syria

the killing moon : europe’s foreign fighter mobilisation in syria

The mobilization of Europe-based foreign fighters to participate in the Syria conflict is already larger than the European contingent in Iraq. Although precise numbers are not available, estimates from early-2013 suggest some 500+ individuals have traveled to or are present in Syria.This number is perhaps five times larger than the Iraq contingent which saw a 100+ European foreign fighters successfully enter Iraq to fight or participate in suicide operations The mobilization has been rapid and overt, if compared to the Iraq networks or the Afghanistan networks operating in the mid to late 2000s from Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy. There is also a diversity of countries of origin beyond well-established foreign fighter points of origin.

Belgium: Approximately 9 persons traveled to Iraq between 2003 to 2008. Estimates for the number of Belgians in Syria stand at approximately 70.

Bosnia-Herzegovina: One individual was identified as having traveled to Iraq. Press report that 50 individuals from Bosnia-Herzegovina are in Syria.

Denmark: The Danish intelligence services estimate that 65 persons have traveled to Syria with 25 currently known to be fighting in Syria and 6 who are believed killed.

France: Marc Trévidic estimates that between 1991 and 2011, 175 French residents traveled to fight or train in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia and Iraq. He states that 30 traveled to Iraq and 15 to Afghanistan in the past 5 years. Current estimates for French nationals in Syria range from 50 to 80.

Germany: In 2011, German authorities estimated that in the past 10 years 220 persons had completed terrorist training overseas and half had returned. The estimate did not distinguish between training and foreign fighting nor did it provide a breakdown by destination but the majority are likely to have traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region with 138 planning to travel in 2009 alone. A small number of non-Iraqi German residents were reported in Iraq. The number of Germans in Syria estimated at 120.

Italy: An estimated 45 to 50 Italy-based individuals are reported to have traveled to Syria. At least one Italian convert is reported as dead in Syria.

Netherlands: Martijn de Koning, a Dutch researcher estimates that there are 50-70 individuals who have traveled from the Netherlands to Syria.

Sweden: The Swedish press have reported on some 30 persons who have traveled to Syria from Sweden. The report mentions prior travel of Swedes “to Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen” but quotes a Swedish Security Service analyst as saying larger numbers are traveling to Syria than previous destinations.

United Kingdom: There was significant levels of travel by UK nationals to Pakistan during the 2000s resulting in numerous plots. While a number of these individuals started with foreign fighter intentions many seem to have been co-opted into attack networks. Reporting on UK nationals traveling to Iraq mentioned 70+ but these press estimates were not seen in captured records like the Sinjar documents where only one individual was recorded. Pantucci cites estimates of some 50 UK-linked individuals present in Syria in early 2013.

Contrary to recent networks supporting Afghanistan, Iraq or Somalia, the Syria networks appear to be able to move larger numbers of individuals into Syria. In Europe, the Iraq and later Afghanistan networks moved handfuls of individuals before the various networks were interdicted by law enforcement;  the Spanish Tigris network sent 1 person to Iraq, The French Artigat network sent 1 person into Iraq, the Belgian Kari network sent 4 persons into Iraq, the French 19th network sent 9 persons. The mobilization is occurring in previously identified foreign fighter nexus points in Europe – Brussels or the Toulouse area – but also in areas where there has been limited activity in the past – Delft in the Netherlands, Antwerp in Belgium, or Novi Pasar in Serbia. Similar to prior mobilizations – Afghanistan (2001-08) and Iraq (2003 to 2008) – there are individuals with prior foreign fighter or jihadist experience but their presence is out-numbered by newcomers. Examples of individuals with prior involvement include:

Belgium-based French national Raphael Gendron, previously identified in relation to an Afghanistan foreign fighter network was reported as killed in Syria

Abdelrahman Ayachi, a former resident in Belgium investigated and tried in absentia for his involvement in a Brussels-based Iraq foreign fighter facilitation network was reported as killed in Syria. He was reported to have assumed a command level role in Syria.

Danish resident, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, who was a former detainee at Guantanamo bay was reported killed in Syria in February 2013.

Members of a Spanish facilitation network based in Ceuta who were identified during the 2006 Operation Dune investigation were recently arrested for having facilitated the travel of a number of individuals from Spain and Morocco to Syria.

A naturalized Bosnian citizen of Algerian origin,  and El Mudžahid unit veteran, Djamel Boutrif, is reported to have travelled to Syria with two other Bosnian veterans of the same unit.

Media have also reported that the brother of an individual convicted for terrorism has travelled to Syria as well as another individual who was previously tried and sentenced for terrorist activity.

Mohamed Mahmoud a propagandist imprisoned in Austria and who following release traveled to Egypt. He was recently arrested in Turkey and detained before being released and was reported to have continued to Syria.

EU-based foreign fighter networks in the past decade have tended to be relatively discreet about their activities and more or less clandestine in their behaviour. An exception was Boubakeur el-Hakim’s statement to French radio in Iraq in 2003. The Syria networks are more overt with members using social media channels to disseminate information as well as giving interviews to newspapers.  Photographs as well as the announcement of the of Raphael Gendron in Syria were distributed via a now defunct Facebook page. Two French foreign fighters gave an interview via YouTube. Dutch foreign fighters gave a long statement to the Dutch newspaper Volkscrant. Video material featuring the German national, Denis Cuspert, has been released via youtube by the Shams Center. The reasons for this change in behaviour are unclear given that it presents obvious advantages to authorities seeking to document and investigate activities of foreign fighters in Syria.

Investigation and analysis of former foreign fighter networks suggests that the activities of individuals currently engaged in foreign fighter activity in Syria have the potential to continue in limited cases for up to a decade. Individuals could also engage in activities not only in their country of origin but also in third countries including outside of the European Union. Boubakeur el-Hakim, a member of the now defunct Iraq-linked 19th network, who after serving time in prison in France is alleged by the Tunisian authorities to have participated in the assassination of two Tunisian politicians. His initial engagement dates to 2003 and his most recent activities occurred in 2013, with a halt due to time in prison.

Previous foreign fighter activity also suggests that individuals who are unable to travel to their initial foreign fighter destination may continue to seek opportunities to engage either abroad or at home. During the Iraq mobilization, the Syrian authorities, at various points, interdicted large numbers of potential foreign fighters and either imprisoned them or returned them to their countries of origin.  In the case of Iraq, between 2003 and 2008, 46% to 60% of those intending to travel from France and Belgium may have been arrested either prior to travel or in Syria. It is unclear if Syria’s neighbours are activity interdicting potential foreign fighter travel to Syria, so the number of foiled travelers is difficult to estimate at this time. Rany Arnaud, a French national tried on a number of occasions to engage in the conflict in Iraq but was unable cross-over into Iraq. He was arrested in 2008 by the French authorities for planning an attack against the French internal security service. Said Arissi, a Belgian national, initially tried to enter Iraq, but similar to Arnaud was unable to do so. He was later arrested and tried for his involvement in the el-Aroud / Garsallaoui Afghanistan-network.

The domestic consequences of foreign fighter activities are often articulated as linked to the threat from potential returnees. In the case of Iraq there were very few returnees to the EU. A combination of two factors are likely responsible for this, firstly, the frequent use of foreign nationals in the high-intensity suicide attack campaign waged by AQI in Iraq and secondly, the US military campaign against AQI which saw significant numbers of foreign fighters killed. Returnees from the French and Belgian networks were limited in numbers. Press reporting suggests that returnees from Syria already outnumber those who returned from Iraq in the case of Belgian 9 have already returned from Syria compared to 3 for Iraq.

EU states and institutions have expressed concern about the Syria mobilization and it appears that there are initiatives in place at the state as well as multi-lateral level to address the potential consequences  of the mobilization. However, contrary to Iraq and Afghanistan where EU states were either present or had allies present, there is no in-country capacity to directly degrade foreign fighter networks. In Iraq, the United States expended significant resources to degrade the al-Qaeda in Iraq network and its foreign fighter support components. In this theatre, the US was able to leverage intelligence into operations as well as disseminate intelligence gleaned from operations to the EU.  In Afghanistan the EU was present as an institution and EU states were members of ISAF. The situation in Afghanistan was different in that many of the EU foreign fighters who wanted to fight in Afghanistan were actually in the border areas on the Pakistan-side so EU states were not able to directly intervene against the foreign fighter networks based there. However, the US drone campaign against al-Qaeda core members impacted on EU foreign fighter activity and ability in that region. In the case of Somalia, the EU and the US are able to operate in-country or from neighbouring states to monitor foreign fighter activity. The Kenyan authorities have arrested a number of Somalia-linked foreign fighters and either tried them of expelled them to their country of origin.  In Syria, neither the EU nor the US is present in a manner similar to Iraq or Afghanistan. It remains to be seen, if similar to Somalia, a state neighbouring Syria is willing or able to provide similar kinds of assistance to that of Kenya.

Past travel and activity patterns related to foreign fighter mobilizations suggest that they have an impact on attack activity in the fighters’ country of origin in terms of plot success and attack lethality. However, if this data is parsed by mobilization, the findings could be somewhat different; in the case of Iraq, there was very limited attack activity by foreign fighter returnees in the EU and none of the activity was successful in the EU. In the case of Afghanistan mobilization that occurred from circa 2003 onwards, there was a much higher level of returnee activity, particularly in the United Kingdom. In this case, many would-be foreign fighters were turned around by al-Qaeda operatives and sent back to the EU to initiate attack planning and execution. It remains to be seen if Syria follows the Afghanistan or Iraq trajectory in relation to the roles assigned to travelers. To date it appears that organizations in Syria remain focused on the in-country conflict and less interested in out-of-country operations.