Foreign Fighters In Syria Raise Fears

Dec 8, 2013
Originally published on December 8, 2013 11:50 am
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

As the war rages on in Syria, the resistance is against President Bashar al-Assad is becoming more fractured, leading to an intensification of clan and sectarian-related violence. And that raises new fears of a jihad-related threat developing in Syria.

Adding to that fear is the fact that foreign fighters are now streaming into Syria to join the battle. They come from across the Middle East, they also come from Europe.

And that is something Thomas Hegghammer has been looking closely at. He's the director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, Norway. He joins us now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMAS HEGGHAMMER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So first off, can you tell us about the foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria? We mentioned the Middle East and Europe, where specifically are they coming from and how many are there?

HEGGHAMMER: There are foreign fighters in Syria from around 80 different nations. And the total number of Sunni foreign fighters is somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 - which is a remarkable number. It's the largest contingent of foreign fighter in one conflict at one point in time that we have ever seen.

MARTIN: The Saudi government itself has said there are around 800 Saudi fighters in Syria. Why are they going? What are the specific reasons that, for example, the Saudi's would be compelled to join that fight?

HEGGHAMMER: Well, I think people are leaving for different reasons. But a common denominator among the Saudis, as well as most other foreign fighters, is a desire to help what they see as the suffering Sunnis of Syria. I think the kind of the basic motivation for most foreign fighters is a form of altruism. They are seeing the images of slaughter coming out of Syria and they feel that they cannot sit still and watch this.

MARTIN: How do they get there? What's the most common route for foreign fighters to enter Syria?

HEGGHAMMER: The main transit country is undoubtedly, Turkey. There's a whole apparatus of facilitators along the border to help people cross into Syria. And to some extent, Turkey is to Syria today what Pakistan used to be back in the 1980s to Afghanistan. It's the most accessible foreign fighter front. We hear stories of people showing up in Turkey with, you know, long beards wearing combat gear and their iPads full of jihadi songs, and they have no problem getting into Syria. Now if someone did that, for example, you know, in Pakistan, they showed up at Islamabad airport in that attire wanting to go to Afghanistan, they would probably be picked up right away.

MARTIN: The resistance against Bashar al-Assad has been pushed on its heels in recent weeks. The government is gaining ground. Is it likely these foreign fighters are making any kind of a difference or will make a difference?

HEGGHAMMER: No, I don't think that they will make a difference to the outcome of the war. They're not a big weight on the military scale, if you will. And they're also people who have no stake in the local politics. And so they're much more likely to act as spoilers, to carry out attacks that will derail peace negotiations or other attempts toward a post-conflict settlement. So they will make it more difficult to end the war.

MARTIN: Thomas Hegghammer, he is the director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment in Oslo, Norway. He's also the author of the book "Jihad in Saudi Arabia."

Mr. Hegghammer, thank you so much for your time.

HEGGHAMMER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.