But the flow of jihadist volunteers has accelerated, and non-Syrians have begun taking the lead in a variety of roles as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attempts to assert control over large areas of the rebel-held north.
Foreign fighters man checkpoints, serve as commanders on the battlefield and have become the de facto rulers of towns and cities in areas under rebel control, giving them a visible and much-feared presence across large swaths of territory, according to Syrians living in the north as well as analysts.
Saudis, Tunisians and Libyans are among the most frequently encountered nationalities, the residents and analysts say, but men from Chechnya, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates also are present. The Pakistani Taliban announced in August that it had established a presence in Syria. Among those killed in recent battles was a Moroccan commander who had spent years as a prisoner of the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and was eulogized in one of the many videos prepared by the foreign volunteers to advertise their presence.
In another, a bearded fighter croons about martyrdom beside a swimming pool in the northern province of Latakia. “Here are the future martyrs swimming, and I dedicate this song to them,” he sings as men splash in and out of the turquoise pool. “Prepare the bombs and put them on my body.”
Conservative estimates put the number of foreign fighters who have entered Syria in the past two years at 6,000 to 10,000, a range that exceeds the number who volunteered to fight U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Brian Fishman, a former counterterrorism official who served in Iraq with West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center and is now a fellow at the New America Foundation.
The biggest influx of foreign fighters into Iraq occurred in 2006-2007, when more than 600 crossed in, he said. Many were recruited as suicide bombers and swiftly removed from the battlefield.
“There’s a lot more foreigners than we ever saw in Iraq, and there’s going to be a lot more,” Fishman said of the situation in Syria. “They control territory, they’ve established governance . . . and you see these foreigners playing more dynamic roles. They’re getting trained and leading people and illustrating a level of ability we didn’t see in Iraq.”
The implications for the United States and its Western allies are evident, said Nada Bakos, who tracked al-Qaeda for the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jihadists have secured more territory in Syria than they were able to do in Iraq or Afghanistan, and “anywhere they set up anything remotely resembling a safe haven, it’s a problem for the West,” she said.