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Study uses 'martyr' posts to analyze 'foreign fighters' aiding Syrian rebels

Flashpoint Global Partners

Muhammad Yassin Jarrad, who was killed on Jan. 16 near Al-Suwayda, Syria, was the brother-in-law of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. His father, Yassin, also was a 2003 attack that killed Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, one of
Iraq's most prominent Shia Muslim leaders.

Foreign fighters who have flocked to Syria to join the fight to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad are a “motley crew” whose motivations range from “pro-democratic revolutionary fervor to the most extreme sectarian and hardline Islamist viewpoints imaginable,” according to a report released Monday.

The first-of-its-kind analysis, by the security firm Flashpoint Partners and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, broke down 280 “martyr” postings on jihadist websites, Facebook and Twittter marking the deaths of the foreign recruits. 

The report notes that social media have “provided a critical online bedrock for foreign fighters in Syria. … Each day on Facebook, new names of deceased foreign fighters are posted by rebel supporters who hope that their willingness to sacrifice will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.”

While Western governments have expressed concern that the foreign fighters are Sunni militants and terrorists bent on toppling Assad’s regime, controlled by members of his Shiite Alawite faction, the report paints a more nuanced picture of the foreign contingent, which it estimates likely make up 10 percent of less of the rebel military force.

 “The dominant nationalities among the Sunni fighters in our data sample are Libyans, Saudis, and Tunisians,” said Evan Kohlmann, a senior Flashpoint partner and NBC News terrorism consultant, who co-wrote the report. “While Libyans and Saudis played an outsized role in Iraq as well, the newfound flood of Tunisians to Syria may be an unintended negative consequence of the Arab Spring.”

Aaron Y. Zelin / Flashpoint Global Partners

Chart shows countries of origins for the 280 foreign fighters whose deaths were marked by online 'martyr' posts.

The numbers from the admittedly small sample of foreign fighters show that even within the radical elements, there is a broad range of participants.

 “A wide variety of international terrorist organizations have become deeply involved in Syria,” Kohlmann said. “In fact, based on our data, Sunni foreign fighters in Syria include former Hamas militants from Gaza, relatives of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the late leader of al Qaeda in Iraq) and leaders of Fatah al-Islam (a Lebanon-based radical Sunni group).

“What should be particularly worrying for Western governments is the fact that at least a third of the fighters in our sample were affiliated with the most extreme rebel faction, al Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra -- and that at least seven of the 280 dead fighters we analyzed were from Western countries, including France, Denmark, Australia, the U.K., and the United States.”

Just last week, a Michigan woman was reported killed while fighting with the rebels. The report also cites the case of Eric Harroun, a former U.S. soldier indicted in the U.S. in March after allegedly fighting in Syria with the al-Nusrah Front, an alias of al Qaeda in Iraq.

But the report, titled “Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant,” -- a geographical term referring to the area bounded by the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Peninsula,  encompassing Cyprus, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Syria – also found more moderate Muslim groups and pro-democracy factions in the rag-tag rebel army.


A look back at the conflict that has overtaken the country.

“Some of the foreign fighters have … been attached to different Free Syrian Army units or more mainstream Islamist factions like Liwa’ al-Ummah,” it said. “There has been a long list of cases of individuals who were involved in pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia or Egypt, who then went to Libya to help in the fight against the Gadhhafi regime, and finally headed to Syria to finish off the Assad regime.”

The report, co-written by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Laith al-Khouri of Flashpoint Partners, also noted that the Assad regime has relied on foreign fighters in the escalating conflict, “including fighters from recognized terrorist groups like Hezbollah and the PFLP (the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).”

 “It is perhaps even arguable that, at present, there are actually more foreign nationals fighting on the side of the Assad regime than with the rebels,” it said.

The U.N. estimates that at least 70,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in April 2011.

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