Sometime in the spring or summer of 2013, history was made in Syria. That was when the number of foreign fighters exceeded that of any previous conflict in the modern history of the Muslim world. There are now over 5,000 Sunni foreign fighters in the war-torn country, including more than a thousand from the West. The previous record-holder — the 1980s Afghanistan war — also attracted large numbers overall, but there seems never to have been more than 3,000 to 4,000 foreign fighters at any one time in Afghanistan. This influx of war volunteers will have a number of undesirable consequences, from strengthening the most uncompromising elements of the Syrian insurgency to reinvigorating radical communities in the foreign fighters’ home countries. Not all of these fighters can be considered jihadists, of course, but many can, and more will be radicalized as they spend time in the trenches with al Qaeda-linked groups. At this rate, the foreign fighter flow into Syria looks set to extend the life of the jihadi movement by a generation.
But why is Syria attracting so many war volunteers? How could this happen only two years after the Arab spring and the death of Osama bin Laden prompted many to predict the decline of jihadism? The short answer is that it’s easy to get there. Not since the early days of the Bosnia war has it been less complicated for Islamists to make it to a war zone. This was stated in a recent Washington Post interview with a Syrian facilitator:
“‘It’s so easy,’ said a Syrian living in Kilis who smuggles travelers into Syria through the nearby olive groves and asked to be identified by only his first name, Mohammed. He claims he has escorted dozens of foreigners across the border in the past 18 months, including Chechens, Sudanese, Tunisians and a Canadian. ‘For example, someone comes from Tunisia. He flies to the international airport wearing jihadi clothes and a jihadi beard and he has jihadi songs on his mobile,’ Mohammed said. ‘If the Turkish government wants to prevent them coming into the country, it would do so, but they don’t.'”
The obstacles facing Syria volunteers today are smaller than those faced by most other foreign fighters in the past two decades. A Saudi showing up at Islamabad airport in 2002 humming jihadi anashid would be on the next plane to Guantanamo, and woe to the Arab caught in combat gear on the Chechen border. It is not just the border crossing which is less complicated; the risk of legal sanctions at home also seems lower, thus far at least, for Syria-farers than for their predecessors. A European Islamist with al Qaeda in Yemen would face almost certain prosecution on his return. The United States has been even less forgiving, sending several Somali-Americans to prison for merely trying to join al-Shabab. Thus far, few if any European countries seem to be systematically prosecuting foreign fighters returning from Syria, although some E.U. officials have called for stricter legislation.
There are two fundamental reasons for this situation. The first is that many states, including in the West, support the same side of the conflict that the Sunni foreign fighters are joining. This geopolitical configuration makes it politically difficult for both departure and transit countries to stem the flow with repressive means. In most previous conflicts, such as post-9/11 Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somalia, foreign fighters were joining the “wrong” side. Now they are on the “right” side, as they also were — guess when? — in 1980s Afghanistan. Popular support for foreign fighting in Syria is especially strong in the Sunni Muslim world, where mainstream clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi have been allowed by their governments to publicly urge people to go and fight in Syria.
The second reason for the ease of access is that Syrian rebels control territory along the northern border, which means nobody on the Syrian side is systematically preventing foreign fighters from entering. The job of policing the border for infiltrators is effectively left to one country — Turkey — instead of two. This is in contrast to many previous foreign fighter destinations, where international borders were at least nominally controlled by the incumbent regime or some other force hostile to foreign fighters.
The low constraints on war volunteering for Syria have a number of striking effects aside from the sheer numbers of people making it there. One is that there are foreign fighters moving in and out of the country at regular intervals, effectively commuting to jihad. Some European recruits, for example, are reportedly going into Syria for a few months, then back to Europe for a few months (presumably to recruit others or to recuperate) and then back to Syria again. Islamist foreign fighters have not enjoyed this freedom of movement since perhaps the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.