ATbar The Impact of the Syrian Conflict on Global Terrorism

The Impact of the Syrian Conflict on Global Terrorism

28/12/2014 | by ICT Staff  

* The workshop was held in the memory of  Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno z”l

This workshop focused on the Syrian conflict and its influence on global terrorism. Issues of sectarian and religious strife have been addressed, with various contributors analysing and comparing Sunni and Shia violent militancy in Syria. ISIS was also covered in some depth, with a particular focus on foreign fighters and the threat that these fighters may pose too their home states. The influence of this conflict on other states was also mentioned in the workshop. 

Co- ChairDr. Ely Karmon
Senior Research Scholar, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), IDC Herzliya, Israel

Co- Chair:  Prof. Joachim Krause
Professor of Political Science, Institute of Political Science, Christian-Albrechts University of Kiel; Director: Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, Germany

Dr. Col. (Res.) Rateb Amro
Director General, Horizon Strategic Studies, Jordan

Mr. Shiraz Maher
Senior Research Fellow and Head of Outreach, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), Kings College London, United Kingdom

Ambassador Dimitar Mihaylov
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Bulgaria to the State of Israel

Prof. Fernando Reinares
Professor and Chair, Political Science and Security Studies,  Universidad Rey Juan Carlos & Senior Analyst on International Terrorism, Real Instituto Elcano, Madrid, Spain

Mr. Aaron Zelin
Richard Borow Fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, United States of America

Dr. Rateb Amro
Dr. Rateb Amro perceived the issue of sectarian and interreligious strife in Syria as a catalyst for regional and global instability. Specifically, with Syria becoming the epicenter of the conflict between Shias and Sunnis, he asks why the “Syrian Spring” failed. As part of an answer, he points to the crucial alliance and cooperation between Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Assad government. This alliance embodies a broader tendency: that of foreign state involvement in the internal affairs of states. Such behavior is undertaken largely by Iran, but also by other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Lebanon. Contemplating what can be done to dismantle violent Islamist organizations, he stresses the need to stop this kind of meddling and intervention undertaken by other countries. In such a context, there is not much that America is able to do. Beyond the fact that weak and failing states such as Syria constitute a serious terrorism threat, the conflict in Syria is having serious repercussions on the relations between Russia and the United States, and on the security of Israel, which, as a close American ally, could bear the brunt of retaliation if the United States decides to be more forceful in the area.

Mr. Aaron Zelin
Mr. Aaron Zelin focused on the development of ISIS, its strategy in Syria and Iraq, and the repercussions that this may have on the threat of terrorism. First, he expanded upon the origins of ISIS, covering the beginnings of Al-Qaeda in Iraq around 1999 and 2000, the continued existence (and even development) of this group after the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq and, finally, the group’s decision to become involved in Syria and the creation of the caliphate. Turning to the reasons underlying the resurgence of this group, Mr. Zelin stressed the role played by the American military withdrawal, the group’s continued role in criminal enterprise activities (which explains its relative non-reliance on private donors), and the role of the Syrian jihad in facilitating access to recruits, funding, and weapons. Mr. Zelin then provided details of the relations between Al-Qaeda and ISIS; he stresses that both groups have fought much against one another, but also highlights that, while Al-Qaeda has officially disaffiliated from ISIS, both groups still work together. Much of the terrorism threat originating from the region has to do with the large-scale presence of foreign-fighters in Syria, as these individuals are more likely to be involved in the planning of plots in their home countries. It is possible to identify waves of foreign fighters, which are prompted by particular events.  

Prof. Fernando Reinares
Prof. Fernando Reinares looked specifically at the influence of the Syrian conflict on the security of Spain, Morocco, and northern Africa. The first point he makes is that Spain has produced a relatively low number of foreign fighters, especially when compared to countries such as France and Germany. The reason for this, according to Prof. Reinares, is that the Muslim population in Spain is predominantly composed of first generation Muslim immigrants, who are less influenced by jihadist mobilization than second or third generation Muslims. Secondly, Prof. Reinares stressed that many foreign fighters from Spain and Morocco tend to travel to Syria and Iraq not through Turkey, but rather through North Africa. He also stresses the influence of specific recruiters, or individuals with a history of involvement in jihadism, notably in Morocco. Finally, he comments on several trends concerning recruitment levels. Firstly, contrary to what was expected, the infighting between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS did not weaken mobilization in support of these organization. Secondly, he stresses the variety of backgrounds from which foreign fighters have originated. 

Mr. Shiraz Maher
Mr. Shiraz Maher focused on the presence and role of foreign fighters in Syria. Firstly, he expands upon the research methods employed by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in order to study this phenomenon. Having done this, he turns to the question of who goes to Syria and why? The motivations that lead people to go and fight in Syria can be political (anger over the brutality of the fighting in Syria, anger against the Assad regime…), religious (Umma consciousness, the importance of Syria in Islamic theology…), or pragmatic. These motivations are further facilitated by the relative cheapness and ease of travel to Syria and the lack of counter-narratives opposing foreign fighters. The typical profile of a foreign fighter from England is a man of south Asian descent in his early 20s with ties to relevant organizations. Mr. Maher then identifies four different types of individuals who may leave to fight in Syria: known radicals associated with relevant groups, humanitarian activists, martyrdom seekers, and those seeking to escape a criminal background. A crucial point is that, in view of these different types, not all foreign fighters can be dealt with in the same way. In dealing with returnees, Mr. Maher notably stresses that both psychological and threat management must play a part. He also highlights that, while foreign fighters undeniably represent a threat, according to a study by Hegghammer the majority of foreign fighters who return to their countries of origin will not engage in terrorism. 

H.E. Dr. Dimitar Mihaylov
H.E. Dr. Dimitar Mihaylov addressed various points: Sunni-Shia relations throughout history, what went wrong in Syria, the Shia/Alawi landscape, the Sunni landscape, and how this conflict acts as a catalyst for regional and global instability. He notably stresses Iraq’s reduced, compared to Syria, ability to have an influence on the Gulf Area. In terms of the capabilities of the various armed groups on the ground, he stresses the presence of Shia militias and the radicalizing effect of two particular elements in Shia propaganda: the idea that they are protecting communities and shrines. He also highlights the existence of a similar radicalization network within Sunni forces, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Finally, Dr. Dimitar Mihaylov points to the unprecedented levels of religious and sectarian division in Syria, claiming that the fragile balance that was central to Syrian society has been altered beyond repair. 

Dr. Ely Karmon
Dr. Ely Karmon initially built upon previous comments on Shia militancy in Syria, underlining that the army is far from being the only force fighting for Assad; the presence of Iranian fighters, trainers and Hezbollah in Syria is important. In doing so, he expanded upon the existence and emergence of various groups in Iraq, in Aleppo, and in Syria in general. He points to the Kurds in Syria as an example of one such group that is playing an important role.  Dr. Karmon then explored in greater depth various cases of coalitions among groups that have formed throughout the conflict, and the eventual fractionalization of these coalitions. He then reflects upon the influence of this conflict on various actors throughout the region. Saudi Arabia, notably, views this conflict as a threat. and has passed legislation rendering fighting in Syria or financing terrorism there illegal. Dr. Karmon also reflected upon the competition between ISIS and Al-Qaeda, epitomized by al-Zawahiri’s creation of a new South Asian jihad organisation.