Since the Syrian conflict began three years ago, thousands of foreigners have entered the country to fight either alongside rebels with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), various Islamist groups including those with links to al-Qa`ida, and pro-government forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Although many foreign fighters hail from locations in the Middle East and North Africa, they are also arriving in Syria from the United States, Western Europe, Russia, and Central Asia.
In May 2014, the authors interviewed foreign fighters from Saudi Arabia, France, Algeria, and Russia. This article profiles those four fighters, identifying their goals and motivations, what inspired them to leave their homes and fight in Syria, and what they hoped to achieve by joining radical Islamist groups. Although this article primarily quotes from the French and Saudi fighters, the others expressed similar views. It finds that in contrast to other Syrian-born rebel fighters, civilians, and refugees interviewed as part of a special project during the past year, the foreign fighters are not driven ultimately by a desire for victory against the al-Assad regime. For these four foreign fighters, vengeance against the al-Assad regime is a peripheral concern at best. Rather, disillusioned by life in their home countries, they came to Syria on a mission for spiritual fulfillment. They sought out like-minded idealists to take part in a violent jihad, which they intend to wage well beyond Syria’s borders.
The foreign fighters interviewed for this article were concerned about revealing personal information that authorities in their home countries could use to identify them. They all refused to reveal their true names or even a nom de guerre. The data presented in this article is the most that could be gathered from anecdotal comments pieced together in the course of the interview. In some instances, the authors have incomplete information because the fighter refused to answer the question or did not reveal an answer during the interview.
The Saudi Arabian fighter was born in 1986, is 28-years-old, and unmarried. He once worked in the field of higher education. He is from a wealthy family and even in a combat zone appeared clean and well-dressed, wearing expensive clothing brands. He claims that he lost nearly $150,000 from investments in the U.S. stock market as a result of the 2008 economic recession. He is a big fan of the soccer teams Real Madrid in Spain and the Al Nasr Team in Saudi Arabia. He is currently fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The interview was conducted in Qasab.
The French fighter was born in Toulouse in 1990, is 24-years-old, and has a degree in construction engineering. He says he was born a Christian, but his father is an atheist. As a teenager, he acknowledges that he drank alcohol, was around drugs, and was sexually active at an early age. He converted to Islam at the age of 19, in part as a means of escape from his drug, alcohol, and relationship problems. The following year, he moved to Morocco to marry his first wife, learn Arabic and study the Qur’an. He married his second wife in Syria. He came to Syria through Turkey. He is also currently fighting with the ISIL. The interview was conducted in Qasab.
The Russian fighter is 29-years-old. He converted to Islam at the age of 21. He says his conversion was influenced by a close Muslim friend, but did not specify the nature of the friendship. He has two Russian wives and two daughters who live in Turkey. He studied at al-Azhar University in Egypt. His family does not know that he is a mujahid; they think that he works for a charity organization. He is a commander in his own “all Russian” brigade. The interview was conducted in the rural area near Idlib.
The Algerian Fighter did not reveal his age. He indicated that he is in his late 30s. He was traveling only with a laptop and a change of clothes. He is currently fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra. The interview was conducted in Turkey.
“Why Did You Come to Syria?”
Following brief introductions, the foreign fighters explained what compelled them to come to Syria. Their motivations appeared largely divorced from political grievances against the al-Assad regime. Instead, these four fighters are driven primarily by religious motives. Most see the Syrian conflict as a test of their faith and devotion to Islam. They often reference jihad, but it is unclear exactly what jihad means to them in the context of the ongoing violence in Syria and the struggle against al-Assad.
Fighter from France
“In the beginning of 2013 [sic] the Syrian crisis started, and I had already heard that the Levant is a Holy Place, recommended for protection by The Prophet (may prayer and peace be upon Him). It was then that I flew to Turkey and then on into Syria…The easiest thing now is entering Syria. We do not actually say that we are going for jihad [in Syria]. We said that we were going for commercial business or for philanthropic work [in Syria]. No one ever doubted us. Now I am leading the best life, and I am so satisfied with it. Life is all about dignity and pride, which is something I am doing now. I do not live at my own pace in the Western countries because they are racist and they do not believe in the religious freedom. They intervene in my affairs and even prevent me from exercising my religious rites. They sin for 24 hours and seven days a week but they deprive me of a five minute prayer…For example, in France, women are not allowed to wear niqab [a cloth that covers the face] which is one of the Islamic dictations. Every single woman caught wearing it is charged 150 euros, whereas if you decide to go out naked, nobody will utter a word about this, claiming it to be ‘freedom.’ It has turned into a war with Islam, they have a problem with it. It even became a war between Muslims and non-Muslims. All we want is the religious freedom…”
When asked why he joined the ISIL instead of the FSA, he said, “I actually refuse the label ‘free army.’ This label is invalid because we are not ‘free’; we are Muslims, and we are a ‘Muslim army.’ They [the FSA] are fighting under the banner of democracy and having political purposes. It is undeniable that many of them are good people. All of us are fighting for the same cause, but as ‘fighters for the cause of Allah’ we are fighting under the banner of Islam [with the ISIL], having nothing to do with politics.”
Fighter from Saudi Arabia
“We cannot talk of an ‘army’ in my home country [Saudi Arabia]. They are dictators, not Muslims! They are only fighting to preserve thrones [government], not for the cause of Allah…When I told my family that I decided to go to Syria, it depressed them a lot. They were somehow religiously distant…but they could not refuse me, nonetheless! This is what Allah called for. He prescribed fighting for His cause in At-Tawbah and Al-Anfal [chapters of the Qur’an]. My family was mis-conceptualizing Islam; if they take a closer look at Qur’an, in At-Tawbah, they would understand everything. They would be aware that those who do not listen to the call of Allah for jihad would be penalized severely; Allah warned against not responding to the call for jihad, this warning was directed to Muslims, not to disbelievers! Even in the history of Islam, those who did not join with the Messenger in jihad is not forgiven…Also, I was engaged, but I broke off my marriage for the sake of jihad. She [his fiancé] refused to go to Syria so I gave her the freedom to choose. Here, I miss being surrounded by my family, relatives and friends; I miss the places I used to visit. I led a luxurious life there, but I am more comfortable here. I mean, psychologically speaking, life is better because I am abiding by our Messenger’s recommendations (may prayer and peace be upon Him) and fighting for the cause of Allah.”
Fighter from Russia
“I had a Muslim friend, and he told me about Islam and I converted. I was always questioning myself. Why we are here? Why we are alive? But when I converted to Islam I found all the missing answers. I have read the history and nothing convinced me, but just one phrase in Qur’an was enough…The main reason why I came here was that my government [Russia] is fighting against Islam, but in subtle ways. I faced a lot of pressure from my government because I am a converted Muslim. They came to my house several times searching for anything that will harm me but they found nothing. The Russian intelligence always puts pressure on Muslims. Also I have two little girls so I felt terrible when I saw what’s going on in Syria, especially with raping women and killing children.”
“What Does Jihad Mean to You?”
Because several of the foreign fighters reference Islam and jihad as a motivation for coming to Syria, they were asked to explain more clearly what they mean by “jihad.” The fighters were very animated and emotional when answering this question. Jihad, for them, is an ultimate, purifying expression of faith, culminating in martyrdom and heavenly rewards. Fighting in Syria is a means to a spiritual rather than political end. It fills an existential void.
Fighter from France
“I am but a contribution to the conquest of Islam, and I also look forward to reach paradise via Al Jihad for the cause of Allah. We are all promised paradise because we listened to the words of Allah. Islam is a really great religion, it includes all aspects of life…it gives meaning to the human life. I have devoted my entire life for jihad. All my bodily parts are wounded. I am only looking up to paradise, is there anything better than this? As for us, we believe in the afterlife, a blissful life in the vicinity of Allah. Martyrdom is probably the shortest way to paradise, which is not something I was told. I did witness my martyred friends, noticing contentment on their faces and the smell of musk coming out of their corpses, unlike those of the dead disbelievers, the enemies of Allah, whose faces only exhibit ugliness, and corpses smell worse than pigs.”
The fighter continued, saying, “I’ll give you the example of my friend Abu Ahmed al-Maghrabi, who was martyred by my side. From night till morning, his face still wore a bright smile and his corpse smelled pleasantly. How can we ever cast doubt? The only thing left for us to go through in order to reach paradise is death. We are praying Allah for victory and then martyrdom. We will conquer them, God willing, and we will liberate Syria from oppression. God willing, one day, Muslims will gain possession of this land. I am not at all sad, I am rather extremely happy, a happiness that will double up once I get martyred and meet my friends. Thirty-seven of my friends have been martyred in 10 days, and I swear that I did not see any one of them dying without a smile on his face!”
Fighter from Saudi Arabia
“Usama bin Ladin is the one who revived the notion of jihad. Jihad returned thanks to Allah and thanks to Bin Ladin. He used to be one of the wealthiest people in the world, but he abandoned all that wealth for the sake of the religion of Allah. Everyone disagreeing with Usama bin Ladin definitely does not comprehend religion. Jihad is all about aqidah [faith], it’s not simply choosing to go for jihad. It’s about firmness. Martyrs do not feel the hurt of death, that’s firmness given by Allah. There are fighters whose faith is eminent, but they do not execute martyrdom actions but you find others that have just converted to Islam that do! For example myself, if I am put in a situation where I should slaughter a chicken, it’s likely that I will not be able to. But if it were in a case where I should kill a disbeliever, I would bravely do it.”
Fighter from Russia
“If there is a call for jihad, we need to support our brothers. Muslims are weak; they need our support. The war in Syria is between the Alawite and Shi`a people and Sunni. We have to follow the orders of God and help them [the Sunni].”
“Do You Have Any Plans for the Future?”
The foreign fighters have no plans to return home once the Syrian conflict concludes. They have come to Syria expecting to die as martyrs for Islam. Since they have families, the only question that concerns them is what is going to happen to their families should they die? In contrast to other Syrian rebel fighters interviewed by the authors, these foreign fighters are generally unconcerned with ultimate political outcomes from the Syrian civil war or their own long-term prospects and well-being. They are all living in the moment.
Fighter from France
“Going back. That’s impossible! How could I leave such a glorious life and return to the animalistic one? Never! Besides, if I go back to Morocco, I will be put in jail for 30 and 15 years. Also, in France they now associate my name with weapons and bombing, so what would motivate me to return? Nothing…My family and my wives are able to afford life after I am dead. Allah will never give up on us because He answers our needs, not me. I do not want my wife to work; I don’t want her to experience any exhaustion. She is a queen; every Muslim wife is a queen! And my wives will get married after my death, God willing. They have the right to, if they ever consider doing it. It is something that Islam grants them. The wife is a human being, not an angel, and she needs a man to protect her and love her for the rest of her life. You never know, Allah may grant me the chance to return to them and die in my house.”
Fighter from Saudi Arabia
“I really wish I could get a chance to marry, but for the time being, jihad is my priority. All I’m asking from Allah is giving me the chance to die as a martyr…If granted the chance of martyrdom, I can intercede for the sake of other people I will not have come across in heaven. I mean, anybody I used to know in this current life and I don’t see in heaven, I can intercede for them. Even if you were not a martyr and you ask the Lord for intercession of those persons, He will tell you ‘they are in Hell, go bring them over here’ [to heaven]. That’s how merciful Allah is…”
“Does Your Jihad Extend Beyond Syria?”
If the Syrian conflict is resolved, the fighters intend to continue their struggle elsewhere, if they are still alive. They see the Syrian war as part of a broader regional struggle, frequently referencing Jerusalem and the Palestinians.
Fighter from France
“The Levant does not only include Syria, it also includes Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine…and we are always keeping an eye on Jerusalem. The war in Syria is only three-years-old, whereas the war of Palestine has lasted for over 60 years. We are asking Allah, Almighty, to attain conquest of Jerusalem, which is a certainty, God willing. We must point out that the Levant is not a regular land; it is a land of the prophets, whereby many prophets were sent.”
Fighter from Saudi Arabia
“Jihad is all the way. It’s not limited to Syria. As our Prophet says (may prayer and peace be upon Him), the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and then the Islamic caliphate, God willing. And I have made an oath that, if I will still not be martyred yet, I will go back, as a fighter to free the Arabian Peninsula.”
Fighter from Algeria
“After Syria, in case we will still be alive, we will head to Golan and then straight to Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been disconnected from the Islamic attention for over 60 years. It is downright shameful to leave it occupied…And Palestine would be a place of the government. And in terms of law we will have a referendum, asking people if they want to apply the laws of Allah in ruling.”
The goals and motivations of these foreign fighters are a stark contrast to Syrian-born civilians and rebel fighters interviewed by the authors during the past year. Unlike Syrian-born civilians and rebel fighters, these foreign fighters are not driven by specific political grievances against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and his supporters; they are guided instead by religious ideations concerning jihad. War is instrumental to their understanding of jihad, which necessitates purification through martyrdom.
Their presence in Syria severely complicates the ability to resolve the civil war, since many appear to be seeking conflict for conflict’s sake. They have little incentive to negotiate for peace. Finally, in contrast to Syrian-born rebel fighters and civilians, these four foreign fighters claim that they will never disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate into society should the Syrian conflict be resolved. They are deeply committed and will continue to pursue other avenues for jihad if they cannot realize their goals in Syria. For now, the Syrian conflict provides a venue for motivated foreign fighters to obtain spiritual fulfillment and practical training for combat that might extend beyond Syrian borders.
Vera Mironova is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland.
Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University.
 Interviews were conducted in Idlib and Qasab regions of Syria and in Turkey in May 2014. The authors chose these four fighters because they agreed to be interviewed and to reflect the heterogeneity of people coming to Syria from different parts of the world. All interviews were conducted in Arabic by a local journalist. Because of the dangers involved, the authors were not able to ask all the questions in which they were interested, but only questions that were not considered controversial and would not anger the participant (and as a consequence endanger the interviewer).
 This article is based on the authors’ larger project called Voices of Syria. For more details of the project, see www.vmironova.net/voices-of-aleppo/.
 The foreign fighters often shifted focus from one topic to another in stream of conscious fashion, offering tangential anecdotes along the way, ignoring some questions entirely, and refusing to answer others.
 As identified by the journalist who was interviewing him.
 The interviewer was reluctant to ask the foreign fighters whether they were interested in conducting attacks against the West for fear of provoking them or raising suspicions about intelligence gathering. None of the fighters specifically mentioned attacks against the West in the course of the interviews.
 The authors acknowledge that the interviews of four fighters cannot be generalized to speak for the goals and motivations of all foreign fighters, but it does provide a window into cognition and decision-making processes of members of a difficult to reach population.