Stories of Foreign Fighter Migration to Syria
August 27, 2014
The conflict in Syria has served as a magnet for foreign fighters. Muslims from across the world have responded to calls to fight against the Syrian regime. Some of these fighters have joined jihadist groups, including the al-Qa`ida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
This article describes the journey of five foreign fighters, two of whom are from Saudi Arabia, one from Bahrain, and two from Europe. Their stories are narrated either by themselves, or by their companion foreign fighters. The accounts were all posted on Twitter. Historically, similar migration stories became public typically after the war ended, or through martyr biographies for jihadists killed in action. In the conflict in Syria, however, some foreign fighters are narrating their own stories in real time, and revealing information that includes details related to their motivations, the source of their financing, and the routes they took to reach Syria. It is not clear whether this trend is due to the increased use of social media networks, which permits an individual to tell his story without having to rely on the administrators of jihadist websites, or whether foreign fighters are simply sending a message to other “hesitant Muslim youth” that the trip to “the land of jihad” is not impossible as “the infidels’ media is trying to convince you.”
The Saudi Foreign Fighter Al-Muhajir al-Rimi
On May 24, 2014, the Saudi al-Muhajir al-Rimi, who also uses the name al-Harith al-Qahtani on his Twitter account, began to post messages on Twitter telling the story of his migration to Syria. Shortly after this series of posts, the tweets were compiled and posted on justpaste.it.
The story was quickly “retweeted” by a large number of ISIL activists on Twitter, and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback. Unlike other stories of jihadists, al-Rimi decided not to tell much about his previous life, how he was radicalized or why he was in a Saudi prison prior to his trip to Syria. He made sure, however, to document many details about his journey from Saudi Arabia to Syria.
Al-Rimi began his account by acknowledging that he was determined to migrate and participate in jihad in Syria as soon as he was released from prison. He went directly to his friend “al-Azdi” and asked him to find a way to travel to Syria. He did not have enough money to accomplish his trip, but “in a few days, the brothers were able to collect the sum of 20,000 SR” (about $5,000). Al-Rimi’s story is unique for two reasons: the long route he and his friends took to reach Syria, and the number of details he chose to reveal, including the aliases of those who accompanied him, the amount of money used, and the time spent on each part of their trip.
Al-Rimi and three other “brothers”—al-Azdi, Thabbah and Waqid—purportedly crossed the southern borders of Saudi Arabia to Yemen with the help of a smuggler. As stated by al-Rimi, “After we crossed the Yemeni borders, we went through a number of checkpoints and we were able to cross them all by paying a small amount of money [bribes] to their members about 15 SR (about $4)…two Yemeni brothers and seven more Saudi brothers joined us, and they waited for a couple of nights until it was safe to sail in the Red Sea using a small boat. That small boat was supposed to take us to a small island in the sea, and from this island another smuggler will take us in a bigger boat to the Sudani shores. Although the initial agreement was to pay that smuggler the sum of 30,000 SR (about $7,500), he requested an extra 10K SR which eventually we agreed to pay. On the evening of the third night in the sea, one of the two engines of the boat got broken, and at night we saw what we thought was an American barge. We shut down the only working engine and all the lights, and the barge went by without noticing us.”
It took them four nights to cross the sea, and another four days in Sudan before they were smuggled across the Sudan-Chad border. Another “Egyptian brother” joined them before they crossed the Sahara toward Libya, riding in the back of a pickup truck. He described their experiences passing through three checkpoints that belonged to armed militias in Sudan. Al-Rimi did not provide much detail about the time they spent in Libya, how they crossed the Mediterranean toward Turkey or the route they took to reach their final destination from Turkey to Syria. What he did reveal is that they rented a house for four days in Libya before they were “transported in several batches to the Levant.”
According to al-Rimi, Abu `Antara, the Egyptian “brother” who joined them in Sudan, and one of the Saudis were later killed in Syria. Al-Rimi is still alive, and active on his Twitter account, posting news about ISIL in Syria and defending the movement against criticism.
The Bahraini Foreign Fighter Abu Thar al-Bahrini
Abu Thar al-Bahrini, from Bahrain, began his story by discussing how he was “not religiously committed” in high school, although he knew that this was “wrong.” After he graduated high school with high grades, his family assumed he would go to medical school. Al-Bahrini, however, had different ideas, as he thought that this was his chance to “repent” and the best way to do that was by joining a Shari`a school in Saudi Arabia. He changed his mind, however, after deciding that the path of studying Shari`a was too long, so he made a decision to join jihad in Syria instead. At the start, al-Bahrini mentioned that he did not “differentiate between the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) or ISIL.” His main concern was finding a coordinator to show him the way to Syria, and collecting enough money to cover the expenses of his trip. He started to post photos of the FSA, JN and ISIL on his Instagram account, and during that time he was able to meet with a coordinator in Bahrain who linked recruits with the FSA. At this point, al-Bahrini had only 50 Bahraini dinar (about $130), and the coordinator told him that he needed at least 200 dinar (about $520) to cover his expenses. Al-Bahrini was able to convince only one of his friends to appeal to a wealthy individual on his behalf, and the affluent man agreed to cover all his expenses. For some unidentified reason, the agreement between the coordinator and al-Bahrini fell apart, so he decided to travel to Turkey alone.
“I didn’t know the route to take, didn’t have any recommendation letter, and didn’t know anything about my journey,” al-Bahrini said. “All what I knew is that I should fly to Istanbul airport, from there fly to one of the villages near the [Turkish-Syrian] borders, and then a car would take me from there to enter Syria.”
He flew to Istanbul as planned, purchased a ticket to a “bordering city,” and while he was waiting for the plane he saw “a man with a beard reading the Qur’an, and I knew that he was going to Syria.” Without hesitation, al-Bahrini approached the man, and said to him confidently: “you are going to Syria and I’m going with you.” After a short discussion, al-Bahrini convinced the man to help him. “The man was in touch with coordinators from the Free Syrian Army,” who were supposed to smuggle him into Syria to join JN. They went to a house used by the FSA as a clinic in Turkey, and on the second day a “brother from ISIL came to that house to visit his friends,” al-Bahrini explained. “We told him that we are going to join JN in Idlib, and he offered to take us to JN after we enter Syria.”
Two days after they entered Syria, the same person from ISIL came to them, explained the tensions between the two groups, and suggested they join ISIL instead of JN. They found the explanation complicated, as they knew little about the mujahidin, Usama bin Ladin or any basic jihadist issues, so he took them to one of ISIL’s headquarters so they could learn more about jihad in general and ISIL in particular. After a short interview with the group’s amir of that area, al-Bahrini was sent to a training camp and took military courses and a Shari`a class where he learned “the correct creed.”
Al-Bahrini’s parents were religiously committed, but in his opinion they “were not following the correct creed” because they believed that “jihad now is selective duty and not an individual duty.” Therefore, al-Bahrini decided not to inform them about his intentions to travel to Syria. Once he arrived at the Istanbul airport, al-Bahrini posted a scanned copy of his “ticket and passport on his Instagram account to inform his family about his real intentions to migrate to Syria.” Despite his family’s best efforts, they could not convince him to return to Bahrain. Al-Bahrini concluded his story by acknowledging that his mother and brother, who was a soldier in the Bahrain army, later visited him and were both convinced to join ISIL’s ranks in Syria.
Al-Bahrini appeared in the recently released ISIL video Salil al-Sawarim 4 (Sound of the Swords Clashing 4), in which he delivered a short and powerful speech followed by him ripping up his Bahraini passport and promising to “return to Bahrain not with this useless passport, but marching with ISIL army to liberate all Muslim lands.”
The Saudi Foreign Fighter Abu Thabit al-Jazrawi
Abu Thabit al-Jazrawi, a Saudi foreign fighter, did not mention many details about the route he took to reach Syria; instead, he preferred to reveal more information about his path to radicalization. According to his account,
“When I was 15, I used to think of Usama bin Ladin as the person who transferred the reality of this umma to a nightmare. He is the reason behind all the problems of the Islamic world. Although I used to like Khattab and the old day of jihad, but I never supported the Manhattan raid [the 9/11 attacks]. During the events that took place in Saudi Arabia when al-Miqrin waged his campaign, I believed that we had to expel terrorists [out of Saudi Arabia]. Later, I was visited by one of my friends who started to show me mujahidin releases. I pretended that I was touched with what I saw, but deep inside me I didn’t want to be involved in jihad, moreover, I wasn’t even a committed Muslim as I used to shave my beard. This friend kept his attempts with me, until I was guided to the right path in 2009, and gradually I became more committed until the events of the Levant took place. I wasn’t really aware of the events there, until my friend approached me in the mosque, and provided me with names of people whom I knew joined jihad. I was shocked with that news, and it was like eyes opening to me, as I started to hear the news about many other youth I knew went to Syria while I’m sitting here. Months went by; I got involved in work and in a daily routine life, however, I kept watching mujahidin videos. In one of these days, and after I returned from work at night, I watched a YouTube video that was released by JN…this video has changed me forever. This video was like a lightning that hit my heart in a way that brought it to life again. I finally realized that Qur’an and the sword [should work] together. The following day, one of the brothers visited me at my work (at that time he was just returning from Syria and now he is back to the Levant), and asked me to meet with him privately ASAP. In our meeting, he started talking to me about jihad, its benefits, its priority in Islam…etc, and time by time I was convinced finally to participate in jihad.”
Al-Jazrawi’s only obstacle was collecting the money required for his journey. Without identifying his source, however, al-Jazrawi said that “the money was collected, a recommendation letter was obtained, and my passport was issued. My trip to the Levant was the fastest one I had done in my life; as I departed my city at 10:30 PM, and reached Idlib in the Levant at 6:00 PM the following day.” Al-Jazrawi concluded: “I used to fear death and always wondered about the way I’m going to die, but now, after my migration to the land of jihad, I don’t care when or how I’m going to die; as long as my death is going to be for the sake of God.”
Two Stories of Anonymous European Foreign Fighters
Some of the stories revealed on Twitter contained few details about the fighters’ previous life, their alias name, country of origin, or group they joined. More details, however, were revealed about their journeys to the “land of jihad.”
One of these stories was about a “European brother” who was poor, and had to work in a restaurant to collect the price of his first train ticket that took him from his city to the next station in his trip. He kept working in each city he stopped at to afford traveling to the next stop on his route. According to `Iqab Mamduh al-Marzuqi, the narrator of the story, “it took him six months to cross the [Turkish-Syrian] borders and achieve his dream. Shortly after, he joined ISIL.”
Mus`ab al-`Iraqi tweeted about another “brother who joined the ranks of ISIL,” and chose to use an easier method to collect the required money to cover his trip expenses: “he went online and hacked some Israeli credit cards and purchased his ticket” to fly to an unidentified country. “At the airport of that country, he needed more money to purchase another ticket to Turkey, so he opened his laptop and collected the price of his ticket using the same method he used previously,” the narrator claimed.
It is noteworthy that these narratives are not imbued with sectarianism, and yet all five joined ISIL, the most sectarian jihadist group in Syria. What makes ISIL more appealing to foreign fighters than other jihadist groups? Is it because ISIL is more welcoming of foreign fighters, or is it because other groups prefer to rely on Syrian fighters rather than foreigners?
It is also possible that a new wave of foreign fighters will be attracted to ISIL’s unbounded enthusiasm and seemingly unstoppable “victories.” A key question is whether the declaration of a caliphate by ISIL’s amir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and his call for all Muslims to migrate to Syria and Iraq will further mobilize foreign fighters.
Muhammad al-`Ubaydi is a research assistant at the Combating Terrorism Center and monitors Arabic jihadist websites.
The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.
 The author would like to thank Nelly Lahoud for key insights that contributed to this article.
 In June 2014, ISIL declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and shortened its name to the “Islamic State.”
 Many jihadist activists on Twitter post similar provocative statements to encourage Muslims to join jihad in Syria.
 His Twitter account can be accessed at www.twitter.com/mmjjhhdd9943.
 Justpaste.it is a website that allows users to share longer passages of text for free. This particular migration story, “Qissat Nafir Akhina Al-Muhajir al-Rimi,” was available at www.justpaste.it/fnd6.
 Al-Rimi mentioned that they had to go through “three checkpoints that belong to armed militias in Sudan.” They “negotiated with the members of the first checkpoint, and agreed on a certain amount of money.” The members of the second one were so greedy and “asked for a lot of money,” and they were forced to pay them to escape the poor treatment they received. They decided to not stop by the third checkpoint, and drove through it as fast as they could.
 A number of tweets were compiled in the justpaste.it link entitled “Abu Thar al-Bahrini Tells the Story of His Own Migration [for the land of jihad],” available at www.justpaste.it/fihm.
 This video was produced by al-Furqan Media Center, the media wing of ISIL, and posted on the al-I`tisam Twitter account on May 27, 2014. The video served as part of ISIL’s psychological warfare campaign prior to their military offensive in June.
 A famous Saudi foreign fighter, Khattab joined jihad in Afghanistan in 1988, and later became the leader of Arab Ansar in Tajikistan and later Chechnya. Russian intelligence killed him with a poisoned letter in 2002.
 `Abd al-`Aziz al-Miqrin became the amir of the first version of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that was based in Saudi Arabia after he succeeded Yusuf al-`Uyayri, the founder of the organization. He started his jihadist journey at the age of 17 in Afghanistan and received his training in an al-Qa`ida camp before he moved to Algeria to fight alongside the insurgency there. He also fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia before he was arrested by Ethiopian forces and deported to Saudi Arabia. After his release from Saudi prison, he traveled to Afghanistan again, and then returned to Saudi Arabia to lead the Saudi AQAP. His group was in charge of executing a number of operations including the kidnapping and beheading of the American engineer Paul Johnson in 2004. He was killed by Saudi authorities in 2004.
Al-Jazrawi revealed later on his Twitter account that this video was delivered by `Abd al-Majid al-`Utaybi (also known as Qarin al-Klash), and produced by al-Manara al-Bayda’, the media wing of JN, in February 2013. The video can be accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y7wIzHsNVs&feature=youtu.be. Al-`Utaybi was a Saudi foreign fighter, one of ISIL’s field commanders and Shari`a officials, and he had two Twitter accounts on which he was very active. He was killed on June 24, 2014, while fighting against Jaysh al-Islam, one of the founding factions of the Islamic Front, in al-Ghuta, just outside Damascus. Al-`Utaybi was added to the Saudi list of 47 most wanted terrorists that was released in January 2011.
 This is a famous slogan used by jihadists in general, and ISIL in particular, stating that da`wa (religious propagation) does not serve Islam by itself. Both peaceful means (da`wa) and violent ones (jihad) should work hand-in-hand to achieve the mujahidin’s ultimate goal of conquering Islamic land and implementing Shari`a on it.
 This is from a number of tweets compiled by Abu Thabit al-Jazrawi and posted on justpaste.it, entitled “How Did I Migrate to the [Land] of Jihad,” available at www.justpaste.it/f2tm.
 Usually, most of those who wish to join jihad in general, and a certain jihadist group in particular, seek to obtain recommendation letter(s) from individuals or entities that have ties with that jihadist group. This is a vetting procedure that helps to ensure they are trustworthy.
 This is from a number of tweets compiled by Abu Thabit al-Jazrawi and posted on justpaste.it, entitled “How Did I Migrate to the [Land] of Jihad,” available at www.justpaste.it/f2tm.
 This story is available at www.justpaste.it/dmy8.
See the following link: www.twitter.com/hashtag/%D9%82%D8%B5%D8%A9_%D9%86%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%B1?src=hash.
Al-Baghdadi stated: “O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijra (emigration) to the Islamic State should do so, for hijra to the land of Islam is obligatory.”