GUEST POST: Muhammad al-Amin on Ahrar al-Sham’s Evolving Relationship with Jabhat al-Nusrah and Global Jihadism

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Muhammad al-Amin on Ahrar al-Sham’s Evolving Relationship with Jabhat al-Nusrah and Global Jihadism

By Sam Heller

Below we have a translation of Muhammad al-Amin’s Facebook testimony on now-deceased Ahrar al-Sham commander Abu Yazan al-Shami and the evolution of Ahrar’s relationship with Jabhat al-Nusrah and global jihadism.

Al-Amin seems to expand on some of what we already knew about Ahrar’s jihadist pedigree while also portraying an Ahrar that sharply diverged from hardliners in the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and, later, a more extreme iteration of Nusrah. The Ahrar al-Sham and Abu Yazan whom al-Amin describes were more deeply woven into international jihadism than has been previously understood, but nonetheless became progressively more alarmed as mostly foreign hyper-extremists crowded out Syria’s own revolutionaries. Al-Amin reports a more symbiotic relationship between Ahrar and Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Nusrah than has been reported, with veteran jihadist Abu Khaled al-Souri apparently serving as a key link. Provocatively, he suggests Ahrar somehow supported a gravely weakened Nusrah after the April 2013 announcement of ISIS led many of Nusrah’s most extreme members to defect en masse. Yet he also describes increasing alienation between Nusrah and Ahrar’s leaderships as Nusrah’s relative moderates were sidelined and it started to prioritize an ISIS-like “emirate” in Syria’s liberated areas; Ahrar, meanwhile, was by that time working to rejoin Syria’s revolution and restore the uprising’s popular character.

Al-Amin is reportedly a sort of independent spiritual figure who, although not an Ahrar member himself, was close to and in regular contact with the top echelon of Ahrar leadership that died in a mysterious 9 September explosion. He was apparently connected enough that his account of Ahrar’s internal debates and the evolution of Syria’s jihadist scene are worth taking seriously, if not entirely at face value. Al-Amin’s testimony echoes McClatchy correspondent Mousab Alhamadee’s personal recollection of Ahrar leader Hassan Abboud. Alhamadee held Abboud responsible for introducing international jihadism into the Syrian revolution – although, Alhamadee thought, Abboud ultimately came to regret his error.

Al-Amin’s narrative comes through the prism of his relationship with Ahrar’s old leadership, and Abu Yazan al-Shami in particular. Abu Yazan (Muhammad al-Shami) had been a commander in Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiyyah, one of the predecessor brigades that merged to become Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyyah. Abu Yazan went on to be one of Ahrar’s top leaders, a member of its Shura Council and its Aleppo emir. (I actually translated Abu Yazan’s sharp rebuke of Salafi-jihadist theorists’ calls for jihadist purism just days before his death.)

There are reasons to view al-Amin’s account with some skepticism. His concluding description of a tumultuous meeting between Nusrah chief Abu Muhammad al-Jolani and Ahrar’s leadership immediately prior to the September blast is the biggest and most obvious red flag. The paragraph is apparently lifted at least in part from one of two sources: a 4 November Assafir article or a 26 November anonymous Syrian Media Center post, which itself plagiarized the Assafir article. If al-Amin’s friends and contacts in Ahrar were all wiped out simultaneously, of course, it makes sense that he might not have a first-hand account of their last days. In any case, at least that paragraph is worth discounting, and it’s difficult to assess if other press accounts have been woven in elsewhere. It’s also possible that al-Amin is guilty of a sort of jihadist resume-padding. Particularly as ISIS has derided other factions as “Sahawat” (Awakenings, basically Western stooges), many militant rivals seem to have felt the need to emphasize their jihadist bona fides in the fierce debate that has ensued, both to defend themselves and to position themselves to more effectively attack ISIS’s legitimacy. There is some chance, then, that al-Amin has played up Abu Yazan and Ahrar’s track record in order to cast their late break with Nusrah as even more dramatic and impactful.

Some Ahrar al-Sham leaders are, understandably, perturbed about al-Amin’s post. Below is Ahrar commander Khaled Abu Anas’s response:

Khaled Abu Anas: “To those asking about Brother Muhammad al-Amin, we say that he isn’t [an Ahrar al-Sham] shar’i or member. As for his opinions, he’s free to have them. We may agree or disagree with him, but we certainly don’t agree with his style.”

Ahrar has always been emphatic that its aspirations are local, that it seeks an Islamic state in Syria but does not aspire to the sort of global forever-war waged by al-Qaeda. Ahrar’s leaders seem to have mostly emerged from a global jihadist milieu but consciously declined to join al-Qaeda in its universal project, even if they maintained friendly relations with some jihadist fellow travelers. In the months before 9 September, moreover, Ahrar’s original leadership had grown progressively more critical of Salafi-jihadist orthodoxy and seemed to have made real steps towards revolutionary moderation. (Though the Ahrar leadership’s real control over the movement’s component brigades was and is an open question.) Throughout, Ahrar has always avoided being publicly linked with al-Qaeda, seemingly for both principled and pragmatic reasons. They’ve typically been keen not to say things like – to quote al-Amin – “Sheikh Abu Yazan’s relationship with al-Qaeda dates to before the Syrian revolution.”

Below we see an angry tweet from “Muzamjer al-Sham” – an influential, pseudonymous jihadist commenter who himself seems to be a well-connected jihad veteran – attesting to Ahrar’s independence:

Muzamjer al-Sham: “Among the things I heard personally from Sheikh Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Hassan Abboud), may God have mercy on him, after he got out of prison (Seidnaya): ‘We will never, not for one day, be a part of al-Qaeda.’”

The tweet was prompted by (unfounded) September reports that the United States had designated Ahrar a foreign terrorist organization. These rumors have surfaced periodically, although so far they’ve come to nothing. (Of course, America does seem to have launched an airstrike on an Ahrar base in November, and Secretary of State John Kerry just floated the idea of a regional alliance against Ahrar al-Sham and three designated terrorist organizations.) Mostly, Ahrar’s critical role in the Syrian revolution and its sheer weight on the ground have obliged policymakers and Syrians themselves to grapple with how – or whether – to engage Ahrar and keep it firmly in the Syrian rebel camp. Ahrar’s hybrid identity means the question is likely to remain a thorny one.



Facebook, “Al-Sheikh al-Amin,” 30 November 2014,

Sheikh Abu Yazan’s Opinion on Jabhat al-Nusrah

Sheikh Abu Yazan’s relationship with al-Qaeda dates to before the Syrian revolution. The sheikh, may God accept him, went to leave for Iraq, and he was supposed to be the mufti and chief judge for Da’esh (ISIS). He was surprised that they had requested that, and he said, “It’s evidence that they don’t have qualified people on hand.” But, in His mercy, God on high steered the sheikh away, and he was arrested hours before leaving.

As soon as he left prison, the sheikh maintained strong relations with the various jihadist trends. He knew many of those who founded al-Nusrah, and he would come to me with its news when it was a secret movement. He even expressed regret over Abu Basir al-Tartousi’s statement about them was issued, as that meant there was no longer room to advise al-Nusrah (even though [Abu Basir’s] criticism was correct). The commanders in al-Nusrah knew the sheikh, trusted him, and asked for his advice.

Then Abu Yazan came to Syria (lit., made nafir) and chose to join Harakat al-Fajr, which merged with Ahrar. At that time, I asked his opinion about al-Nusrah. He said that most of those in it were moderate Syrians, but he mentioned that most of the foreigners were extremist fanatics, especially the Tunisians. I asked him about [Nusrah chief Abu Muhammad] al-Jolani and [Nusrah’s former chief shar’i] Abu Mariya [al-Qahtani], and the sheikh praised both. So I said, “Then it’s a moderate organization?” And he said, “Don’t you know that in jihadist organizations, the moderates are assassinated, so the extremists rise to the top and assume control of the organization?”

We observed the situation with concern as the flow of extremist foreigners bearing takfirist thought increased. Then came the decisive moment. I was with [Abu Yazan] in the al-Sukkari School when the criminal [ISIS head Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi announced Da’esh. A number of Ahrar leaders met there in Abu ‘Omeir’s (Abu Khaled al-Souri) office to discuss this news. (They had known about it beforehand.) When al-Jolani rejected this announcement, Abu Yazan rejoiced and said that history will record for al-Jolani that this was a historic step in the history of the revolution.

The result is well-known, how most of the foreigners and extremists in the North left al-Nusrah and defected to Da’esh. Al-Nusrah did away with a heavy weight, despite the financial and military weakness that befell it. Ahrar bore this burden, at the direction of Abu Khaled and others. Abu Yazan’s relationship with al-Nusrah remained excellent. But al-Nusrah’s situation in the South was different, and, because of the siege, more extremists remained and didn’t defect in the Ghouta; likewise in Houran (Dara’a).

Al-Nusrah went through an intellectual confrontation with Da’esh, and Abu Mariya’s star shone; he was the one who most prevented the hesitant al-Jolani from returning to Da’esh. There started to be an intellectual review within Ahrar, especially among Abu Yazan and Abu Ayman [al-Hamawi], over whether to return to al-hadinah al-sha’biyyah (their popular base), and Abu Mariya walked this path. But there was a disaster that took place inside al-Nusrah, especially after the assassination of Abu Khaled al-Souri, who was the safety valve.

There were huge Da’esh battalions that joined al-Nusrah, especially in Idlib. They were a Trojan horse. They poisoned al-Nusrah’s thinking and spread extremism among its members. Then what Abu Yazan had feared came to pass: A series of quiet assassinations of moderate commanders, who were then replaced with Dawa’esh (ISIS members or fellow travelers). After Abu Mariya’s defeat in the East as result of the northern emirs’ failure to support him, he was quietly removed.

The operation to manufacture “Da’esh II” was carried out quietly and with cunning. The leaked recording of al-Jolani woke up Ahrar’s commanders to the fact that the process was complete. They asked to meet with al-Jolani. The meeting was stormy and on edge. Al-Jolani had made up his mind to imitate Da’esh’s model, and he announced that fighting apostates like [Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front head] Jamal Ma’rouf and Harakat Hazm came before fighting the regime. He described the battle with Da’esh in Aleppo, meanwhile, as a losing one. He said his model was the Somali courts (that is, dour al-qadaa [judiciaries] would be the basis of his emirate). And when the Ahrar leaders opposed him on that, he threatened that the war would be between him and whoever stood in his way. The meeting ended, and then Ahrar’s leaders were killed only days later.

If there was a man who never talked badly about anyone, it was Abu Yazan. I never knew him to curse anyone, even when he spoke with the prison guards who tortured him. So when he said about [al-Jolani], “The boy’s lost his mind,” Abu Yazan was at the height of his anger and pain over the fate of the Syrian revolution. Some were shocked by Abu Ayman’s description of [ISIS] as khawarij – Abu Ayman is the one who wrote al-Zarqawi’s announcement that he was joining al-Qaeda – but anyone who sees what happened to the jihad today realizes that the sheikh was, regrettably, right. There is no strength but in God – what he feared became reality.

Note: The last paragraph of this translation was subsequently revised for accuracy.

GUEST POST: Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s Social Media Activity in 2014

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s Social Media Activity in 2014

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Oren Adaki

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), the country’s foremost salafi jihadist group, has experienced a significant change in fortunes over the past year. A year ago it was able to operate legally in Tunisia, and concentrated primarily on undertaking dawa (evangelism) to win young Tunisians to its cause. However, a rise in violent incidents carried out by salafists caused tensions between AST and the state to spike. Relations between AST and Tunisia reached a point of no return in late July 2013, when in a five-day period secularist politician Mohammed Brahmi was murdered and salafists killed eight members of the security forces, five of whom had slit throats. The government cracked down on the group after those incidents, designating it a terrorist organization, banning its activities, and arresting its members.

AST has been an innovator among jihadist groups in its use of social media. Thus, as it attempts to recover from the blows inflicted upon it by the Tunisian state, its social media activities may provide some important clues. This analysis begins by examining AST’s social media activity related to events in Tunisia before turning to AST’s perspective on issues further afield, such as the Syria jihad. MEMRI has also produced a recent report on AST’s Facebook page that is worth noting.

Rejection of the Terrorism Designation

AST vehemently opposes its designation as a terrorist group by the Tunisian government. Its main line of argument is that the group has humanitarian projects and enjoys the widespread support of other Muslims. A tweet that AST sent from its official account on January 1, 2014 purported to show “what you don’t see in the media about Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia.” It linked to a video of AST’s community service projects, in which the group distributed medical supplies and repaired public infrastructure. The video emphasized in particular very young children (seemingly elementary or middle school age) tackling these service projects while wearing bulky orange vests identifying them as doing this work under AST’s banner.

In a similar vein, on March 10 AST asked in a tweet: “Does Ansar al-Sharia truly frighten the Muslims of this nation?” The tweet included a link to a different video on AST’s community service efforts, including testimonies from sick people whom AST helped. One blurry-eyed old man offering his testimony states that he has diabetes; the camera pans down to reveal that the toes on his left foot have been amputated.

Further making a bid to show the support they enjoy, on February 21 AST tweeted an invitation to participate in their campaign asking “who are my helpers in the cause of Allah,” with participants using the Arabic-language hashtag #Support_for_Ansar_al-Sharia_in_Tunisia.



AST social media article

A graphic promoting the “Who are my helpers in the cause of Allah” public relations campaign, tweeted February 21, 2014.

AST received support from a variety of circles, which the group posted to its Twitter feed. On February 25, it tweeted a photograph of a handwritten sign leaning against an automatic weapon, with a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the background. The sign reads: “Support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia from the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”

AST social media article

Another representative photograph posted as part of the campaign, on February 26, featured a handwritten sign held up in front of a Saudi mosque that read: “Support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” attributing this support to “your brothers from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” (For more coverage of AST’s “who are my helpers in the cause of Allah” campaign, see MEMRI’s report, referenced above.)

AST social media article2

Anti-Government Propaganda

Another aspect of responding to the crackdown has been disseminating anti-government propaganda. Some of this propaganda has been supplied by outside scholars, including Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who has longstanding and deep connections to AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. Abu Iyad spent time in the United Kingdom, where Abu Qatada was also based, during his exile from Tunisia. Some jihadist forums have portrayed Abu Iyad as Abu Qatada’s “disciple,” and one AST member described Abu Qatada as “probably the most influential” jihadist theorist who has the group’s ear.

On January 21, AST posted a message from Abu Qatada, titled “An Important and Urgent Message to Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” to all its social media platforms, including Twitter. Part of Abu Qatada’s message is devoted to attacking Ennahda, the Islamist political party that opted to work through electoral politics. Abu Qatada said that although Ennahda and AST seemingly share a common goal of “establishing Islam,” Ennahda moved in the “direction of the secularists,” and in the course of negotiations over the new Tunisian constitution accepted that sharia would not be the country’s source of law. According to Abu Qatada, Ennahda—which was in power when the crackdown on AST began—went even further astray “in their pursuing you [AST members] and attributing to you false actions that were used as an excuse to chase you and imprison you, and even to kill you.” Abu Qatada said that because Ennahda has allied itself with the secularists, it therefore shares in their judgment and fate.

AST social media article2

This graphic was tweeted on January 21, 2014,and includes excerpts about Ennahda from Abu Qatada’s message.

Thereafter, AST continued to press the theme that the Tunisian government had aligned itself with infidelity. On May 10, a tweet and accompanying graphic called on Muslims to fight the “leaders of infidelity,” and argued that Islam’s “powerful ability to protect itself” was the characteristic that would ultimately produce a victory.

AST social media article3

On May 20, AST posted a graphic titled “So that the nation will learn…” The accompanying text explained that “we do not label the tyrants infidels, nor do we repudiate them nor antagonize them and their friends due to their imprisoning, torturing, and persecuting us.” Rather, it explained that they label their opponents infidels “due to their imprisonment of monotheism and their detaining the sharia.” This statement reflects AST’s prioritization of its interpretation of sharia: it is unambiguously the most important value for which the group stands, and its suppression is more important to members, according to this statement, than even being subjected to imprisonment or torture.

These statements reflected AST’s understanding of both the general situation that it confronted as well as the clash of values between the group and the government. But some of its statements instead deal with specific incidents, such as “A Word of Truth and an Outcry in the Valley,” which was posted on April 15, addressing a recent raid in Rouhia in which security forces’ raid of a mosque resulted in the arrest of 40 salafists, reportedly including returnees from Syria. AST’s statement is one of solidarity with the arrested salafists, claiming that the group “follows what is occurring to you moment by moment, and we share in your pain and anguish.” Describing the Rouhia raid as one of the “crimes of the tyrannical Tunisian regime,” the statement describes a pattern of “harassment, intimidation, displacement,” as well as “the violation of the sanctity of homes and of women.” The statement calls on the people of Rouhia to hold fast to their beliefs and “be as one hand in confronting the taghut [any person or thing that is worshiped or obeyed instead of Allah, here referring to the Tunisian government] and its soldiers, and make them taste a cup of what they have made you taste.”

One possible AST strategy for winning Tunisians to its side is depending on the security forces’ overreaction to alienate the population, which is a technique often employed by militant groups. The statement on Rouhia suggests that AST has this precise route in mind, as it calls for the people of Rouhia to “open media outlets for yourselves on all available social networks” in order to “cover the attacks of the soldier of the taghut.” AST advises the audience to make haste in doing so, and warns them not to “wait for the media to sympathize with you.”

The Centrality of Sharia

As previously noted, one of AST’s major lines of attack against the government is that it stands against Islam, and has essentially apostatized itself—by agreeing to a constitution that didn’t enshrine Islam as the law of the land, and cracking down on AST. One genre of AST’s social media activity emphasized the importance of sharia and described how laws and governance deriving from anything other than sharia are illegitimate, and nullify one’s Islamic faith.

A January 25 tweet from AST asked: “A constitution made by man?!” It also contained a graphic stating that whoever places man made laws above those of Allah “is undoubtedly an apostate if he insists on doing so and does not revert to rule according to what Allah has revealed.”

AST social media article4

A February 22 tweet explored “the consequences of ignoring Allah’s laws.” The tweet included an attached graphic in which Arabic script written on a parchment scroll proclaimed that “a nation that is ruled by anything other than the law of Allah Almighty is a dead nation… The law of Allah gives us life, while the law of man is a deadly, killer poison.”

AST social media article5

This graphic, titled “Ignoring Allah’s Law,” was tweeted on February 22, 2014.

On March 1, AST tweeted a graphic titled “Why do they fight the Ansar?” The graphic included excerpts from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) theologian Ibrahim al-Rubaish. “Modern history has proven the intensity of the infidel’s war against those who want to rule by sharia, even if they desire this peacefully,” Rubaish stated. “Therefore the flag of tawhid [monotheism] is only raised upon the skulls of the monotheists, and the land will not be ruled by sharia till it takes its share of the blood of the supporters of sharia [ansar al-sharia].”

AST social media article6

On March 5, AST tweeted a graphic stating that “ruling by anything other than what Allah has revealed is infidelity that removes you from the religious community.” A statement by AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi posted on March 23 also advanced this theme. In it, Abu Iyad called AST “the guardians of Allah for this religion.” He summarized AST’s sharia platform with the statement that “it is either Allah and no other but Him, or Allah and others with Him, and this does not please Allah.”

AST social media article7

This image of Abu Iyad al-Tunisi was tweeted on March 23, 2014, along with a statement. The text reads “either Allah alone, or Allah and others with Him.”

The Syria Jihad

It is impossible to overstate the impact that the Syrian civil war will have on this generation of jihadists. Given the extremely high number of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, the Afghan-Soviet war appears to be a comparable event in terms of impact on militants. Both conflicts should be considered first-order humanitarian disasters, justifiably inflaming passions throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Because of the devastation wrought by both wars, the various violent non-state actors who showed up to defend Sunni Muslims against their antagonists gained legitimacy from the clerical class and popularity at the street level. Tunisia’s interior ministry has said that 1,800 Tunisians have now traveled to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Syria has been one of the recurrent themes in AST’s social media activity.

On January 14, AST posted Abu Iyad al-Tunisi’s “A Statement of Support for Our Brother Mujahedin in Syria.” Much of the statement was devoted to addressing the infighting between jihadist factions, which he referred to as a fitna. Abu Iyad urged his audience not to judge the primary players in the dispute because “awareness of the circumstances of the dispute is almost nonexistent, nay, nonexistent” given the observers’ “distance from the field.” He said that even for Syria-based jihadist groups who “fell into wrong practices,” that is unsurprising because that phenomenon occurred even in Prophet Muhammad’s time—and further, “the evil deeds of good people are flooded by their good deeds.” He urges his audience that concentrating on the mistakes of certain jihadist groups “and ignoring the good” is an injustice.

Abu Iyad called on respected jihadist figures to issue a ten-point statement to end “the fitna against ISIS.” The points he urged included postponing all arguments until the fitna ended, promising to establish sharia law, using force against “those who made the blood and honor of the muhajirun [meaning “the emigrants,” a reference to foreign fighters] permissible,” and renewing the intentions of jihad. The statement very purposefully explicitly avoids taking sides in the fighting among mujahedin factions, instead urging reconciliation.

In Abu Qatada’s aforementioned January 21 statement, he referred to Tunisians going to fight in Syria as a “blessed matter,” while acknowledging that Abu Iyad has expressed reservations about the phenomenon “so that Tunisia is not left without the call [dawa] and care.” However, Abu Qatada argued that “the goodness in you is much and is enough for both cases.” Abu Qatada also said that it bothered him that some of those who went to fight in Syria “are extreme because of the enthusiasm of youth.” Abu Qatada claimed that “the Ummah requires gentleness.” This appears to be a criticism of ISIS’s brutal tactics, which al-Qaeda’s leadership had spoken out against as a strategic matter; Abu Qatada would later issue more thunderous denunciations of ISIS following its expulsion from al-Qaeda.

On April 11, AST’s social media platforms (along with Shamukh al-Islam Forum and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya) announced the “Jihad Ummah Contest,” which was designed as a “jihadist contest for those unable to reach the land of jihad.” The victors, who would be selected based on being the first to post comments on a jihadist Facebook page, would “win” donations of weapons to mujahedin in “the lands of jihad.” The prizes included a G3 sniper rifle, a Kalashnikov, three hand grenades, and two Kalashnikov magazines.

AST social media article3


Though 2014 hasn’t been the most active year for AST’s social media, it has featured plenty of interesting indications of the group’s current outlook and strategy. Continued attention to the group’s social media activity will be worthwhile as it attempts to come back from the government’s crackdown.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy. Oren Adaki is an Arabic language specialist and research associate at FDD specializing in the Arab world.

GUEST POST: Ayman al-Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Ayman al-Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

On April 18, a jihadist social media user tweeted links to two parts of an Al-Sahab Establishment for Media Production interview with al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Entitled “Reality Between Pain and Hope,” the interview’s first part was 54 minutes and 15 seconds, while the second part was 28 minutes and 45 seconds. Since the interview was first posted by a social media user rather than Al-Sahab, this appears to be a leak, similar to the recent leak of an unpublished Adam Gadahn video criticizing the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) following the death of al-Qaeda emissary Abu Khalid al-Suri.

Given analysts’ focus on recent jihadist infighting in Syria, it is worth noting Zawahiri’s comments on the matter, and on ISIS more broadly. ISIS was, of course, famously expelled from al-Qaeda in a pronouncement that the jihadist group issued in early February.

Zawahiri on Jihadist Infighting

In the interview, Zawahiri is asked about infighting among jihadist groups in Syria. His response is thunderous yet non-specific about which individuals or factions are responsible for the problems. Zawahiri blames the infighting on “the control of whims, ignorance, and injustice over some people,” and further suggests that jihadist factions in Syria may have been infiltrated, perhaps by intelligence services or else just by “misguided advice” and “bad incitement among the mujahedin.”

Asked about al-Qaeda’s efforts to end the infighting, Zawahiri renews the organization’s demands for addressing these disputes. At the time ISIS was expelled from al-Qaeda, they had been ordered to undergo arbitration with other mujahedin factions. While paying lip service to the arbitration process, ISIS in fact refused to comply. Zawahiri renews his calls for arbitration, stating that jihadists should refer their dispute to an independent sharia commission capable of obliging the conflicting factions to submit to its rulings.

Zawahiri implies that there could be severe consequences for factions who refuse to submit to arbitration. He says that all mujahedin and supporters of jihad should “take a stance of promoting virtue and preventing vice against all those who delay the work of this commission, ignore responding to it, or do not abide by its decisions.” In referring to the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, Zawahiri makes clear that he is speaking of drastic measures: the withdrawal of legitimacy and financial and moral support from factions who fail to submit to arbitration. “Stripping off the legitimacy is a very serious thing,” Zawahiri says. He points to Algeria, where “the legitimacy was revoked from the militant Islamic group”: Zawahiri is referring to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which al-Qaeda played a role in helping the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) splinter group to supplant. After GIA’s legitimacy was stripped from it, Zawahiri says, “it vanished.”

Though Zawahiri’s words are clearly intended as a warning to ISIS, he denies that he is speaking of them. “I do not address here an organization in itself or a group in particular,” Zawahiri says. Instead, he claims that his statement is a general one meant for all the mujahedin and their supporters. Indeed, he includes himself among the emirs whose commands should not be followed if their orders transgress God’s dictates. “Neither al-Zawahiri nor al-Jawlani [Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader] nor al-Baghdadi [ISIS’s leader] will protect you from God’s punishment if you wage aggression against your mujahedin brothers,” Zawahiri says.

Zawahiri says that jihadists joined the fight in Syria to “make the word of God supreme and to make the word of the infidels humiliated,” and thus they should be wary of being used by commanders “in their disputes over powers, ranks, positions, or gains.”

Zawahiri’s comments on jihadist infighting point to possible approaches al-Qaeda may adopt in dealing with ISIS, including the potential for a strategy of delegitimizing its leadership and drying up its funding streams. There is evidence to suggest that al-Qaeda has already been following this approach, but Zawahiri’s language and prioritization of arbitration and cohesion among the mujahedin also leaves open the possibility of a cooperative relationship or reconciliation with ISIS emerging. (Since a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering is occurring, my analysis in this piece doesn’t attempt to determine probabilities, but instead to understand the thrust of Zawahiri’s message.)

On the Split with ISIS

The interviewer asks Zawahiri about the justifications for al-Qaeda’s expulsion of ISIS. Zawahiri articulates two rationales. First, he notes that al-Qaeda is focused on the U.S. and its allies, while being cautious to shed Muslim blood. “We avoid the operations where impermissible blood may be shed in the markets, mosques, and residential areas and even among the jihadist groups,” Zawahiri says. He notes that the purpose behind al-Qaeda’s issuance of a general guidance for jihadist action was to unify the ummah, and taking Muslim blood can thwart that goal. “It is not possible to unify the ummah if we have the image of a tyrant and a usurper of its rights,” Zawahiri says, thus implying that this is ISIS’s image.

Zawahiri’s second rationale for expelling ISIS is that it failed to abide “by the fundamentals of teamwork.” Asked to explain this point, Zawahiri points to ISIS’s declaration of states without getting permission in advance and its failure to submit to the arbitration process.

Zawahiri emphasizes the need for al-Qaeda to maintain its image in order to propagate its message, describing the jihadist group as “a message before it is an organization.” Noting that al-Qaeda’s goal is to serve as a role model for the ummah, Zawahiri warns that the ummah won’t trust them if it “finds that we fight over spoils of war before achieving empowerment.” Further, al-Qaeda’s enemies will exploit such failures. As evidence of this, Zawahiri refers to Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah’s statement “in which he justifies fighting to support the criminal regime in the Levant” on the basis that Nasrallah “seeks to protect the people in the Levant against the crimes of the takfiris.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. The author or volume editor of thirteen books and monographs, he holds a Ph.D. in world politics from the Catholic University of America and a J.D. from the New York University School of Law.

GUEST POST: “Hide These Jihadists That I Can’t See: The French Volunteers In Syria”

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Hide These Jihadists That I Can’t See: The French Volunteers In Syria


By Stéphane Mantoux

Thanks to Timothy Holman and Yves Trotignon for their help in writing this article.

This article was originally published in French for Alliance Geostrategique and cross-posted at Historicoblog. Alliance Geostrategique and Stéphane Mantoux, the author of the article and the one who translated it to English, has given permission to Jihadology to exclusively publish the English translation.

The case of French who left to fight in Syria poses a particular problem. It really became visible (through the media, in particular) in 2013, when the number of volunteers began growing substantially. Like other European contingents, jihad in Syria is the largest movement of its kind since the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. However, based on the total population of France or even the Muslim population of the relevant age group, the movement is not a groundswell or a massive exodus[1] and it can also be noted that it has accelerated since the summer of 2013 , which worries the authorities, and some experts, about the return of jihadists. But I must say that so far, the information was very sparse. The  Minister of Interior, Manuel Valls, has made a number of statements going back to  May 2013, about the French figures involved in jihad in Syria and most recently in January 2014 saying that a total of 700 in all, involved in one way or another, since 2011. Figures are difficult to verify, but it seems credible and at the least not that exaggerated. The latest study of ICSR, a British institute specializing on the issue of foreign jihadists, dated from December 17, 2013, placed the maximum estimate for France at 413 individuals[2]. Israelis believe that the last figure given by Manuel Valls and F. Hollande is overestimated[3]. Yet what we can know from clearly identified cases shows that the French example does not differ fundamentally from other European contingents of volunteers, except some minor differences[4]. Recruitment, rather wide for the age and motivation at the beginning, seems to have been mainly young men, 20-35 years, more determined and more radical in their choices in the field. It involves both people known for their earlier commitment and often monitored, but also many men or teenagers who have succumbed to the radical message, including issued on the web, without the phenomenon is limited to marginalized people socially. Like all other contingents , the majority of French volunteers joined the two jihadist groups, al-Nusra front (official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria since November 2013) and ISIS, exposed since 3rd January, 2014 to the assaults of other rebel formations, including the al- Nusra Front itself. The starting zones are fairly well identified: the big cities (which again corresponds to other countries), Paris, Toulouse, Nice, Strasbourg, and Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing, with a majority of departures spontaneous or organized solo, without they necessarily resort to organized networks, the only exception being the southeast (which is a notable difference this time with other states, such as Belgium, where more structured networks involved in the routing or radicalization of the volunteers). The French jihadists are also, once there, quite present on social networks, for the purposes of recruitment, propaganda or to keep in touch with families, as discussed at the end of this article.

An early advertisement for a diverse recruitment (2012-summer 2013)

In France, from the second half of 2012 the press started to worry about the issue of jihadi candidates to go to Syria. However, from the month of May 2012, 3 young men were arrested at the airport in Saint-Etienne as they prepared to leave for Turkey … with holsters, walkie-talkies and night vision goggles[5]. Le Figaro mentions “a few tens of departure” in October 2012 and mentions Dr. Jacques Beres, who treated several French in a rebel hospital in Aleppo, a city that insurgents have been fighting for since 2012[6]. Some also do not hide their admiration for Mohamed Merah. The same newspaper had also spoken in spring 2012 of 6 French arrested by Lebanese security at Beirut airport, and an apparent attempt to enter Syria. However, the domestic intelligence services began to sound the alarm as early as spring 2011.

Information and news articles became more numerous in the spring and summer of 2013, a moment where research specialists started warning about a significant increase in the departure of European volunteers, including French to Syria, which would later be confirmed throughout the year[7]. Not only the French volunteers, like the others, benefit from the fact that access to Syrian territory is much easier than for other lands of jihad in the past, but in addition, they can count, sometimes, on the remains of organized networks for previous jihads, as those who had operated to Iraq between 2004 and 2006[8]. From the spring of 2013 and the emergence of the first specific examples of French volunteers, the reasons for leaving are very different. Djamel Amer Al-Khedoud, 50, from Marseille and has since become a prisoner of the regime, went to defend the Sunnis of Syria, a motivation which derives from the notion of the “defensive jihad,” which is the reason for many foreign volunteers, especially in the period from 2011-2012. Instead, Abdel Rahman Ayachi, a Franco-Syrian 33 years-old, joined Suqur al -Sham (a member of the Islamic Front in November 2013), since expressly designed for the installation of an Islamic caliphate and the strict and rigorous application of Sharia. He was in charge of a group of 600 combatants[9]. Ayachi was killed in June 2013: he had benefited from military training in the Belgian reserve, he took advantage of it, probably, on the Syrian battlefield[10]. Raphael Gendron, a French 38 years-old, was also part of Suqur al -Sham and was killed April 14, 2013. Residing in Brussels, he was close to radical circles in France that provided a number of volunteers for the Syrian jihad.

Raphael Gendron was well known to the French services. Repeatedly condemned by the Belgian justice system, he was arrested by the Italian authorities in late 2009 with Bassam Ayachi, a Franco-Syrian imam living in Belgium and famous, too, for his radical opinions. They wanted to organize a chain of recruitment to al-Qaeda cells in southern Italy. After being released, they returned to Belgium where they continued to lead the Assabyle Islamic Center. Gendron engaged in active propaganda on its website. In a very different case, the young French jihadist that is 17 years-old, from Sartrouville, was arrested by Greek police on May 25, 2013, while trying to go into Syria[11]. He had told his parents of his departure on May 16, after buying his ticket to Athens and taking a passport. The family called the police, who managed to join the Greek authorities. The young man was arrested on a bus in the north, as he headed to Turkey.

In June 2013, a French diplomat noted the figure of 270 Frenchmen who left to fight in Syria[12]. A month later, a French jihadist  present in Syria released a video call to his countrymen and President F. Hollande, asking him to convert to Islam[13]. The man, who calls himself Abu Abdelrahman, announced his conversion in Islam three years before, and have French parents that are atheists. He asked the French to join the jihad. His half-brother Jean-Daniel Pons, 22 years-old, from Toulouse, was killed on August 11th 2013. He had been coached by his older brother, Nicolas, 30 years-old, who is speaking on the video. Nicolas, who has a BEP (a French degree), had fallen into petty crime before converting in 2009 and proselytizing. His brother Jean-Daniel had moved to Toulouse in 2011 to begin a BTS (an another French degree, in advanced studies), after living with their father in Guyana; he became a convert, too. They both went to Syria in March 2013[14]. They went to Syria via Spain and Turkey, telling their relatives they were going to Thailand, before revealing the truth in April[15]. The mother of the two young people, retired from the army, had reported the worrying trend of her sons to the authorities in the month of April. A few days later, a 47 year-old man, from Belfort, was arrested by the DCRI living in Toulouse, he came to visit his family, and had links with both youngsters of Toulouse in the famous video[16]. Jacques Abu Abdallah al- Faransi, a French from Marseille, is also seen in July 2013 on a video posted on Youtube[17].

Another well-documented case is of Abu Hajjar, a computer scientist from the Paris region, who left in April 2013 to do jihad in Syria. This man is fighting in the Jebel al-Zawiya, in Idlib province, among the group Suqur al-Sham. According to his testimony, collected by Le Figaro, it performs reconnaissance on the highway between Latakia and Aleppo, to report the movements of troops and convoys from the regime. He defines himself as an “Islamist activist” and not related to jihadists. His group includes, according to him,  Saudis and Jordanians. He expresses, in his statements, some « opening » in the treatment of Syrian minorities, and explains that his group seeks to convince by opening offices of preaching, for example, but not by force, as some jihadists do. He does not intend to return to France, where he has left his wife and his children[18].

Acceleration of the recruitment and tighter profiles (Fall 2013- February 2014)

On September 1st 2013, Manuel Valls announced that more than a hundred French are currently fighting in Syria, a dozen are dead and some have already returned[19]. Other reports say at the same time that 9 French have been killed in combat[20]. In September, four men were arrested after robing a Quick restaurant in Yvelines, and a fifth shortly after in Chateauroux, Indre. Aged 23-34 years, these five men were in fact monitored for a while by the DCRI (inland French intelligence services) and DRPP (Paris prefecture of police intelligence direction). They belong to a group, one of whose members, at least, from Trappes, is already in Syria. These are people « self-radicalized », with two brothers, and with sometimes recent converts to Islam. They were spotted in anti-American demonstrations in Paris in 2012 (gathering in the place de la Concorde, Sept. 16, against the film The Innocence of Muslims), then went on “collective training” in southern Paris[21]. The Hold-up of the Quick of Coignières was to be used to pay for their trip to Syria, with the possession of a toy gun, they took 2,500 euros in front of the DCRI , which arrested them the next day. They were unknown to the justice system, but one of them has been convicted in 2005 for aggravated theft[22]. The intention to finance their trip by a little hold-up confirms travel to Syria is relatively easy, as can be seen for other European volunteers, and does not necessarily imply the use of organized networks (the trip amounts to 300-500 euros through Turkey)[23]. That same September, a young man from Roubaix (north of France, near Lille) was killed in Syria. Sofiane D., 20 years-old , was killed on Sept. 20 in Aleppo. His worried parents had warned the authorities in July 2013. He was supposed to be in Algeria doing classic Islamic training. According to a magistrate, he had hardly ever left Roubaix before this. He apparently fought in the ranks of al-Nusra front[24]. Two other young men in the area would have also left for Syria[25]. Romain L., 26, of Calvados (in Normandy), is meanwhile arrested for advocating terrorism on Internet[26]. He was the administrator of the site Ansar al- Haqq, translator of the magazine Inspire, published by Al- Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. He used the pseudonym of Abu Al-Siyad Normandy. In late September, the jihadists social networks highlight the figure of Abu Suhaib al- Faransi, a 63 years-old trader converted to Islam, and who is part of the French volunteers in the insurrection[27].

The French authorities have previously arrested Flavien Moreau, born in Ulsan, South Korea, before being adopted in France[28]. The young man from Nantes, 27 years-old, had imprudently given an interview, at Antioch in Turkey, to a Swiss journalist, in November 2012 and had been immediately spotted by the DCRI. He was arrested a few weeks later on his return to France in early 2013 and jailed. Moreau, who worked odd jobs and prison sentences, had converted five years ago, and had been looking for his last outing in 2012, to incorporate a fighter network. Having amassed a few thousand euros through various trades, he went to Zurich and Istanbul, then Antioch, with the intention to join the Ahrar al-Sham, today part of the Islamic Front, created November 22, 2013. With no combat experience, his commitment holds only a few weeks, after which he returned to France. Other commitments are just as ideological as the two disciples of Jeremiah Louis- Sydney, the leader of the “Torcy-Cannes cell”, on suspicion of the attempted attack against a kosher grocery in Sarcelles, in 2012 ; these two young French people of Tunisian origin are now in Syria.

In early October, there was a Frenchman would-be suicide bomber in the province of Aleppo[29]. Nicknamed Abu al-Qaaqaa, this Frenchman would have detonated on October 9 in the village of Al-Hamam, southeast of the city. This kamikaze attack paved the way for ISIS fighters (he is alleged part of it) and al-Nusra front. On 24 September, Abu Mohammad al- Fransi, a French convert to Islam, had been killed in the same area. In the same month, information is leaked on a network routing Chechen volunteers via the large Chechen diaspora in south-eastern France (over 10,000 people)[30]. Official estimates put the number of then French involved in the fighting in Syria at 400 at least[31]. On 14 October, three suspects of the famous terrorist cell Cannes-Torcy were arrested in the Alpes- Maritimes. Seizures include an UZI submachine gun and a semi-automatic pistol, and a large amount of money in cash. In November, four men aged 22 to 35 were arrested in the Val-de-Marne, they belonged to a network that would bring jihadist fighters to Syria. 2 or 3 of them would fight with the al-Nusra front. The overall figures then rise to more than 440 French who have left for Syria, half is still there, a dozen have died, one or two are prisoners of the regime, and 50 to 60 have returned to France. Of the twenty procedures triggered against volunteers who have returned, only three led to arrests[32]. On November 20th, 2013, Abu Malik al- Faransi, a French 17 years-old, was killed in Raqqa[33]. On 27 November, a man living near Lens is arrested, following the arrest on October 15, of two others in Tourcoing and Roubaix (north of France, near Lille). These two people have went to Syria and returned to France[34].

From the end of September 2013, recruitment in the south-east of France appears to have increased, particularly in Nice and its region. Ten departures at least are listed in Vallauris, Saint-Laurent, and Nice, as well as the side of the Ariane and the city of Moulins, mostly to join al-Nusra front. The majority of young people involved seem to have radicalized quickly, before leaving their families overnight. In 2011, a network already recruited, obviously, for the jihad in Afghanistan in the region. A network for the recruitment in Iraq had been dismantled, also, in 2005[35]. A mother in the Lyon’s region also reported in December 2013 that her ex-husband, whom she is separated since July 2012, apparently kidnapped his daughter to go to Syria via Turkey, to join al-Nosra front. He was radicalized after a trip to La Mecque[36]. He had also approached Forzane Alizza, a jihadist Salafist splinter group dissolved by the French authorities in February 2012.

On December 22nd, 2013, Jean-Daniel Pons brother, Nicolas, (both French from the Toulouse region), was killed in a suicide bomber attack near Homs[37]. The two half- brothers have joined, since leaving to Syria, the ranks of ISIS[38]. Their mother, Dominique Pons, has reported to the authorities about his son’s radicalization, and established in December 2013 with her ex-husband, the Syrian association Syrien ne bouge… Agissons ! According to her, Nicolas has also found in Syria an another man of Toulouse he knew[39]. In January 2014, French intelligence services estimated that 500 to 600 Frenchmen left for Syria, including 220 still on site, 70 who have returned and 18 killed, a number that has quadrupled compared to May 2013. Of this total, 20% were French converts, but most other young people are of North African origin, not necessarily practicing Muslims, but quickly radicalized. Besides the ease of access to Syrian territory, intelligence reports that a major factor in motivating volunteers is that they feel they are fighting for a just cause[40]. 10-14 young people from Strasbourg (east of France, near Germany) have also left their city to Germany, to reach Syria, at the end of the year 2013[41]. A young man from the neighborhood Elsau, in Strasbourg, would also died in a kamikaze attack in Syria in November 2013[42].

There was the announcement of departure, in January 2014, of two teenagers 15 years-old, from the Toulouse region, relayed in the media. Both enrolled in high school in the Arena, the two teenagers went on Jan. 6 to reach Turkey. One of two teenagers, Yasine, was deemed a brilliant student, one of the best in its class. The other, Ayoub, the eldest, however, was known to police, and belonged to a family that could have rigoristic religious beliefs. Yacine bought tickets for the sum of 417 euros and the two young men embarked on a flight of Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. Then they came to Antioch. But it is hard to say if they benefited from the assistance of an organized network[43]. They were caught though and brought back to France, the two teens are finally indicted[44]. The event confirms both the acceleration of recruitment in France, but also diversification. If the majority of recruits continues to come from major urban centers (Lille -Roubaix, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Paris, Nice and southeast), the profiles seem less to correspond to lost youth or social outcasts, but rather to youth that are integrated[45]. The father of one of the two teenagers was quick to warn the authorities and made a public appeal. According to him, his son was radicalized in particular through exchanges on the web, including Facebook[46]. In the southeast, Nice and its surroundings, there were about forty young people who wanted to leave for the Syrian jihad, with more and more young -16 or 15 years-old[47]. In the popular area of Saint Roch, east of Nice, there were have been 7-8 departures between September and December 2013[48]. At the rnd of December, a whole family of ten people left for Syria[49]. In early December, the DCRI had carried out the arrest of an alleged recruiter in the Nice area[50].

In February 2014, Salahudine, a jihadist French 27 year-old from the Paris region, went to fight in July 2013, delivers his ultimate testimony after being seriously wounded in Aleppo. He had brought his wife and children with him, and obviously has not been assisted by a network. He organized his trip through Turkey alone. After going to Aleppo, he joined with ISIS, was trained in a camp and shipped quickly to the front. In November 2013, apparently disgusted by ISIS, he defected to al-Nusra front. He fought in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. He is paid $50 every month, but bought a $1,300 AK-47[51]. Another French volunteer belonging to ISIS, Abu Shaheed, based north of Aleppo, also delivered his testimony in February 2014. This is a resolute volunteer, who does not want to come back to France, but who is a partisan of transnational jihad[52]. However, according to French intelligence services , the profile of volunteers is now pretty easy to determine. It now comprise mostly men aged 20 to 35 years that are more determined. One third of the 250 French still present in Syria are Caucasians, Chechens who have passed through the region of Nice (which serves as a hub for Caucasians and especially Chechens, with Vienna, Austria). On the rest, we count a half converted and another half of young people of North African immigration, as well as some women. Notably, radicals in ISIS do not hesitate to use foreign volunteers, like the French, for kamikaze attacks. It also points out several cases where people move to the Turkish border and in northern Syria, but do not take part in fight, pending the establishment of an Islamic caliphate[53]. On February 20th, 2014, a young man from Nice, 18 years-old, who went to Syria in September 2013, was arrested on his return to France. Farid had fought in the Aleppo region. He was a young student and left with three other friends from Nice, radicalized after a few weeks. He was imprisoned after his arrest, pending its judgement[54].

The French jihadists on social networks

The French jihadists are very active on social networks, especially Twitter and Facebook[55]. They provide information on their journey, the struggle and the practical conditions of jihad. Most belong to ISIS. Foreign volunteers tend, in Syria, to regroup, for cultural and linguistic affinity, but it is not said that it is always the case for French, although some fight in the same formations. Some come together and know each other before the jihad. We also note the presence of wives of fighters. Social networks are used for recruitment, dissemination of propaganda, and to maintain contact with families. Propaganda plays on the analogy with video games, in the illustrations that can be disseminated. Obviously, internal conflicts among insurgents, as those of ISIS and al-Nusra since April 2013, are relatively missing. Abu Shaheed, arrived in Syria in May 2013, and is part of ISIS, often refers to the pursuit of jihad after the fall of the Assad regime. Another French jihadist, also a member of ISIS and arrived at the same date, which operates under the name If you want my opinion, gives many details about the fighting and claims to have participated in those of the base 80 in Aleppo. Mohammed Abu Muhajir, another French, is also a member of ISIS who arrived in the summer of 2013 and fought around Azaz. He is married to Umtawwab zawjetu ”abu mohammed, a woman from Lorient (Britanny, France), which raises funds for so-called humanitarian work via Facebook, and which claims to have made the trip in France between October-November 2013. Mourad Ibn Amar, also arrived in Syria in the summer, is also part of ISIS. He appears in many group photographs. Under the name Selim Det-R, a man from Roubaix (north of France) is also included in ISIS. Abdullah Wade, another Frenchman, raises funds to renovate homes in Syria in favor of French jihadists. Abu Tasnim is probably a French native of Haiti. He went to Syria on October 17, 2013 and fights in al-Nusra front. Injured in training, he says a lot in social media about practical issues for the journey to Syria, and delivers his experience of war.


It is difficult to make assumptions about the future of the French recruitment for the Syrian jihad, especially because the numbers are uncertain, perhaps even more than for other quotas, particularly in Europe. The difficult situation of the uprising against the regime, since the agreement on chemical weapons in September 2013, and fighting between rebels, including against the ISIS, does not seem to have dried up recruitment. The French, like others, are directed mainly to jihadi groups like al-Nusra front and especially ISIS. Although marginalized in the al-Qaeda system by the recent clashes, ISIS is nonetheless an important player on the field. It can therefore be concerned with both the difficulty following departures, often spontaneous, difficult to anticipate, and the return of seasoned people on battlefield, who wish to extend their action in France. Nevertheless, it should also be noted that part of the volunteers, as in other countries, was involved for many years in jihadist networks, and was previously monitored, which, moreover, leads to some arrests. For this category, it is clear that the intelligence services could make, if necessary, raids on a larger scale. Going to Syria is not a crime, and evidence must be gathered to make the arrests. What is worrying is the high proportion of people who are self-radicalized by various means, including the web, and go unpredictably to Syria, a trip which, as mentioned, by its easy nature, particularly via Turkey, is a boon for the jihadi movement. The major challenge is that with the evolution in the nature of Islamist terrorism, the return of only a dozen fanatical fighters could have a disproportionate impact, in networking, or even in solitary action, such as Mohamed Merah. This is the challenge for intelligence services to achieve a greater defeat of this phenomenon, a task that is become even more difficult. The phenomenon of French volunteers is more complex than it seems, and it will of course continue to be trend in the future.

Summary table of the official estimates provided by the French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, about French who left in Syria (May 2013-January 2014).

  Total since 2011 Still in Syria Returned in France Killed In Transit Those who want to leave France to Syria
May 2013 120 50 30   40  
September 2013   130 50 10 40 100
October 2013   184 80 14    
December 2013 +400 184 80 14   100
January 2014 700 250 76 26   150


[1]   Thomas Hegghammer, « Number of foreign fighters from Europe in Syria is historically unprecedented. Who should be worried? », The Monkey Cage, 27th November 2013.

[2]   Aaron Y. Zelin, « Up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria; steep rise among Western Europeans », The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 17th December 2013.

[3]   Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 3 février 2014.

[4]   See my article about foreign fighters in Syria here :

[7]   See my article about foreign fighters in Syria here :

[9]   See my article about foreign fighters in Syria here :

[17] Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 3 février 2014.

[24] Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 3 février 2014.

[27] Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 3 février 2014.

[33] Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 3 février 2014.

GUEST POST: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe): A Case Study in Lone Wolf Terrorism

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe): A Case Study in Lone Wolf Terrorism

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross

June 1, 2009 was a Monday. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., Private William Long, 24, and Private Quinton Ezeagwula, 18, stood outside the joint Army-Navy recruiting center in northwestern Little Rock, Arkansas, taking a smoke break. The two young men, who were working at their hometown recruiting center before moving on to their first duty station, spoke of where that first assignment would take them. Long said that he would be leaving for Korea the following Monday; Ezeagwula was bound for Hawaii a day earlier, on Sunday.


Figure 1: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad at the time of his arrest.

As they made conversation, a black Ford Sport Trac sport utility vehicle pulled around from the commercial parking lot adjacent to the recruiting station, and the SUV’s window rolled down. Ezeagwula thought he heard the driver say something, so he turned and looked toward the driver, a black male in his mid-twenties.

Almost immediately, the driver—Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, formerly  known as Carlos Bledsoe—began firing at the soldiers with a SKS semi-automatic rifle. Long collapsed, and would be declared dead upon arrival at the hospital. Ezeagwula was hit in the back and torso, and dropped to his knees. He crawled back toward the recruiting station, seeking shelter from the gunfire. Muhammad continued shooting through the recruiting station’s window, hoping to hit the fifteen Army and civilian personnel inside. His SUV then drove off.

Though this initially appeared to be a routine drive-by shooting, Muhammad made his motivations clear after Little Rock police apprehended him. He said that he was a practicing Muslim, and was motivated to carry out the shooting by the injustices of U.S. foreign policy. It soon became obvious that the shooting had been an act of lone wolf jihadist terrorism.

This article examines the Muhammad case in detail. I conducted field research in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the summer of 2012. Before traveling there, I read all available court documents and media reporting related to Muhammad’s attack, making note of figures who seemingly had special insight into him and the attack, and interviewed Muhammad’s father (Melvin Bledsoe) by telephone. In Little Rock, I interviewed prosecutor Larry Jegley; Lt. Carl Minden of the Pulaski County detention facility; guards who worked at the facility during Muhammad’s incarceration; and Jim Hensley, an attorney who was part of the defense team. I also visited the detention facility, where I was given access to the administrative segregation wing where Muhammad had been held, and I was able to gain access to the files that the prosecution used in this case.

The article thus documents a great deal of information that has not been made public previously, including Muhammad’s violent tendencies prior to his conversion to Islam, the extent to which the FBI was aware of Muhammad before his attack, the manner in which he continued his jihad even while incarcerated (assaulting inmates and guards), and the fact that he was able to convert another inmate. The article also provides rich detail on the evolution of Muhammad’s religious ideology during his radicalization.

Muhammad’s Early Life and Conversion

Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad was born as Carlos Bledsoe on July 9, 1985, and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. His family operated a tour company, Twin City Tours, and Muhammad began to assist the family business when he was eight years old. He would interact enthusiastically with customers. ‘‘He grew up in the business,’’ Muhammad’s father, Melvin Bledsoe, told me. ‘‘He came to work in the summers, after school was out.’’

There are two different accounts of Muhammad’s upbringing. One is the family’s view that he was a typical American boy. Describing his son as a ‘‘fun kid,’’ Bledsoe explained: ‘‘He loved to have fun, he was a practical joker, he loved high fashion clothes, rap music, girls. Typical young boy.’’ The family had a couple of dogs during Muhammad’s youth: it had an American Eskimo until he was twelve, but after it was killed by a neighbor’s dog, the family bought a golden retriever. The American Eskimo was one of the memories that neighbor Curnelia Crutchfield emphasized after news of Muhammad’s shooting became public, telling the media that he ‘‘seemed like he was a good kid. He was a happy-go-lucky kid. I remember he had a white dog and they were the best of friends.’’

Muhammad graduated from high school in 2003, and went to college at Tennessee State University in Nashville. He wanted to get a degree in business administration, and eventually run the family business. Melvin Bledsoe and his wife hoped their son could give them an early retirement.

The other account of Muhammad’s upbringing, told by Muhammad himself, is significantly darker. Speaking to a psychologist with the Arkansas Department of Human Services, Muhammad recalled that he was suspended from school several times for fighting, and characterized himself as ‘‘a gang member.’’ Several people I interviewed were dismissive of the claim that he had been in a gang. However, records from the Shelby County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Office suggest that there may be merit to Muhammad’s claim. A police report from February 2002 describes an incident in which Muhammad was punched in the face by a man named Derrick Moore, who claimed Muhammad had threatened him. The report notes that Muhammad and Moore had in the past been ‘‘affiliated’’ with a gang called the Vice Lords.

Muhammad was involved in a couple of other violent incidents before leaving for college. In August 2002, he entered a barbershop and told a man named Derrick Cathey to step outside to fight. Cathey refused, and barbershop employees told Muhammad to leave. He later returned with two other men, and a knife was pulled during the course of the ensuing altercation. And in May 2003, another driver struck Muhammad’s car. Muhammad jumped out of his vehicle and started hitting the other driver’s rear passenger window with chrome-plated brass knuckles. Muhammad yelled, ‘‘Bitch I’m gonna kill you, get out, I’m going to kill you when I get your address.’’ Officers who arrived on the scene found the brass knuckles in Muhammad’s left rear pocket during a pat-down.

Of course, this involvement with violence as a teenager doesn’t mean Muhammad would inevitably have committed murder absent his encounters with Islamic extremism. His defense lawyer, Jim Hensley, told me that if Muhammad hadn’t been captured by this fringe ideology, ‘‘I don’t think he ever would have murdered anybody.’’ (Muhammad fired Hensley before trial, but Hensley continued to serve as an informal consultant to Muhammad’s father.) On the other hand, prosecutor Larry Jegley thought that Muhammad might have ended up a killer even without drifting into Islamic radicalism. ‘‘It’s possible,’’ Jegley said, that he might not have killed absent becoming radicalized. But on the other hand, ‘‘he also could have hooked up with the Crips or the Bloods.’’ Jegley noted, however, that Muhammad had every opportunity to not go down the wrong path, in that he was blessed with a father who had ‘‘pulled himself up by his bootstraps, worked hard, took chances, and was part of the American dream. His family members all wanted desperately for him to share in that.’’ Thus, Jegley said, ‘‘I’m not going to argue with anybody who says the radical Muslim stuff he was exposed to could have been an influence.’’

Though Muhammad had early brushes with the law, one particular 2004 incident, occurring in Knoxville, Tennessee, would indelibly change his life.

Around 9:00 p.m. on the evening of February 21, Knoxville police officer Michael Harper pulled over a blue Mazda. A man who had been in the car’s front seat fled, and the officer found Muhammad in the back. There were weapons in the car, including a SKS assault rifle and a single-shot shotgun, which Muhammad told the officer he had been trying to sell. A search accompanying the arrest turned up a bag of marijuana in Muhammad’s front left pants pocket, and he was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon and drug possession.

Muhammad could have faced up to fourteen years of imprisonment, which he said ‘‘spooked’’ him. The family hired a lawyer, who argued he was just a college student who was experimenting. The prosecutors gave Muhammad a plea deal that included a year’s probation, but one condition was that if he got into further criminal trouble, he would have to serve the full fourteen-year sentence.

The experience seemingly instilled in Muhammad the idea that he had to show he could do better. He became interested in religion, and would later provide an account of this exploration to journalist Kristina Goetz of Memphis’s largest daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, to whom he wrote from jail.

Muhammad told her that he first looked into Christianity, the faith in which he had been raised, but no longer believed in it. He found the doctrine of the Trinity ‘‘not comprehensible,’’ telling Goetz: ‘‘1 + 1 + 1 = 3. That’s wasn’t clicking to me.’’ (This article retains Muhammad’s original spelling and grammar, which is idiosyncratic, when quoting from his writings.)

Thereafter, Muhammad decided to study Judaism, saying that he ‘‘was attracted to the belief of monotheism.’’ However, he claimed that he was turned away from a couple of orthodox synagogues because he was black. Muhammad wrote of Judaism: ‘‘That religion seem to me like too much of racial pride and not for other people. It seem to be all about ‘the Jews’ or ‘Children of Israel.’’’

Then Muhammad began to explore Islam. He visited a mosque in Nashville, and reported being ‘‘drawn and amazed’’ by salah, the congregational prayer. He attempted to join in the prayer, but it was obvious to the others that Muhammad was unfamiliar with the sequence of standing, bowing, and prostration. After salah was done, one of the congregants asked Muhammad how long he had been Muslim, and he said that he wasn’t—that he was just interested in the faith. Muhammad reported that the congregation responded enthusiastically, with shouts of Allahu Akbar! permeating the room. The congregants, he wrote, ‘‘embraced me like I was a long loss brother.’’ The congregant who had spoken to Muhammad explained the fundamentals of the faith, and Muhammad felt attracted to its ‘‘pure monotheism, no 1 + 1 + 1 = 3.’’ Muhammad was given a translation of the Qur’an, and other books. ‘‘I believed in it wholeheartedly,’’ Muhammad wrote, ‘‘and decided to become a Muslim.’’

Muhammad took his shahadah, or declaration of faith, at a mosque in Memphis in 2004, at the age of nineteen.

Muhammad’s Religious Evolution

By his own explanation, Muhammad ascribed to an interpretation of Islam at the time of the shooting that is best labeled salafi jihadist. Salafi refers to an austere religious methodology that seeks to re-create Islam as it was supposedly practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and the first three generations of Muslims. The term jihadist refers to the belief that violence should be undertaken in the effort to purify Islam in this manner.

Soon after Muhammad’s conversion, he began to embrace a highly legalistic practice of the faith consistent with salafism. Muhammad’s family glimpsed his transformation during his trips back home to Memphis. As Melvin Bledsoe explained, they actually learned that he had become Muslim after Muhammad ‘‘took down all the pictures from the walls in the bedroom where he slept,’’ including a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. that held particular emotional resonance for the family. When the family asked why he had done this, Muhammad explained that it was because he had converted to Islam. Muhammad’s decision to take down the pictures in his room is consonant with Islamic rulings holding that pictures depicting anything with a soul are religiously impermissible.

Another aspect of Muhammad’s legalism can be glimpsed in what he did with a dog that he had bought while in college. Since Muhammad had grown up with a couple of dogs, it was natural that he bought a puppy—a Rottweiler—while in college. But a popular interpretation of Islam holds that dogs are religiously impermissible pets. In one hadith, for example, Prophet Muhammad states that ‘‘Angels (of Mercy) do not enter a house wherein there is a dog or a picture of a living creature.’’ So Muhammad took his Rottweiler into the woods, and let it go. It was only a year and a half old when he did so.

Muhammad adopted a number of other legalistic practices and trappings consistent with a salafi practice. His father told me that Muhammad tried to grow out a beard, but ‘‘it wouldn’t grow right. It would always be thin and ragged, and we would make fun of him about it. He’d be an old man before he would grow a beard, but he kept trying, because he was told that’s what he should do.’’ Muhammad rolled his pants legs up above the ankles, another behavioral change often associated with salafism. He began chewing a miswak, a stick used for cleaning one’s teeth that Prophet Muhammad had reportedly used.

Muhammad legally changed his name from Carlos Bledsoe to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad on March 29, 2006. His father told me, ‘‘Carlos and Abdulhakim Muhammad are two different people.’’ Indeed, Muhammad began to distance himself from his own family due to their refusal to become Muslim when he tried to push his new faith on them. As Melvin Bledsoe said in congressional testimony, ‘‘It had gotten to the point where he had no interest in coming home, even for the holidays.’’

Muhammad’s writings from jail provide further evidence supporting Bledsoe’s interpretation of his son’s transformation—both the notion that Carlos Bledsoe and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad were ‘‘different people,’’ and also the way he distanced himself from his family. In one letter to Kristina Goetz, Muhammad flatly stated, ‘‘I’m not Carlos. I’m Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad—a new man, changed man.’’ Continuing, he substantiated his post-conversion distance from his family, analogizing his situation to that of the prophet Abraham. Muhammad wrote: ‘‘Abraham was a friend of Allah but his relatives and people especially his father were enemies of Allah and that’s the situation with me and them [his family]. I love Allah, and His Messenger, they hate them. So we are on different sides.’’

In September 2007, Muhammad left for Yemen. At the time, the imam of Masjid Furooq in Nashville wrote a letter to the Yemen Al Khair Institute on Muhammad’s behalf. The letter explains that Muhammad wanted to go to Yemen because he ‘‘seeks knowledge’’ of Islam. It goes on to describe Muhammad’s religious practice as salafi: ‘‘He follows the Quran and Sunnah according to the understanding of the Salafis Salih. He is Salafi and seeks to increase his knowledge of Quran and Sunnah, and the Arabic Language.’’

Muhammad’s Time in Yemen

Muhammad arrived in Yemen on September 11, 2007. One unfortunate aspect of his time there is that we only have his own account for much of what occurred.

It’s clear that by the time he left the U.S., Muhammad self-identified as salafi, and had adopted the mores, customs, and rules of that practice of the faith. Seemingly, though, it wasn’t until his time in Yemen that he embraced the need for religiously-inspired violence. He told Kristina Goetz, ‘‘I’ve loved Jihad ever since I became Muslim. But here in America you have hypocrites and hypocritical sects preaching against Jihad and the Mujahideen so I fell victim to their false knowledge and cowardly ways.’’

While in Yemen, Muhammad taught English at two different schools, but that was by no means his primary interest. In fact, he felt guilty and uncomfortable teaching English because, as he wrote, ‘‘it’s the English and others that are the enemies to the Muslims.’’ Thus, Muhammad ‘‘felt uncomfortable teaching the Language of the Enemy to my brothers and sisters.’’

Muhammad later expressed the new worldview that he adopted while in Yemen, and explained how it led him to embrace the need for violence. As has been the case for many homegrown jihadist terrorists, Muhammad put political rage at the center of his explanation, but fused that rage with a sense of religious obligation:

What lead to the attack on the Recruiting Center was this. America and it’s allies are waging an all out war on Islam and Muslims. Even before 9-11 it was involved in a war against Islam. The US Foreign Policy regarding occupied Palestine was the sole purpose of 9-11. In Islam there’s a call to duty—Jihad—and it’s of different types but the one I’m mentioning is a defensive struggle or fight with weapons against those who attack, kill, maim the Muslims. And this is apart of Islam….

‘‘Like I said’’ there’s an all out war against Islam and Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Waziristan, Chechnya, Somalia, Palestine, Phillipines, Yemen etc. And Muslims have to fight back. Like I said before in a past interview we believe in an eye for eye not turn the other cheek. Now it’s a all out war on America and I’m on the other side. The side of the Muslims Yes! The side of Al-Qāeda Yes! Taliban Yes! Al-Shabaab Yes! We are all brothers under the same banner. Fighting for the same cause which is to rid the Islamic world of Infidel and Apostate Hypocritic regimes and Crusader Invaders and re-establish the Caliphate, the Islamic Empire and Islamic Law as was ended officially in 1924 by the fall of the Ottomans.

Muhammad told Little Rock police that he got married while in Yemen, to a Yemeni woman who was a student at one of the schools where he taught. He said, though, that they divorced before he returned to the U.S. A marriage document issued by Yemen in September 2008 provides verification for his claim of marriage.

It’s unclear at what point during his time in Yemen Muhammad came to accept the need to undertake violence, but his writings reveal that he did not receive military training. He noted that he had wanted to travel to Somalia for training, and had even obtained a fraudulent Somali passport, but he was unable to do go. Muhammad boasted that if he had received this training, his attack would have been even deadlier: ‘‘My drive-by would have been a drive-in, with noone [sic] escaping the aftermath!!’’

But before Muhammad could go to Somalia, Yemeni authorities arrested him in October 2008. There is some dispute in open source reporting over why he was arrested (some sources claim he overstayed his visa), but the likeliest explanation is that Yemeni officials suspected Muhammad of being a militant, especially because of his fraudulent Somali passport.

Muhammad was clearly on the FBI’s radar at this time. As a senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. government told me, ‘‘Carlos Bledsoe was interviewed by an FBI agent from Nashville in Yemen. What was the agent doing in Yemen? He wasn’t there on a TDY [temporary duty assignment]. The embassy didn’t even know he was there.’’ Muhammad corroborated this account, describing his interview with an FBI agent in his public correspondence.

After carrying out his attack in Little Rock, Muhammad would claim that he was associated with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the jihadist organization’s Yemeni affiliate. Muhammad’s claim that he was a part of AQAP is rather vague. He told Kristina Goetz that he would not say much about AQAP, but ‘‘yes, I’m affiliated with them.’’ He wrote, ‘‘Our goal is to rid the Islamic world of Idols and Idolators, Paganism and Pagans, Infidelity and Infidels, hypocrisy and hypocrites, apostasy and apostates, democracy and democrats and relaunch the Islamic caliphate, the Islamic Khalifah and to establish the Islamic Law (Shari’ah)—Allah’s Law on Earth and anyone who strives for this is affiliated with the movement. So yes I’m Al Qāeda and proud to be.’’ Muhammad did not expand on this alleged affiliation, and open-source information provides no corroboration.

The Little Rock Attack

Muhammad was deported back to the United States in January 2009. He lived with his family for about three months in Memphis before moving to Little Rock. Muhammad’s family wanted to straighten him out, so gave him a job with Twin City Tours in Little Rock as the company expanded to that location.

Muhammad said that he had formulated the intention to carry out an attack during his incarceration in Yemen. Upon his move to Little Rock, he began developing a specific plan of action, targeting recruiting centers and Jewish organizations. He looked at possible targets in places that included ‘‘Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Florence, Kentucky, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C.’’

In preparation for an attack, Muhammad bought guns and a stockpile of ammunition. He refused to use credit cards to buy these supplies because, as he later told a court-appointed psychologist, ‘‘Muslims don’t believe in interest.’’ At one point, he purchased a .22 rifle at a Walmart to see if the FBI would put a hold on the purchase, or if he would be questioned. No such actions came. Muhammad recalled walking out of the store with his new gun, thinking, ‘‘It’s on.’’

But Muhammad’s initial journey to carry out an attack resembled a farce more than anything else. He first threw a Molotov cocktail at the house of a rabbi in Nashville, but it bounced off a window. Muhammad fled the scene, driving toward his next target, an army recruiting center in Florence, Kentucky, that he had found on the Internet. But the recruiting office was closed when he arrived.

Muhammad felt dejected. Gas cost around $4 a gallon, and he felt he had spent a lot of money on an unsuccessful expedition. But when Muhammad returned to Little Rock, driving down Rodney Parham Road on June 1, 2009, he saw two soldiers standing in front of the joint Army-Navy recruiting center smoking, and he recognized an opportunity. Muhammad drove through a parking lot adjacent to the center, approaching from around a corner so the two soldiers would be less aware of him.


Figure 2: Photograph of the Army-Navy recruiting center taken in August 2012.

Muhammad’s black Ford Sport Trac SUV pulled up next to William Long and Quinton Ezeagwula shortly after 10:00 a.m., and he shot at them with a SKS semi-automatic rifle. Long collapsed and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital less than an hour later, at 10:56 a.m. Tragically, his mother, Janet Long, was sitting nearby, in her car, when Muhammad shot her son. She saw his sudden execution first-hand. As Ezeagwula, who was injured in the shooting, crawled back into the recruiting station, Muhammad continued firing through the window until his ten-round clip was empty. He then drove away.

Another driver, Woody Mulkey, heard the shooting from his truck, which was at  the nearby stoplight at the corner of Reservoir and Rodney Parham. He saw Muhammad’s truck, with a gun sticking out the window, and briefly pursued it. However, Mulkey incorrectly anticipated the direction that Muhammad would take in his retreat, and lost sight of him.

But Muhammad’s shooting was sloppily executed if he had any intention of escape: he had left his truck’s tailgate down, thus making the vehicle easier to spot as he fled. Police logs show that officers pursuing Muhammad were told about the tailgate.

An officer caught up with Muhammad as he drove east on I-630. The arrest was uneventful. The officer activated his blue lights and Muhammad pulled toward the right shoulder but didn’t stop, then pulled across I-630 to the left lane, and continued onto the I-30 East on-ramp. Muhammad then stopped about halfway up the ramp. The arresting officer drew his service weapon, and made Muhammad keep his hands outside the window of his car. When two other officers arrived, Muhammad was instructed to turn his car off and throw the keys out the window, after which he was arrested.

Muhammad waived his Miranda rights at the beginning of the interrogation. He told Detectives Matt Nelson and Tommy Hudson that he was a practicing Muslim, and shot the two soldiers because he was angry at the U.S. military. Muhammad said that ‘‘if there would have been more out there I probably would have shot them too.’’

Muhammad’s Detention and Trial

While awaiting trial, Muhammad was detained at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility in Little Rock. It is the largest county jail in Arkansas, holding 1,130 inmates (with construction underway to add another 240 cells). As Muhammad told Kristina Goetz, he realized that he could continue ‘‘waging jihad’’ even while incarcerated, and he remains notorious among the facility’s guards and administrators.


Figure 3: Duty belt worn at Little Rock’s Pulaski County regional detention facility. Deputy Grunerwald claims that Muhammad stabbed his belt, while Muhammad insists he actually stabbed Deputy Grunerwald’s stomach.

Muhammad was involved in several violent incidents. The first occurred on October 24, 2009. Another inmate, George McFee, had been pouring juice into Muhammad’s cup when Muhammad cut his left hand and wrist with a makeshift knife that he had fashioned from his glasses. Muhammad explained in a letter from jail that he did this because McFee was ‘‘a blasphemer who got mad because I told him to calm down so I could hear the news on TV and he responded by cursing me, my mother, and the almighty allah.’’ He said that because McFee had ‘‘blasphemed the Creator,’’ stabbing him was ‘‘a just reward.’’

Muhammad also stabbed a guard, Deputy Grunerwald, whom he said was an Iraq  war veteran. Again he made the shank from his glasses. Guards at the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility have rather large duty belts (see Figure 3), and Grunerwald reported that he was stabbed in the belt. Muhammad didn’t believe this, saying in a clinical evaluation, ‘‘He lied and said I stabbed his belt. I stabbed his stomach, that bastard.’’ In explaining why he had stabbed Grunerwald, Muhammad claimed that he was ‘‘a Crusader in the Crusader Army and was combat medic just back from Iraq. He bragged and boasted of having killed ‘sand niggers’ and Muslims in front of me so I shanked him as a reward.’’

Jim Hensley, Muhammad’s attorney, didn’t believe this account of the altercation when I told him of it. ‘‘I don’t think that happened,’’ Hensley said. ‘‘Soldiers don’t talk about things like that. I was in the Marine Corps and I was a cop, and I don’t talk about either. The one thing a true warrior who loves his country doesn’t want to do is go to war. Shame on Carlos for saying that.’’

In April 2010, Muhammad threatened another of the prison personnel, Deputy Huff, saying, ‘‘You’re done, you redneck ass motherfucker. I’m gonna kill your bitch ass, I’m gonna find something better than a piece of motherfucking glasses, you punk ass white boy. I’m gonna stab you in the motherfucking heart. You bitch, I’m gonna kill you. I’m gonna get you better than I got Grunerwald. I’m gonna stab you in the motherfucking heart.’’ And Muhammad assaulted another guard, Lieutenant Martin, in October 2010. In that incident, Muhammad was being moved from his cell to the shower when he charged Martin, hitting him in the back of the head.

Even though he was placed in administrative segregation, Muhammad persuaded another inmate to splash urine on a guard whom he considered his enemy. Muhammad was also able to convert an inmate, as shown by a letter that Mu’min Abdulaziz (formerly known as Frank Askew, Jr.) wrote to the judge in Muhammad’s case. In it, Abdulaziz described Muhammad as ‘‘my brother in Islam and the individual who has awakened me.’’

Lieutenant Carl Minden, who handles media relations and training for the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office, told me that Muhammad ‘‘was renowned for making all sorts of problems for the staff.’’ This included not only assaults and threats, but also vandalizing his cells. For that reason, Muhammad would only be kept in a cell for a few days before authorities had to move him. Both Minden and also several guards and officials at the jail whom I was able to interview said that Muhammad was easily in the top percentile of offenders that the jail had seen, in terms of one inmate doing so much damage. The reason for this was not just Muhammad’s resolution to wage jihad, but also the sheer length of time he was held, 784 days in total. (The jail is a pre-trial facility, but given the nature of Muhammad’s case, there were multiple delays.)

Ultimately, Muhammad was tried by local rather than federal prosecutors. There are various theories about why federal prosecutors didn’t take the case away from the local Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. Muhammad’s explanation was egocentric: ‘‘I outsmarted them and they know it that’s why they don’t want to pick these charges up and are leaving me in State Court to be hung. But it’s OK people still see pass the smoke and mirrors.’’ And a senior counterterrorism official in the U.S. government suggested to me that federal prosecutors may not have taken the case because of hesitation to describe it as terrorism.

On the other hand, prosecutor Larry Jegley thinks the explanation may be easier: his office, sadly, has a lot of experience prosecuting murders, as there are anywhere from forty to 100 a year in his jurisdiction. Federal authorities may have decided it was best for experienced local prosecutors to handle the case.

When the Muhammad case went to trial, the specifics of his worldview, motivations, and process of radicalization weren’t presented to the jury. ‘‘We looked at it, but only to see if anything jumped out as an aggravating factor if we got to the sentencing phase,’’ Jegley told me. ‘‘But it wasn’t part of our case in chief, because motive isn’t something we had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.’’ The case was treated like so many other murders that Little Rock experiences in any given year: terrorism and Islamic extremism played no role in the prosecution’s case.

However, Muhammad’s beliefs did figure in the defense’s case. Though the state psychologist found Muhammad fit to proceed with trial, the defense argued that he was not guilty by reason of mental defect. Psychiatrist Bhushan Agharkar testified that Muhammad had a delusional disorder by virtue of his ‘‘fixed, false beliefs.’’ Though brainwashing is not a recognized defense in Arkansas, this was a brainwashing defense by another name.

But we never learned whether this defense would have succeeded. Muhammad unexpectedly took a plea bargain more than a week into the trial, before the case went to the jury. Muhammad’s lawyers explained to the local press that they had offered a plea because they believed the prosecution was willing to accept one in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. Muhammad was sentenced on July 25, 2011, to ‘‘life without parole, 11 additional life sentences plus 180 years.’’ Immediately after the plea bargain, Muhammad was moved from the Pulaski County Regional Detention Facility to a larger state prison, but he left an impression that officials at the regional facility won’t soon forget.


This case illustrates the overarching difficulty of protecting against lone wolf terrorist attacks in a free and open society. While Muhammad swore that he ‘‘outsmarted’’ federal authorities, in reality his attack illustrates the advantages enjoyed by lone wolf actors. It’s difficult to take preventive action against a potential attacker like Muhammad even if authorities have strong information that he has been radicalized and poses a danger. Here, Muhammad had already come across the FBI’s radar, yet if they had moved to arrest him prior to the attack, federal authorities most likely would have lacked a compelling criminal case.

But the shooting also demonstrates the limits of what a lone wolf terrorist might accomplish. At the end of the day Muhammad, not the most gifted operative, shot two people, killing one. The shooting was tragic, but so too are all the murders that regularly occur in Little Rock and other cities. When I asked Jegley, he said he thought the incident’s effect on the community was ‘‘about the same’’ as many other murders. ‘‘I think that there was more of an outrage factor than there would be for a street killing down at 15th and Oak between a couple of drug dealers because here it was a man in uniform,’’ he told me. ‘‘But no, I don’t think anybody here was terrorized. You want to see a terrorized community, let’s go back to 1993–1994, when the gangs were tearing this place up. That really terrorized the community.’’

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of twelve books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011). This post is adapted, with permission, from an academic article that he recently published with Terrorism & Political Violence.

GUEST POST: Dutch Foreign Fighters – Some Testimonials from the Syrian Front (Part III)

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

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Dutch Foreign Fighters – Some Testimonials from the Syrian Front (Part III)

By Pieter Van Ostaeyen


As in two former posts (part 1 and part 2) on Dutch foreign fighters this story is about another Dutch fighter who got killed in Syria. There are a lot of other stories on this group of foreign Mujāhidīn in Syria; yet this one might be considered as breaking.

The man who’s death was announced; was the spokesman of the group. He gave an extensive and exclusive interview to a Dutch newspaper a few months ago. All former communications by the Dutch Mujāhidīn in Syria via Facebook and a few WordPress blogs were authored by him. Most importantly he was co-author of the Dutch Islamist 150 page pamphlet ‘De Banier’ (The Banner), a highly interesting piece on several aspects of Islam and Jihād.

This is the communication by De Ware Religie on the martyrdom of Abū Jandal:

Zevende Nederlandse mujahied in Syrië verkrijgt martelaarschap

De zevende Nederlandse mujahied heeft het martelaarschap in Syrië verkregen. Dat vertellen bronnen rondom de familie aan Het gaat om de 26-jarige Abu Jandal uit Delft. Abu Jandal, ook bekend onder de naam Abu Fidaa, was een van de broeders die nauw betrokken was met het interview in de Volkskrant. Hij is ook de (mede-) auteur van het boek De Banier. Twee weken geleden raakte Abu Jandal zwaargewond, daarna is hij aan zijn verwondingen overleden. 

Abu Jandal woonde in Delft en was een succesvolle zakenman, maar besloot ongeveer een jaar  terug de oproep van de islamitische gemeenschap in Syrië niet langer te negeren. Hij vertrok samen met Abu Walae, die eerder ook het martelaarschap verkreeg. Abu Jandal had nooit het plan om terug te keren naar Nederland. Hij wilde ofwel helpen met de implementatie van de sharia in Syrië, dan wel op het pad van Allah sterven.

“Je gaat toch een keer dood, dus dan zou het geweldig zijn als je voor een nobel doel sterft,” aldus Abu Jandal in het interview. “Wij weten ook uit de overleveringen dat alle zonden worden gewist bij de eerste druppel bloed die je laat vallen op het slagveld als Martelaar, dus je kijkt zelfs uit naar deze druppel.” Deze woorden bracht hij in praktijk toen hij zwaargewond raakte bij een slag. Ondanks de pijn die hij had, was hij tevreden met de wil van Allah. Deze tevredenheid steeg toen hij in zijn dromen de blijde tijdingen kreeg.

Abu Jandal is de zevende Nederlandse martelaar. Mourad Abu Baseer, Yasine Abu Lien, Chukrie Abu Walaae, Saddik Abu Adam, Ibrahiem Abu Khaalid en Soufian Abu Abderrahmaan gingen hem voor.


Seventh Dutch Mujāhid martyred in Syria

The seventh Dutch Mujāhid was martyred in Syria. Sources close to the family told [The martyr] is 26 year old Abū Jandal from Delft. Abū Jandal, also known as Abū Fidā, was one of the brothers interviewed by De Volkskrant. He also co-authored the book The Banner. Two weeks ago, Abū Jandal was heavily wounded in battle, he succumbed to his wounds shortly after.

Abū Jandal lived in Delft and was a successful businessman, about a year ago he decided to follow the call of the Islamic community in Syria. He left together with Abū Walae, martyred earlier [this year]. Abū Jandal never planned on coming back to Holland. His aim was helping to implement Sharī’a in Syria or to die fī sabīl Allah. 

“You will die one day,” he said in the interview, “so it would be wonderful dying for a noble cause.”  “We know from Qur’ān and Hadīth that all sins will be erased, with the first drop of blood spilled on the field of battle, and so, you look forward to this moment.” And these words became true when he was heavily wounded in battle. Although he suffered heavily, he was pleased with the will of Allah. (…)

Abū Jandal is the seventh Dutch Martyr. These guys predecessed:  Mourad Abu Baseer, Yasine Abu Lien, Chukrie Abu Walaae, Saddiq Abu Adam, Ibrahim Abu Khalid and Soufyan Abu Abderrahmaan


The announcement of Abū Jandal’s death is a major strike for this small, cohesive group of Dutch fighters in Syria. He will be replaced however, the force base in Northern Europe is still growing … His death will inspire.

GUEST POST: The History of Jihadism in Finland and An Early Assessment of Finnish Foreign Fighters in Syria

NOTE: As with all guest posts, the opinions expressed below are those of the guest author and they do not necessarily represent the views of this blogs administrator and does not at all represent his employer at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. aims to not only provide primary sources for researchers and occasional analysis of them, but also to allow other young and upcoming students as well as established academics or policy wonks to contribute original analysis on issues related to jihadism. If you would like to contribute a piece, please email your idea/post to azelin [at] jihadology [dot] net.

Click here to see an archive of all guest posts.

By Juha Saarinen

Radical Islam in Finland 

In August 2012, the first rumors of Finnish fighters in Syria appeared in Finnish media. Allegedly, young Finnish converts to Islam had traveled to northern Syria to support opposition forces. A year later, an Interior Ministry report stated that more than 20 foreign fighters from Finland had travelled to Syria, a majority with the intent to join radical Islamist groups.

With very little information publicly available about the Finnish foreign fighter contingent in Syria, it is difficult to examine what domestic factors that have contributed to this unprecedented development; prior to Syria there was very little evidence of Finnish foreign fighters, although few had been rumored to fight in and near Somalia. However, it cannot be separated from the evolution of Finland’s nascent radical Islamist scene. In the past two years, the number of radicalized Muslims has grown considerably and they are now more connected to like-minded individuals and organizations abroad.

This article will provide a brief introduction to radical Islam in Finland for a wider English-speaking audience as there currently exists no literature on the topic accessible to a non-Finnish speaking audience. It will focus on three themes: the radical Islamist scene in Finland, domestic terrorist activity by al-Shabab, and Muslim foreign fighters originating from Finland, particularly in Syria.

Note on research material

The material used in this article is gathered from various open sources available online, i.e. Finnish news media, various government reports and documents. Unfortunately, lack of data on the topic is a significant obstacle in researching radical Islam in Finland. While the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (FSIS, or Supo in Finnish) follows and analyzes domestic radicalization and terrorist activity constantly, vast majority of the information they collect is not publicly available for operational or legal reasons. For instance, FSIS’s files on Finnish foreign fighters in Syria will remain classified for at least 25 years, 60 at the most. Information that is made publicly available – via government documents and reports, official statements and comments– rarely offers anything more than general and ambiguous overviews.

While there is some academic literature on Muslim communities in Finland, radicalization and terrorism have been marginal topics. Of course, there has been very little to research. Radicalization is relatively recent and limited phenomenon in Finland, and there has been very little terrorist activity to research. To date there have been no terrorist attacks or failed plots in Finland by radical Islamists – despite two incidents (mis)attributed to al-Qaeda widely in Finnish media in June 2011. One notable exception to this is Suomi, Terrorismi, Supo, edited by Anssi Kullberg and published in 2011. It provides a history of terrorism and political violence in Finland, also including a chapter on radicalization and Islamist-motivated terrorist activity.

Muslim radicalization and the Radical Islamist scene in Finland

Although Finland has had Muslim minorities ever since the late 19th century, until the late 1980s only a few thousand Muslims lived in Finland. In the 1990s the Finnish Muslim population started to grow rapidly as refugees from conflict areas in the Middle East, North and East Africa arrived in Finland. By 2006, Finland had a Muslim population of approximately 40-45 000, and in 2011 it was estimated to be 50-60,000, 90% of whom were Somalis, Arabs, Kurds, Albanians, Turks, Persians, and Bosniaks. The Finnish Muslim community is predominantly Sunni, approximately only 10-15% of Finnish Muslims are Shia.

While the vast majority of Finland’s Muslim community is moderate and acts as a counterforce to radicalization, significant parts of it live in the margins of society and remain susceptible to it. 2nd generation Muslims from those ethnic groups that have had difficulties integrating and originate from conflict areas where jihadist or Islamist groups are active are particularly vulnerable. Only a small minority of those vulnerable to radicalization has actually become radicalized, and according to the latest estimate no individual ethnic group – including Finnish converts to Islam which number a little over a thousand – is particularly radicalized.  This may well be because radicalization normally occurs individually or in small social groups. The Finnish Muslim community is small and moderate, which makes it unlikely that violent radicalization is a part of a normal activity in the community, or that radicalized individuals can openly share their views – although social media has all but certainly made it easier for radicalized people to share their views. Indeed, there are no well-known radical mosques, religious figures, or organizations which promote radicalization in Finland.

Whether various non-radical but ultraconservative gateway organizations (e.g. Da’wah groups and Islamist movements) operating in Finland affect radicalization is unclear as there have been no research conducted on Islamism in Finland. However, some non-radical organizations and mosques are known to occasionally invite controversial speakers to visit Finland, which may promote radicalization among local Muslims. Most recent such visit was in March 2013, when Anjem Choudary and Awat Karkury attended an event honoring Mullah Krekar in Helsinki. It is not known who organized the event, but Mullah Krekar still enjoys support among the Kurdish population in Finland, particularly in Turku. In an interview after his visit, Choudary stated the concept of Sharia4Finland was born during his visit, although it is not yet clear whether such an organization has been or will be formed.

It is not known exactly how many Muslims in Finland have adopted a radical ideology or worldview, but in the past decade, according to FSIS director Antti Pelttari, the number of people in Finland with links to terrorist organizations has multiplied. This increase has been particularly visible in the past three years: In 2011, there were only “few tens” of radicalized individuals with connections to terrorist organizations or networks. This grew to “more than a hundred” in 2012 and the most recent estimate is “a few hundred” – most likely close to two hundred. The majority of radicalized individuals in Finland are Muslim, but it is still a tiny minority of the overall Muslim population.

It is likely that the majority of radicalized Muslims in Finland are not linked to jihadism and jihadi groups – at least among first generation Muslims – but to various separatist, leftist and Islamist groups with local agendas. According to Anssi Kullberg, 14 groups linked to terrorist attacks abroad have had a presence in Finland in the last twenty years. Only five of these groups were identified as radical Islamist or jihadist in Kullberg, 2011: al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, Hizbul Islam, Ansar al-Islam and Hezbollah.

There are indicators that at least some radicalized Muslims have come to share al-Qaeda’s ideology and worldview. In 2010, both native-born Finns and foreign residents in Finland were reported to participate in and contribute to jihadist chat rooms and internet forums associated with al-Qaeda and al-Shabab. The exact number of individuals taking part in jihadist discussion boards is not known, nor is it is clear how many radicalized Muslims share al-Qaeda’s worldview or try to support its terrorist activities. However, it is probable they are more common among 2nd generation radicalized Muslims as they tend to neither fully identify with Finnish or their parents’ culture and society.

Terrorist activity in Finland

As the majority of radicalized Muslims are linked to actors and causes from their countries of origin, domestically, radicalization has predominantly led to non-violent forms of terrorist activity. Radical individuals mainly take part in various groups’ support operations, e.g. producing and hosting online propaganda, fundraising, and recruiting members. Finnish authorities naturally recognize al-Qaeda and jihadist radicals as the most pressing terrorist threat. The current FSIS threat assessment states the direct threat posed to Finland or the Finnish population by organized radical Islamist terrorism is low as radical Islamist or other terrorist organizations do not view Finland as a significant target for violent activities. However, Finnish foreign fighters returning from Syria may well have an impact on this estimation.

The most visible radical Islamist group operating in Finland is al-Shabab. This is largely due to Finland’s large Somali diaspora (there were a little under 15,000 Somali-speaking individuals in Finland in 2012) and al-Shabab’s active recruitment and presence in Finland’s Nordic neighbors. Although al-Shabab does not have a strong presence in Finland they still retain some support within the Somali community. In October, the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation and the FSIS were reported nearing the conclusion of Finland’s first ever criminal terrorist investigation, which began in 2011. Six Somali nationals who reside in Finland are likely facing prosecution for terrorist activity linked with al-Shabab, including financing terrorism, recruiting persons for the purposes of terrorism, and preparing for a criminal act with terrorist intent.

Al-Shabab is also known to have sent recruiters to Finland. The most high profile visit occurred in 2009 when Hassaan Hussein visited Finland, Norway, and Sweden to recruit vulnerable young Somalis and raise money. It is likely that al-Shabaab has managed to recruit few fighters from Finland between 2007 and 2009. Not much is known about who al-Shabab has been able to recruit or how, but one example of al-Shabab’s target demographic – and possibly its recruitment methods – is the case of “Ahmed”.

Ahmed is a young Somali man who moved to Finland when he was eight years old. He attended school in Helsinki, but felt alienated from Finnish society. His parents, likewise, objected to his western social mores. He fell in with the wrong crowd and started to commit crimes. He met his recruiters when he was 17 years old. In an interview, he stated he was enticed by the recruiters to travel to Somalia under the ruse of humanitarian work, ended up in a camp with other al-Shabab recruits in Somalia, but managed to escape to Kenya while the “true purpose” of his travel became clear to him.

Since 2011, al-Shabab’s support is believed to have decreased among the Finnish Somali community. Close association and the 2012 merger with al-Qaeda and the use of suicide bombings have affected its popularity drastically. Now, the Somali League – an umbrella organization consisting of various Somali groups in Finland –holds events to inform its members about al-Shabab’s un-Islamic character and behavior and Somali mosques often warn at-risk youth about al-Shabab’s recruiters.

According to the FSIS, currently there exists no organized and professional recruitment activity by al-Shabab in Finland. The leader of the Somali League, Arshi Said, recently stated that no recruitment takes place in Somali mosques, and that if Finnish Somalis have been recruited, it has happened happened online. The FSIS also believes this is the case. However, it is possible that al-Shabab recruiters still visit Finland to encourage young, vulnerable Somali males to travel to the conflict area. As Norwegian journalist Lars Akerhaug states, al-Shabab’s recruiters are likely to avoid Somali mosques like they do elsewhere in the Nordic countries.

It is likely they still retain some level of support. However, it is not known whether al-Shabab has any passive or active support among radicalized Muslims outside the Somali community as a result of their merger with al-Qaeda, but it seems at least one member of Somali community may have adopted al-Qaeda’s worldview and agenda before he left to fight in Syria.

Finnish Muslim Foreign Fighters

Some radicalized Finnish Muslims or Muslims residing in Finland have opted to travel abroad to fight or acquire terrorist training. During the past decade, their numbers have been increasing. The phenomenon of traveling abroad to fight or attend terrorist training camps was unknown in Finland when its first terrorism laws were being drafted in early 2000s (which is why traveling abroad for terrorist training is not a crime in Finland). Finland’s first counterterrorism strategy (from 2010) states it is possible that “people living in Finland participate or are seeking to participate in resistance struggles in their home countries or that they are trying to recruit other people to take part in armed conflicts.”

Not much attention has been given to the foreign fighter phenomenon in Finland prior to the civil war in Syria. However, there is some evidence from Finnish Muslims traveling or trying to travel abroad to fight or train in terrorist camps at least from 2006 onwards. While the numbers of Finnish foreign fighters have been growing for a while, prior to Syria the phenomenon was extremely limited: “The number is relatively small, not in the dozens,” stated FSIS director Pelttari in September 2011.

Very little is known about who these individuals are, how many there have been exactly, where they travelled and when, and whether they were recruited or not. Nor is it known how many of these left to join various separatist, nationalist, or leftist groups and how many left to take part in the global jihad. However, in case of the latter, no Finnish foreign fighters have been reported in Afghanistan or Iraq to the author’s knowledge. Former residents are known to have traveled to terrorist training camps in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan (although no Finnish citizens apparently have).

The first recorded Finnish Foreign fighter was a Finnish convert to Islam, “Abu Ibrahim”, who tried to join the jihad in Chechnya only to be arrested by the authorities in Georgia while en route to his destination. Abu Ibrahim was a 28 year old Finnish convert to Islam from Helsinki. Abu Ibrahim states he saw armed jihad as a part of his faith, and felt Chechnya would be best as a place to join the holy war, since the oppressors are the soldiers of Finland’s neighbor, Russia (with whom Finland fought two wars, 1939-40 and 1941-44). Interestingly, Abu Ibrahim’s father was a career officer in the Finnish Defence Forces.

Apart from Syria, the only other place where foreign fighters from Finland have been officially confirmed to have travelled is Somalia. However, it is not known how many individuals from Finland have travelled to Somalia and when, or who these individuals are. It is likely they were recruited between 2007 and 2009, when al-Shabab was considered more of a national resistance movement rather than a terrorist organization among the Finnish Somali diaspora. Stig Jarle Hansen, a Norwegian researcher focusing on al-Shabab recently confirmed having heard rumors of several Finnish-Somali foreign fighters fighting for al-Shabab from a “credible source” on a research trip to Mogadishu in 2010. There is no information about Finnish Somalis fighting for or being recruited to al-Shabab after their merger with al-Qaeda, but one Finnish Somali has likely joined a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda in Syria.

There was also a rumor of a Finnish-speaking person sighted in Eritrea, apparently on his way to join Ogaden National Liberation Front in Ethiopia. Although the FSIS did not confirm the rumor at the time, the FSIS is particularly interested in the contacts of Finland’s Somali residents with Somalia and its neighboring countries. 

Finnish foreign fighter contingent in Syria

The civil war in Syria is the first conflict that has seen a substantial amount of Finnish foreign fighters. This has been even more surprising considering the size of Finland’s Muslim population and its miniscule Syrian community.  Rumors first emerged in August 2012 when a group of Finnish converts to Islam were reported to have travelled to Northern Syria to support the rebels, although it was not clear whether they had taken part in fighting. In January 2013 information about the first Finnish foreign fighter, a 22 year old man from Espoo was published around the same time Sweden’s first “martyr”, Kamal Badri, died in Aleppo. Badri was born in Finland and his mother is a Finnish citizen.

Since then, the number of Finnish foreign fighters in Syria has consistently risen. In March, the FSIS stated approximately ten individuals had travelled to Syria and possible fought in the conflict. Interestingly in the English translation of his comments published by Yle (Finnish Broadcasting Company), this number was translated into a dozen, which is the same number that is mentioned in this report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation. By June, the number was somewhere between ten and twenty according to Chief Superintendent Tuomas Portaankorva.

In August, when the first Finnish martyr was reported (his death remains unconfirmed), dozens of people from Finland had travelled to Syria to fight or provide humanitarian aid. Some individuals had allegedly even taken their families with them. One example is the unidentified man from Turku who took his pregnant wife with him when he left. Later in August, the Interior Ministry reported that the majority of approximately twenty fighters had left to Syria, majority with the intent of joining with radical Islamist groups.  This number is most likely higher now and it will continue to rise as the conflict persists.

Apart from rough estimation of the number of people that have left, very little specifics are known about the people who have left and the reasons why. Majority of those who have left are likely young, vulnerable men – although according to the FSIS few women have left too, presumably for humanitarian reasons. There are also rumors of small groups leaving and joining the conflict, although there is very little concrete evidence. The FSIS states the motives of foreign fighters vary greatly, but the key reasons for seeking involvement in a conflict are nationalist, jihadist or humanitarian. From the beginning, it has been obvious that the situation in Syria had appealed to Islamic radicals in Finland across ethnic boundaries, although no information has come to light how the conflict in Syria has affected the Finnish Shia Muslims from various ethnic groups, if at all. The vast majority of Finnish foreign fighters – unlike in Somalia and Ogaden – are likely not co-ethnic foreign fighters with a local agenda and a pre-existing connection to the conflict area. This is supported by the information that has come to light about individual Finnish foreign fighters, although out of the twenty plus foreign fighters, three profiles are hardly a comprehensive sample.

The first Finnish Foreign fighter mentioned in the media was “Muhammad”, a 22 year old Finnish Somali man from Espoo. He moved to Finland from Somalia with his family in 1992 when he was 2 years old. He grew up in Finland and went through the Finnish education system, but failed to fit in the Finnish society. Why Muhammad left to Syria is not known, but he left in December 2012 (via Turkey) and joined a radical Islamist group in Northern Syria. Based on the material he shared in social media, it is likely that he was already radicalized to some degree before leaving to Syria. Since November 2012, he has occasionally shared jihadist propaganda, particularly about Anwar al-Awlaki, on his Facebook account. In early October 2013, he shared two pictures of a recent Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) raid in Hama. It is not clear whether Muhammad is in the pictures.

The first Finnish martyr in Syria was reported in August. A young Finnish convert to Islam from Turku died in fighting between the Syrian rebels and government forces in Aleppo in late June 2013. His mother was Finnish and his father from Namibia in South-West Africa. He left to Syria with his Finnish wife, who had a baby two weeks before the man’s death. The couple is believed to have travelled to Syria – via Turkey – in the previous summer, when the man joined an unidentified rebel unit, allegedly along with some other Finnish citizens. He had recently completed his compulsory military service in Finland and expressed a desire to study Islam abroad.

A 21 year old man, “Rami” may well be one of the latest additions to Finnish foreign fighter contingent. Like the man from Turku, Rami’s mother is Finnish, but his father is from an Arab country. Rami grew up and was educated in Finland, and converted to Islam as a teenager. Before that, he had problems with his education, had alcohol issues, and committed some crimes. According to his mother, after his conversion he became a devout Muslim, finished his education, turned away from western culture, and became obsessed about Islamic dietary laws. In July 2013, he cleaned out his room, his computer, and disappeared to Turkey according to the officials. While he has contacted his family since then and claims he is not in Syria, his family believes the contrary, and there are some indicators to support their suspicions. He meticulously deleted the electronic trail of his travel arrangements, and he had enquired about traveling to Syria from the Imam at his mosque – who opposed the idea. Before leaving Finland, Rami had changed mosques.

Concluding remarks

Unfortunately, the lack of data and existing research is a considerable obstacle in analyzing the radical Islamic landscape in Finland, be the focus on radicalization, terrorist activity among various Muslim communities in Finland, or Muslims originating from Finland fighting abroad. This makes it very difficult to identify the causes and consequences of the recent developments in Finnish radical Islamic landscape. While answering the former is virtually impossible due to lack of data, two observations can be made about the latter: First, domestically, radicalization has mainly led to non-violent terrorist behavior linked to actors and causes in various conflict areas from where Finland’s Muslim communities originate. However, as the number of second generation Muslims increases, al-Qaeda’s brand of global jihadism may well become more common at the expense of local causes as those most vulnerable to radicalization often reject their parents’ society and culture as well as Finnish.

Second, those who have radicalized to the point of using extremist violence have opted to travel abroad, and their numbers are increasing. Whereas in 2003 the phenomenon was unknown in Finland according to the FSIS, now there are now more than 20 foreign fighters in Syria. However, it is important to note that not all Finnish foreign fighters who travelled abroad to join Islamist or jihadist groups, are radicalized let alone share al-Qaeda’s worldview or agenda. Yet, what has been novel about the Finnish foreign fighter in Syria is in addition to its size, it has been the fact that the vast majority come from various ethnic groups and likely do not have a pre-existing connection to the conflict area, which was not the case with Finnish foreign fighters in Somalia and Ogaden. An important research question for the future is why so many Finnish foreign fighters have travelled to Syria? External factors – Syria’s status as the cause célèbre for the global jihadi community and the relative ease of traveling to Syria compared to other conflict areas – are unlikely to explain it alone.

However, the lack of information on the foreign fighter phenomenon prior to 2012, and on individual fighters in Syria, makes it virtually impossible to form a cohesive and conclusive picture on who the Finnish foreign fighters are, and why they have gone abroad to fight, Finland now has foreign fighters that may have an impact on how the radical Islamist community evolves in Finland. Apart from the concrete security threat of radicalized Muslims with the skills and potentially the intent to undertake terrorist plots in Finland, the Nordic countries, or Europe, they have created networks with foreign radicals that may well outlast the Syrian civil war and be put to use elsewhere. Likewise, after Syria it is possible that former foreign fighters may seek to radicalize others. However, equally possible is that returning foreign fighters will return to their lives. Without understanding their motives or experiences in Syria, we can merely speculate.

What does the unprecedented number of Finnish foreign fighters in Syria say about Finland radical Islamist scene? It is evolving, growing and becoming more connected to other, more developed radicalized communities and organizations abroad. As Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp stated in 2011, Finland has not faced a similar threat of jihadist terrorism as Denmark or Sweden. However, it seems that Finland may be on a comparable trajectory. As the radicalized parts of this community are now growing and becoming increasingly interconnected, trends that have been observed elsewhere in Europe and the Nordic countries – e.g. terrorism trials, foreign fighters joining radical Islamist groups abroad, and the formation of organizations promoting radicalization among the Muslim community in the past decade are likely to become more visible in Finland in the future.

This means it is all the more important to study radical Islam in Finland. The lack of data and pre-existing literature are major obstacles that independent researchers and journalists cannot overcome alone. There are few universities, research institutions, or think tanks in Finland that focus on these issues. Instead, Islamism, radicalization, and terrorism are mainly studied as phenomena affecting others and occurring elsewhere.  However, Finland is no more immune to radical Islam than its Nordic neighbors, giving greater urgency to educate professionals – researchers, academics, and journalists – outside the FSIS who can publicaly contribute to the topic and the very polarizing public debates surrounding it.

Juha Saarinen is an independent researcher who studied at the London School of Economics and the University of St. Andrew. His research focuses on international relations, the Middle East, war, and Finnish foreign policy.