The foreign fighter trend currently developing in Syria is unprecedented both due to the quantity of fighters as well as the number of foreign nationals involved. For Saudi foreign fighters, this trend is not new. Saudis have been involved in foreign fighting since the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s. They played one of the most prominent roles in that war, as well as in subsequent conflicts in Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan in the 1990s, Afghanistan post-9/11, and Iraq. Similarly, Saudis are one of the leading foreign national groups in Syria in terms of the total number of individuals fighting, and also among those who have died.
This article offers a brief history of Saudi involvement in past jihadist conflicts, the current statistics on how many Saudis have traveled to Syria, and highlights cases of important Saudis who have joined the war. The article finds that similar to past foreign fighter mobilizations, the Saudis have been one of the largest contingents, with some individuals taking important positions on the ground as clerics or leaders. This development could have far reaching implications. Saudi foreign fighters who join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or al-Qa`ida’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) will gain tactical experience and further ideological indoctrination in Syria. Once their “tour” in Syria ends, there is a risk that these fighters could adopt al-Qa`ida’s targeting patterns and conduct attacks against the Saudi government or Western interests.
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