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The Saudi Foreign Fighter Presence in Syria

Aaron Y. Zelin

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CTC Sentinel

April 2014


A closer look at the numerous Saudis who have joined the fight in Syria and the potential consequences of their large-scale mobilization compared to past jihads.

The foreign fighter trend currently developing in Syria is unprecedented in terms of the quantity of fighters and the number of foreign nationals involved. For Saudi foreign fighters, this trend is not new. Saudis have been involved in foreign conflicts 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 and the current statistics on how many Saudis have traveled to Syria, highlighting cases of important Saudis who have joined the war. The article finds that similar to past foreign fighter mobilizations, 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...

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