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This briefing analyses the growing significance of the foreign and home-grown jihadists in Syria. There may be over 1,000 foreign fighters in Syria now as the war becomes more violent and may continue for some time. Even if the regime falls soon, the jihadist element will have influence in a post-Assad era. If, however, the regime endures, and the longer it goes on, the more likely the jihadist element will gain in influence. Against all expectations, the al-Qaida idea could increase in significance. This could have disastrous consequences beyond Syria and makes the need to seek a negotiated solution a top foreign policy priority.


When the Arab Awakening began in 2011, it was welcomed by the al-Qaida leadership. But it was in reality a dangerous development for the movement since it promised change that did not stem from a radical Islamist world view. For the weakened al-Qaida movement to regain significance in the Middle East, the Awakening had to fail, preferably by social movements being violently repressed by elites. Al-Qaida activists would then contribute to uprisings. There is evidence that this is now happening in Syria.

Al-Qaida's Status and its Consequences

The al-Qaida movement has been greatly weakened in the past three years, partly by the extensive use of armed drones, especially in north-west Pakistan, partly by the death of Osama bin Laden and partly by its failure to have any sustained opportunity to put its ideological foundations into practical political effect. At the same time, al-Qaida is an unusual revolutionary movement rooted in a religious world view and eschatological in the sense that it looks beyond this life and therefore has a very long time-span for action. It has also evolved beyond a single movement into a range of groups that have only limited interconnections, even if united by a shared fundamentalist religious outlook. They include what remains of the movement in Pakistan and, to a very limited extent, Afghanistan, as well as more active groups operating in Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, and to a lesser extent, Indonesia.

As a consequence of the wars of the past ten years, movements such as al-Qaida have benefited from several significant developments in insurgency tactics. None of these are new, but all have been enhanced by recent experience, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq:

The widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The initial burst of development came in Iraq and was aided by the existence of many arms dumps, combined with the technical capabilities of some of the Saddam Hussein regime's elite security units. IEDs were also progressively used in Afghanistan, where explosives were frequently manufactured from basic ingredients, including ammonium nitrate fertilisers. At their peak, IEDs in Afghanistan were being detonated in their thousands each year, recent figures being 9,304 explosions in 2009, rising to 16,554 for 2011. In the latter year, nearly a third of over 2,500 civilians killed in the country died as a result of IED use (figures from IISS London).

Martyr/Suicide actions. Martyr attacks have figured in the region over many years and have also been prominent in other conflicts including the LTTE insurgency in Sri Lanka. They have increased markedly in intensity since 2001, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also as part of attacks in other countries, including London in July 2005. Such attacks are particularly difficult to counter and sometimes involve extreme measures. One reason for the Israeli construction of the security barrier with the occupied territories was the growth of these attacks in Israel.

Trained paramilitary cohorts. In Afghanistan in the 1980s, many members of the mujahidin insurgents gained extensive combat experience against low morale Soviet conscripts in a largely rural environment. For Afghans in the mujahidin this experience was particularly valuable during the civil war in the 1990s, and later for the Taliban, in their actions against coalition forces. For the foreign jihadist fighters in the country towards the end of the 1980s, this combat experience helped form what became a distinctive cohort of young men, some of whom were influential in the evolution of al-Qaida. Furthermore, the role of that movement in aiding the Taliban against the Northern Alliance of warlords in the 1990s further added to combat capabilities.