This week likely saw the first American suicide bomber of Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has killed upwards of 150,000 people. But the attacker, a still-anonymous individual known as “Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki” whom both terrorism experts and U.S. government officials believe to be an American, typifies some of what’s made Syria’s conflict so deadly and unique.
“Syria is attracting more foreign fighters than Afghanistan did in its heyday,” says Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, referring to the 1980s campaign against Soviet occupation that helped launch Al Qaeda.
Syria is hardly the only civil conflict to attract foreign fighters — thousands of outsiders fought against the fascist takeover of Spain in the 1930s, while Greece’s late 1940s civil war became a proxy for a larger conflict between the west and the communist bloc.
The fight against Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad is perhaps the most international Jihadist struggle in modern history. Both Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which control a large portion of eastern Syria, originated with Al Qaeda in Iraq. It has brought in over 11,000 foreigners, including suicide bombers from Britain and the Netherlands.
And this isn’t the first American involved. Josceyln says as many as 100 Americans may be fighting in Syria, while the Daily Beast recently reported that a small handful of fighters have actually returned to the U.S.
An American suicide bomber could be a particularly useful recruitment tool. “They can show that an American did this in their propaganda in order to expand their outreach in the West,” he told Business Insider of Syrian jihadist recruitment networks.
So far, about 1,700 foreign fighters have been killed in Syria, according to a dataset kept by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies. His data includes very few Americans aside from the perpetrator of this week’s suicide attack.
Zelin says that American jihadists in Syria may be more conscious of surveillance and are not as active online as their Belgian, Dutch, or British counterparts — which is perhaps one reason why so little is currently known about “Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki.”
He adds that Jihadists are not always enthusiastic about sharing the origins of their foreign fighters. “They have been trying obscure a lot of foreigners in terms of who they are and where they’re coming from over the past four or five months,” he told Business Insider.
In this case, the potential symbolism and propoganda value of “Al-Amriki” might have convinced Jidihasts to buck their standard procedure.
As Zelin notes, Abu Sulayman al Muhajir, one of Jabhat al Nusra’s top Islamic law officials, has publicly confirmed that the bomber was an American. Sulayman is himself an Australian citizen, fighting for an organisation with Iraqi origins. Wherever the bomber was from, or however he got to Syrian battlefield, Al-Amriki is a sign that the radical Islamist struggle against the Assad regime is truly global in its recruitment — even if its current goals are confined to overthrowing the regime in Damascus.
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