TRIPOLI, Lebanon: By all accounts, Aziz appeared to be like any other student in Tripoli. From a wealthy family and pursuing civil engineering at Balamand University, he disappeared suddenly last year, right before he was due to graduate, to take up arms and fight alongside the Nusra Front. He was preparing to marry his girlfriend and his parents had bought him a house and a brand new Mercedes costing over $30,000, any young Lebanese man’s dream. Aziz’s father works in Saudi Arabia, and the family has lived a life of privilege, making his decision to venture into embattled Syria all the more peculiar.
For the last year-and-a-half, Aziz’s mother has been clutching her phone close, and waiting for his WhatsApp messages to assure her that he was still alive. Aziz left his home suddenly to fight in the village of Qalaat al-Hosn in Homs with the Nusra Front in 2012.
His mother weeps constantly since he departed, as do his two sisters who feel certain that Aziz will never come back to them.
In his text messages, Aziz tells his mother that he is tired of life and its hardships, and that he is seeking either martyrdom or victory in Syria. He keeps the specifics of his missions from his mother, but reveals to his sister the details of military operations he takes part in.
He always asks his family to pray for his martyrdom.
Aziz’s behavior prior to his departure did not betray a penchant for extremism. He had never really prayed, his family said. He only began doing so 20 days before his disappearance, something that had pleased his mother because she thought God was guiding her son through the values of Islam.
She found out later that he had been recruited by the Nusra Front, at a cafe he began frequenting in Tripoli. Aziz’s quick transformation surprised everyone. Almost overnight, he went from being an active, zealous young man eager to graduate and marry his girlfriend, to someone keen to get to heaven and meet his maker.
Perhaps the motivations behind Aziz’s departure for Syria will never be known, but his mother prays for him and waits eagerly for his periodic text messages.
Nearly a month after his disappearance, she heard his voice over the telephone. He was full of joy, she said, he had gotten married and was leading a militant group.
“I ask for your prayers so I can become a martyr, and I am asking for martyrdom because I am suffering much in this world ... and may God guide you to the path of true Islam,” Aziz told his mother over the phone.
But the story did not end there.
Aziz’s family members said that his mother received a phone call from a man in Syria who introduced himself as the emir of the militant group that Aziz belonged to: He asked for $20,000 in return for his return to Tripoli. Aziz’s mother immediately agreed to pay the sum, but the call was disconnected. According to the emir, the group needed the money to support their jihad in Syria.
Aziz’s messages did not just reach his mother and sisters, he also sent texts to some relatives, including his paternal cousin.
“May God guide you and feed you the love of jihad so you can share the fight with us here,” read one text. Another told the a tale of a jihadist and called young Muslim men to fight in Syria.
The Syrian battlefield is replete with stories of foreign jihadists who have traveled from all over to fight, Aziz is but one of them.
Sources linked to Islamist groups in Syria told The Daily Star that the number of foreign fighters from Europe was over 12,000, while that of those from North Africa ranged from 22,000 to 30,000, and the number of individuals from the Gulf was around 2,000. There are also Russians, but the number is unknown.
Most of these fighters are concentrated in northern Syria in the provinces of Raqqa and Aleppo, where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has gained control and now imposes his own laws.
All the foreign militants have their own communities within the Islamist movements fighting in Syria. These include the Islamic State in Eastern Turkestan; the “immigrants,” a Caucasus movement headed by Abu Omar al-Chechani on the outskirts of Aleppo; Ansar al-Shariah from Libya; Jaysh-e-Mohammad from Afghanistan and Pakistan; Lashkar-e-Taiba also from Pakistan; and several groups from Belgium, France, Britain, Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, the United States and Australia. Most are individuals who carry dual passports.
These individuals have gone to Syria via Turkey to perform jihad, most of them having pledged allegiance to ISIS after Baghdadi became emir of a proposed “pure Islamic state,” the aim of ISIS in Syria and elsewhere.