The Swedish Foreign Fighter Contingent in Syria
September 24, 2013
In April 2013, the Swedish Security Service estimated that “around 30” individuals from Sweden have traveled to Syria to join “groups inspired by al-Qa`ida.” This author has identified 18 fighters from Sweden who have joined the war in Syria—including their real names and social security numbers—and has researched their backgrounds and relationships. Using public records, this article explores the socioeconomic backgrounds, regional distribution, criminal records and ethnicities of the 18 fighters. It also includes more anecdotal data from information collected through social media to show group affiliations, casualties and previous connections to terrorism and the global jihadist movement.
The article finds that although the typical fighter from Sweden in the Syrian war is a young man with an immigrant background, most of the fighters are not of Syrian descent. The majority of the fighters come from relative poverty, while many have criminal records. Half of the fighters have previous links to terrorism or activities in the global jihadist movement.
Public records show that men who traveled from Sweden to fight in Syria are more or less “homegrown” in the sense that they attended the Swedish school system and, if not born in Sweden, have lived there since childhood. Almost all of the 18 identified fighters lived in southwestern Sweden, and more than half in the suburbs of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. Of the 18 fighters, 11 came from two neighboring suburbs of Gothenburg, Angered and Bergsjön. This gives credence to claims from Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Norell who recently said that recruitment in Sweden seems to occur through friendship ties. Three of the identified fighters, for example, were active members of the same Gothenburg club for Mixed Martial Arts. Others were frequent visitors to a well-known Gothenburg radical mosque, the Bellevue Masjid. Some are even relatives of one another.
The fighters all have immigrant backgrounds, but only one has a direct connection to Syria. The fighter Abo Isa, a Palestinian, was born in the Syrian city of Homs in 1984. He migrated to Sweden at the age of eight, and became a citizen in July 1992. He traveled to Syria in the middle of June 2013, probably through Turkey, which is believed to be the most common route to enter Syria among fighters from Sweden.
A third of the fighters were born in Sweden to immigrant parents. The rest migrated to Sweden, typically during childhood, with their families. The fighters and their families hail from many countries: Iraq, Jordan, Kosovo, Morocco, and even the Philippines. Yet as many as 10 are of Lebanese descent (two of those are said to be Palestinians). Only one, Abu Kamal, has any Scandinavian family history. Abu Kamal, a Swedish citizen who was reported “martyred” in January 2013, was born in Esbo, Finland. His parents were a Finnish convert mother and a Sudanese father, both living in Sweden. All but two of the 18 fighters carry Swedish passports. The two without Swedish passports are Lebanese citizens who lived in Sweden for many years.
The 18 fighters are all male, with the median age 23.5. The youngest fighter was born in 1994, while five are over 30, with the oldest born in 1976.
All of the 18 fighters are generally from large families, where the median number of children is five. Three fighters have children of their own. Two of them left their wives and children in Sweden. Isa al-Suedi, however, has two small children with his Swedish convert wife, and the whole family reportedly moved to Aleppo, Syria.
Public records also show that the fighters typically come from low income families in high-rise suburbs and are low earners themselves. Only four of the fighters have had incomes high enough to indicate that they had steady employment when they departed for Syria, according to the latest available records from the Swedish tax agency. Six others have incomes so low that they likely only worked part-time. Eight of them reported no income at all, indicating that they have lived at home with their parents, or on social welfare.
At least eight of the fighters have criminal records. That figure could s be higher because older criminal records are not easily searched in Sweden. Most of the charges are for petty crimes. Four of the fighters committed narcotics crimes, typically use or possession of small amounts of cannabis (marijuana). Three of the fighters committed violent crimes, two of those being of the less serious variety. Abu Taha, for example, assaulted his younger brothers at home in a family dispute gone overboard.
One of the fighters in Syria, however, can be considered a hardened criminal. Abo Isa, 29-years-old, has been charged with 15 criminal offenses and has been sentenced to prison three times. His records include repeated assaults and threats directed at a girlfriend, a series of narcotics crimes, and illegally carrying a knife in public. His most recent conviction for a violent crime was in early November 2012.
Activities in Syria
Public records do not tell the whole story of the 18 fighters. Based on social media and press reports, eight of them have already died in Syria.
Abu Kamal, born in March 1990, was allegedly killed by shrapnel when a shell fired from a tank hit the wall next to him in the suburbs of Aleppo. His death was announced in January 2013, the same month he is said to have died. A martyr video titled Shaheed Abu Kamal, released in mid-March, stated that he fought for Kataib al-Muhajirin. The same group took credit for the operation in which he was killed (a British foreign fighter died with him). The video said that Abu Kamal was buried in Aleppo.
Abu Omar, born in October 1991, died in early April 2013 from a head injury caused by a rocket-propelled grenade. He fought for an “extremely religious group,” according to Albanian news outlet Telegrafi.
Abu Dharr, born in October 1991, spoke in the first jihadist propaganda video made entirely in Swedish, Och uppmana de troende att strida, released through YouTube in late November 2012 by the “Swedish Muhajereen Fi Ash Sham” group. He was reported dead five months later, in the middle of April, with no details on the circumstances.
Abu Abdurrahman, born in July 1989, reportedly died in Idlib in northwestern Syria in early June 2013. His death announcement did not contain details. A British news report broadcast only days after the announcement of his death and based on exclusive access to foreign fighters in northern Syria portrayed him as a fighter for Kataib al-Muhajirin.
Brothers Abu Maaz, born in May 1994, and Abu Osman, born in February 1993, were raised in the Swedish town Borås in a large family of Lebanese heritage. The older brother, Abu Osman, entered Syria from Lebanon in early January 2013. He was followed by his brother two months later. They were killed in an attack on an army checkpoint in Abu Zeid near the famous crusader castle Krac des Chevaliers in the region of Homs. The younger brother performed a suicide mission with a car bomb. The older brother died from small arms fire in the pursuant assault. Their deaths were announced by Jund al-Sham and representatives from the family. At the same time, the family revealed that another brother also had died fighting 18 months earlier. Rabih, the third brother, was born in 1978 to the same father and a different mother, also of Lebanese descent, in Kuwait. He migrated to Sweden at the age of nine, but retained his Lebanese citizenship while also being registered as a resident in Borås. He was killed in sectarian clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, in 2012, according to the family.
Abu Omar Kurdi, born in 1976, reportedly died on the last day of Ramadan in August 2013 during the final attack on the Menagh air base outside of Aleppo. His death was announced on Facebook by a jihadist friend from Sweden a few days later.
There have also been reports of wounded fighters from Sweden. One told a reporter about a friend “seriously wounded in his leg.” A Facebook account, operated by unidentified fighters from Sweden in northern Syria, said that those wounded in Syria are taken up to areas next to the Turkish border for medical treatment. “Unfortunately, we are circa 3 brothers that are wounded, so we have to stay close to the border, and then some may need good care and then you have to go to Turkey,” the Facebook account stated. The fighter also explained the upside to being wounded: better internet access. “This account may not be active that long, if not anyone else gets wounded and takes it over,” it said. The account has been up and running since the start of May 2013, with frequent updates in Swedish.
Apart from the eight deaths noted above, two other men from Sweden have been reported dead, although the author has not been able to corroborate their pseudonyms with their real identities. Adam Samir Wali hailed from Libya, according to his martyr announcement, but lived in Sweden and left to fight in Syria. Internet sources claimed that he died from grenade shrapnel on March 29, 2013. One source claimed that he was a fighter for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which would mean he is the only fighter from Sweden to claim affiliation with the more “secular” FSA. In late August 2013, fighters from Sweden announced that Abu Mohammad al-Baghdadi, from Sweden, had been killed, but provided no details.
All of the 18 fighters are Sunni, and every fighter, both identified and unidentified, where anything at all is known, joined the more radical Islamic rebel groups (except Adam Samir Wali who joined the FSA). They have fought for Jabhat al-Nusra, Kataib al-Muhajirin and Jund al-Sham. In fact, the video Shaheed Abu Kamal stated that Abu Kamal first joined the FSA, but grew disappointed because “most of them [the FSA] didn’t pray, [but] listened to music, and smoked cigarettes.” He then left Syria for Turkey, where he met his old friend Abu Suleiman from Sweden, who convinced him to go back and instead join Kataib al-Muhajirin, according to the video.
During recent months, after the claimed (and then rejected) merger of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq, several fighters from Sweden clearly identify themselves with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), judging by the content on their Facebook pages.
A major concern of Swedish security officials is whether Swedish citizens have committed any terrorist acts, war crimes or other atrocities in the Syrian conflict. There are some worrying signs. One obvious incident is the suicide bombing conducted by 19-year-old Abu Maaz, one of the Lebanese brothers. Yet there are no credible reports about the casualties (Jund al-Sham boasted that 200 soldiers were killed). The fact that fighters from Sweden have fought with, or side-by-side, Jabhat al-Nusra and the ISIL is another concern. Just being a member of a terrorist organization, however, is not a crime in Sweden.
Evidence of possible war crimes is not easy to confirm. Abu Dharar Filibbini, however, has been the most prolific publisher of photographs from the war. In mid-December 2012, he posted a series of photographs from when Kataib al-Muhajirin and Jabhat al-Nusra captured the Sheikh Suleiman air base. In one of the pictures, he posed triumphantly with his foot placed on the head of a slain enemy in civilian clothes. Other pictures from the same battle showed inhumane treatment of prisoners and him posing with corpses.
He is not the only one to publish photographs of atrocities. The most gruesome photo yet was published in early July 2013 by an unidentified fighter from Sweden, Abu Ikrema. It showed a fighter—most likely himself—posing with the head from a decapitated man.
Previous Jihadist Connections
As many as nine of the 18 have previous links to terrorism or the global jihadist movement. The 34-year-old Isa al-Suedi from Halmstad is the older brother to a convicted terrorist currently serving a 12-year prison sentence in Denmark after plotting a Mumbai-style attack on the Jyllands-Posten newspaper office in Copenhagen along with three other individuals living in Sweden. The terrorist brother is no stranger to conflict zones himself. He was arrested both on the Somali border in 2007 and in Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal agency in 2009.
One of the dead fighters, Abu Omar, is the son of an Albanian jihadist from Mitrovica in Kosovo who was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison by a Serbian court in 2000 for preparing alleged terrorist crimes with a group called Abu Bakr Siddiq.
The three dead Swedish-Lebanese brothers also have an interesting family history. An uncle to the brothers, Youssef el-Hajj Dib, is currently in prison in Germany for trying to kill German civilians with bombs hidden in suitcases—commonly referred to as the German train bombing plot of May 2006. Another uncle, Saddam el-Hajj Dib, was regarded as the fourth highest leader in Lebanese Fatah al-Islam when he was killed fighting against the Lebanese army in May 2007.
One fighter, Khaled SigSauer, born in July 1990 and a cousin to the deceased Abu Abdurrahman, figured in the background of a jihadist-related case of attempted murder in Sweden in the fall of 2011. Four young men in Gothenburg were arrested on the suspicion that they planned to murder the Swedish artist Lars Vilks. The four men, who were subsequently freed by the court, carried knives on their way to an art fair where the alleged stabbing was to occur. One of the knives had been provided by Khaled SigSauer, who was friends with two of the suspects. Khaled SigSauer was interrogated during the investigation, court documents show.
Abu Omar Kurdi ran a website, www.tawhid-islam.se, which for years was the only site in Swedish that openly propagated violent jihad. According to a news report, the Swedish Security Service had information that Abu Omar Kurdi was a jihadist already in 2003.
Abu Salman is another propagandist who started a website in 2011 based on material from `Abdullah `Azzam, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Ibn Taymiyya, among others. He also provided one of Norway’s most infamous Islamists (later a fighter in Syria) with living quarters in Stockholm.
Thirty-five-year-old Abu Dharar Filibbino is the only fighter who boasted of previous jihadist fighting experience. When he first announced that he was in Syria—via Facebook using his real name—in late October 2012, he claimed that he had been trained by Lashkar-i-Tayyiba in Pakistan during the spring of 2001.
Another concern is whether fighters will return to Sweden with the intention to perform jihadist activities at home or in Europe. According to sources within Swedish intelligence agencies, however, fighters have already returned home. One fighter, Abu Dharar Filibbino, returned in the spring of 2013, now a battle-hardened veteran. At home in Gothenburg, he resurrected his Facebook profile and started to post pictures from his battles, advice on the equipment needed in war, movies from training, and also a film showing him and other fighters from Sweden experimenting with explosives. He also published a series of new homemade logos, indicating that he was toying with the idea of starting an organization of some kind, possibly in Sweden.
Based on the data that currently exists, the typical fighter from Sweden in the Syrian war is a young man living in the southwest of Sweden, probably in the suburbs of Gothenburg. He has an immigrant background, but is not of Syrian descent. As with other young immigrants, he is relatively poor, without a steady job, and has been charged with petty crimes in the past. What might make him unique is that he has friends or relatives who also became fighters, or he was already connected, in some way, to the global jihadist movement.
Still, the size of the Swedish contingent in Syria seems to have surprised the Swedish Security Service. The only official estimate on the total number of jihadists in Sweden was published by the Swedish Security Service in December 2010. On a given year, it said “around 200” individuals from Sweden could be considered active in the jihadist movement in one way or another. In light of the number of men from Sweden who have already joined the war in Syria, that overall number seems low. Half of the fighters identified in this article had no known previous connections to the jihadist movement and may not have been included in the 2010 count. Indeed, the Syrian war continues to attract young men from Sweden at a pace not seen in previous jihadist conflicts. Unless stricter enforcement measures are taken, this participation rate may continue to rise.
Per Gudmundson is a journalist working as an editorial writer for Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden’s largest conservative daily. He also runs the blog www.gudmundson.blogspot.com.
 “The Swedish Security Service Yearbook,” Swedish Security Service, April 15, 2013. The number of fighters from Sweden is much higher than in previous conflicts. As a comparison, the previous most attractive conflict zone for jihadists in Sweden was Somalia. Yet between 2006 and 2012, “around 30” jihadists from Sweden traveled to Somalia to fight. See “Säpo bevakar terrortränade svenskar,” Dagens Nyheter, February 27, 2012.
 The author used ordinary journalism methods to identify the fighters, mainly through their own presence and connections on social media. In a few cases, where there have been uncertainties, the author used sources from within Swedish security agencies on condition of anonymity. Although all of the 18 have been identified, this article purposely only provides their pseudonyms. Being a member of a terrorist organization, or being a fighter in a civil war, is not a crime in Sweden.
 In Sweden, the Tax Agency (Skatteverket) keeps the population register, which is easily accessible to the public. All information on fighters’ residences, children, parents, siblings, citizenship, home countries, etc., was collected from Skatteverket.
 “Terrorexperten: Rekryterarna jagar nya krigare i Göteborg,” Göteborgs-Posten, July 31, 2013.
 Abu Kamal, Abu Dharar Filibbino and Abu Abdurrahman were all active in the club GBG MMA in Gothenburg.
 Khaled SigSauer, Abu Omar and Mark Abu Usama were all visitors to the Bellevue mosque.
 The Swedish population register does not track ethnicity, but Abo Isa describes himself as a Palestinian on his Instagram profile.
 Abo Isa displays a Turkish phone number on his Facebook profile. In the comments section to a picture of himself with an AK-47 on his Instagram account, there is a dialogue, dated to the middle of June, with a girlfriend where he instructed her to use the Turkish phone number from that point forward.
 Professor Magnus Ranstorp, research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College, stated that the most common route to Syria is by plane to Ankara or Istanbul, and by bus from there to villages near the Syrian border. See “Om svenska jihadister i Syrien,” Sveriges Radio Studio Ett, June 13, 2013.
 The full data for country of origin: Lebanon: 10 fighters (2 Palestinians); Iraq: 2 fighters (1 Palestinian); Jordan: 1 fighter; Kosovo: 1 fighter; Morocco: 1 fighter; Philippines: 1 fighter; Syria: 1 fighter; Sudan/Finland: 1 fighter.
 His family wrote about his martyrdom and his upbringing on January 26, 2013, in Sudan’s al-Rakoba magazine, available at www.alrakoba.net/articles-action-show-id-29641.htm.
 Rabih, who has lived in Sweden for 16 years, and Abu Omar Kurdi, who has lived in Sweden for 23 years, are Lebanese citizens.
 The full data for birth years: 1976: 1 fighter; 1978: 3 fighters; 1983: 1 fighter; 1984: 1 fighter; 1987: 1 fighter; 1989: 3 fighters; 1990: 4 fighters; 1991: 2 fighters; 1993:1 fighter; 1994: 1 fighter.
 Technically, only one fighter is married in the eyes of the Swedish government: Abu Omar Kurdi. Islamic traditions say otherwise. Mark Abu Osama, for example, is said to have two wives, but in the Swedish register he is listed as divorced. See Echorouk TV, December 2012, available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEuCPfvWmF4.
 Isa al-Suedi stated on his Facebook profile that he lives in Aleppo. His wife’s decision to move to Syria was deeply contested by friends and family on her Facebook wall.
 Sixteen fighters come from families whose incomes are in decile eight, nine or ten, which means their family incomes are between $3,000-$25,000 per year.
 In Sweden, details in tax returns are easily accessible by the public through the Tax Agency. Information on fighters’ incomes was collected there.
 The pay is not good in Syria, either. In a news report, an unidentified jihadist from Sweden, Abu Bakr, was said to earn $150 a month fighting for Kataib al-Muhajirin. See “How British Women are Joining the Jihad in Syria,” Channel 4, July 23, 2013.
 Criminal records are not centrally stored in Sweden, and it is often difficult to search for cases that are older than five years. The author used the web-based research tool at Piscatus.se that digitally collects all verdicts from all courts.
 The information on petty crime corresponds with a news report, broadcast in the middle of June 2013, where the reporters researched “about 10” Swedish jihadists in Syria and found that some of them had committed petty crimes, which is typical with all youth from the suburbs. See “Svenska Bilal strider för al-Qaida i Syrien,” Sveriges Radio, June 17, 2013.
 Surprisingly, Umm Aya Bint Eswede, the Swedish convert wife accompanying her fighter husband, has been convicted of smuggling lesser amounts of psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis for personal use.
 These details can be found in Göteborgs tingsrätt (Gothenburg Regional Court) case #B 3518-05.
 These details can be found in Hovrätten för Västra Sverige (Court of Appeal for Western Sweden) case #B 4418-12.
 The chaotic situation makes it hard for Sweden to get official information from Syria. This is not a new phenomenon. Previous “martyrs” from Sweden, such as al-Qa`ida in Iraq’s second-in-command, Mohamed Moumou (also known as Abu Qaswarah), are still not registered as dead in Swedish records. They remain listed as “emigrated.” Also, these details should not be interpreted as the casualty rate for all Swedish fighters (that approximately eight out of every 18 will die). Instead, the high number of dead is because jihadists like to publish “martyrdom” announcements for dead fighters.
 A Swedish daily reported that Abu Kamal’s death was announced by Jabhat al-Nusra. The author has not been able to verify that claim independently. See “Terrorgrupp: Svensk jihadist dödad i Syrien,” Expressen, February 27, 2013.
 Kataib al-Muhajirin merged with other groups to become Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa-al-Ansar in March 2013. It is led by a Chechen, and the group has a large foreign fighter contingent.
 The English version of Shaheed Abu Kamal is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sRq3sy1UpU.
 Abu Kamal was reported dead on January 26, 2013. Friends announced his death in the Swedish Muslim mailing list “Fatimazahra – Systrar i Islam.” His family wrote about his death in the Sudanese magazine al-Rakoba also on January 26.
 “Dhjetë shqiptarë ‘bien për lirinë e popullit sirian,’” Telegrafi, April 13, 2013.
 YouTube deleted the original, but the video can still be found at www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzDXQ0f-jK0.
 “Abu Dharr” was reported dead via the Jordanian news site assaqifa.com, among others. Also, a now-defunct jihadist Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Strangers.Sy) published a notice.
 Abu Abdurrahman’s death was announced on June 12, 2013, on the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shahed.3ayan. This page covers the war in Syria.
 “Britons Fighting with Syria’s Jihadi ‘Band of Brothers,’” Channel 4, June 14, 2013.
 “Lebanese-Swedish Brothers Killed in Syria,” Agence France-Presse, August 3, 2013. This was also revealed on a Facebook page.
 Since the incidents in Tripoli in February 2012 are generally considered spillovers from the war in Syria, Rabih is included here among the fighters actually in Syria.
 The unidentified fighter, Abu Yaqeen, published the announcement in the radical Swedish Facebook group “Ummah Nyheter” on August 9, 2013.
 Expressen interview with “Abou Tauba,” an unidentified fighter from Gothenburg, published on February 24, 2013.
 This account is available at www.facebook.com/ghurabasyrien.syrien.1.
 A now defunct webpage for Libyan martyrs, www.facebook.com/ShuhadaLibyafeSuria, published the first death notice. Another can be found on the Ansar al-Mujahideen web forum.
 The broader rebel opposition in Syria has much support in Sweden (from exiled Syrians, for example), but there have been almost no indications of any individuals from Sweden fighting for the FSA. Neither have there been any reports of Shi`a Muslims from Sweden fighting with Lebanese Hizb Allah or nationalist Kurds fighting with the YPG, and there are no reports about conscripts in the regular Syrian army.
 This announcement was posted at www.facebook.com/SollentunasMuslimer.
 The English version of Shaheed Abu Kamal is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sRq3sy1UpU.
 For example, the Facebook accounts Ghuraba Syrien Syrien and Sollentunas Muslimer, both operated by groups of Swedish jihadists in Syria, identify themselves with the ISIL.
 The original claim was located on the following Facebook page, which has since been taken down: www.facebook.com/JUNDALSHAM1.
 Terrorism trials in Sweden have shown that a suspect has to be connected to a specific terrorist attack to be regarded as a terrorist, roughly speaking. Sending money to a terrorist group like Hamas is not a crime. Completing training and working as a foot soldier with al-Shabab is not a crime. Taking part in a bombing against civilians, however, is a crime.
 The photo was later removed from Facebook.
 Actually, three of the four convicted for the Copenhagen plot had experience from travel in jihadist conflict zones. The Copenhagen plot was suspected to be masterminded by Ilyas Kashmiri. See Paul Cruickshank, “The Militant Pipeline Between the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border Region and the West,” New America Foundation, July 2012.
 KMDLNJ / CDHRF Prishtina, report #506, July 2000. For an interview with the father, see www.ex-yupress.com/danas/danas30.html.
 “The Brothers Deeb: A Family’s Terrorism Saga,” al-Akhbar, August 7, 2013.
 Another close relative, currently living in Sweden, has posted pictures of himself online with the controversial British preacher Anjem Choudary.
 In 2007, ISI chief Abu `Umar al-Baghdadi promised $100,000 for the murder of Lars Vilks, and $50,000 more if Vilks was slaughtered like a lamb. See “Al-Qaeda Offers Reward for Cartoonist’s Death,” ABC News, September 15, 2007.
 The court found the four innocent of the accused murder attempt, but stated that they had planned something “in the like of what the prosecutor has described,” meaning assaulting Vilks. The four were instead convicted of illegally carrying knives.
 These details can be found in Göteborgs tingsrätt (Gothenburg district court) case #B-12823-11.
 A recent report to the Swedish government on internet extremism dedicated no less then seven pages to an analysis of www.islam-tawhid.se. See “Våldsbejakande och antidemokratiska budskap på internet,” Swedish Media Council, May 2013.
 “Svensk var hemlig agent åt tre länder samtidigt,” Dagens Nyheter, June 11, 2012.
 The website, www.islamquransunnah.com, was closed down by its owner after it was exposed.
 Per Gudmundson, “Ökänd norsk islamist sägs ha flyttat till Stockholm,” gudmundson.blogspot.se, October 30, 2011.
 His Facebook account later specifically mentioned Muzaffarabad in Kashmir as the location of the training grounds.
 The author has chosen not to identify this Facebook page, as these activities are not necessarily a crime in Sweden.
 “Våldsbejakande islamistisk extremism i Sverige,” Swedish Security Service, December 16, 2010.
 For comparisons to other conflicts, see footnote #1.