Shi’a Foreign Fighters, Syrian Civil War & Future Global Dangers

Editor’s Note: “Shadow War”: State Sponsored Terrorism & Threats to Local Communities is a five-part series that discusses ongoing local dangers from the “Cold War” between the U.S. and selected allies versus an alliance of Iran, Hezbollah and increasingly Russia. This creates “Hot War” conflicts as well as added threats from terrorist plots and attacks playing out in our communities.  During the series, examples of this activity and solutions for law enforcement officers will be showcased and highlighted.


Shi’a Foreign Fighter Impact in Syria

When terrorism and international security experts discuss the threat of Foreign Fighters traveling to Syria, the focus is usually on Sunni fighters joining terrorist groups such as ISIS and the entity formerly known as Al-Nusra Front (once an Al-Qaeda affiliate). There isn’t much discussion on the impact of Shi’a fighters headed to Syria in support of Iran and its protection of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime.  However, there is recent reporting that provides insight into the Iranian use of foreign fighters which assists our analysis of future threats from “Shadow War” terrorism.

In The National Interest article “Where Is Assad Getting His Fighters From? (It’s not just Lebanon and Iraq)”, an important breakdown is given on foreign fighter facilitation by Iran’s IRGC Quds Force. These Shi’a foreign fighters, organized by Iran, are described as the most ardent supporters of Assad’s regime. As indicated in the article’s title, they are not just from Lebanon and Iraq, but include other places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. From reports, as years of Syrian conflict took its toll on Hezbollah, the Quds Force had to develop additional proxy forces.

A group that the IRGC has cultivated in Iran are refugees who sought protection from aggression in Afghanistan. Many are Hazara, which is an ethnic group currently targeted by ISIS in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While some of these recruited Afghan fighters are motivated by money, others are driven by gaining legal status in Iran for themselves and family. The Iranian recruitment goes after long-term refugees and “In the past few years, Iranians have expanded recruitment to undocumented Afghans recently arrived from Afghanistan in search of economic opportunities.” The same dynamics are also occurring with refugees from Pakistani Shi’a areas. This is building a dangerous legacy for Iran to use in future regional and global actions.

Afghani and Pakistani foreign fighters operate in their own distinct units in Syria. The IRGC and Hezbollah are training them on sophisticated weapons and tactics. The continued fighting forms these units into experienced forces that can be transformed into expeditionary militias or small “cells” of global terrorist operatives.  There is a concern these fighting groups will be deployed to places like Iraq and Yemen to fight alongside other Iranian proxy forces. As stated by a researcher in The National Interest article “When these battle-hardened foreign fighters return home after being trained and indoctrinated by Iran and having built a network of like-minded people, it is no stretch to believe that they could serve as transnational networks to advance longstanding Iranian ambitions in South Asia.”

Future Global Dangers

In the next part of this series, I discuss recent reports of terrorist training camps in Iran. When information of these training camps is added to foreign fighter development and Iran’s global “Shadow War” ambitions; this poses a serious concern that foreign fighters will be cultivated for diverse covert global activity. Replicating “Hezbollah like” action in different places. These covert operatives can be tasked to live in and infiltrate communities in the Middle East, Europe, Asia and the US as Hezbollah has done for years.  As an example, Afghan and Pakistani covert operatives have a worldwide diaspora of communities in which they can “hide out” as clandestine operatives.

This diversity of operatives can conduct “Shadow War” activity against US, Israeli and Saudi Arabian citizens and entities in many different countries.  What is just as dangerous is these trained and experienced foreign fighters turned operatives acting more as organizers, advisors and mentors to local homegrown individuals who they recruit, train and motivate to conduct direct attacks when needed in these different communities.  This method of operations provides Iran plausible deniability in targeted attacks.

One region Iran has rapidly expanded its influence to recruit supporters is Africa. Northern Nigeria is one of several areas in which Iran has built support, as an expert describes “Iran is on its own crusade, its own global war, believing that the U.S. is out to get it,” said Paul Salem, vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. “They’re building networks, under religious slogans, that they can use in any fight. And wherever they are expanding, there’s a potential for a sectarian Shiite-Sunni conflict.”  As further highlighted in the article, this movement is sparking animosity and violent rhetoric towards US, Israel and Saudi Arabia among certain supporters of Iran in Nigeria. A Shi’a group in Nigeria, along with the area it operates, has received monthly funding from Iran for many years.

What is the impact on security in US communities?

While Iranian sponsorship remains outward in some regions, this is not the case in the US. Overt “Shadow War” activity in the US would cause serious blowback if Iran is directly connected to violence. As previously discussed in Part 2, this is why the IRGC tried to sub-contract the US-based attack plot to the Los Zetas Mexican cartel in late 2011.

In this current era of technology, expect the Quds Force and Hezbollah to move towards employing the “ISIS playbook” of virtual recruiting, planning and advising via secured communications.  Hezbollah is known for its proficiency in “information warfare”.  In many cases, the primary goal isn’t acts of mass violence like ISIS but limited actions against adversaries in US communities.  There may be face to face recruitment of homegrown individuals in US communities but any proxy operation will most likely be “remote controlled”, which allows Iran to retaliate while also denying its involvement. In part 5 of this series, I discuss recent threats from Iranian sponsored Hezbollah activity in US communities, which provides insight on danger to jurisdictions.

Bottom Line:
  • The Syrian Civil War creates a diverse proxy force for global Iranian “Shadow War” activity.
  • Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Professionals must learn more about any threats of homegrown Iranian sponsored terrorism in the US and its potential impact on jurisdictions.


In this five-part series, the background and actions of Iranian sponsored “Shadow War” terrorist activity is discussed. A spate of attacks and plots in 2012 provides important lessons on tactics / methods of sponsored activity. Regional Shi’a foreign fighter recruitment for the Syrian Civil War is explored as an enduring danger as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds force and its covert mission to cultivate operatives and spread terrorism in support of Iran’s objectives worldwide. Previous Iranian based terrorist activity in the US is showcased to assists with analyzing and preparing for the threats unfolding in our communities. There are US cities, spaces and activities more at risk from this variant of terrorism.

Part 4: IRGC’s Qud Force Training and Terrorism 

Additional Resources
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IRGC Qud Force Training and Global Terrorism
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