Foreign fighters participating in Syria’s ongoing civil war are using social media to find religious legitimacy and document their role in the war-torn country, a new study funded by the Government of Canada has found.

The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) recently released the report analyzing the social media profiles of 190 Western and European foreign fighters who are in Syria.

The paper, entitled “#Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks,” looks at how foreign fighters in Syria receive information about the conflict and what motivates them to go to the conflict-stricken country.

The researchers suggest that Syria may be the first war zone where western fighters have documented their conflict involvement in real-time. The report states that social media also “represents an essential source of information and inspiration” to the foreign fighters.

ICSR has previously reported that up to 2,800 of foreign fighters in Syria are of European or western nationality.

The report gives a breakdown of the foreign fighters’ country of origin based on their sample: Australians, Canadians and Americans together accounted for 5.3 per cent, while fighters from the United Kingdom made up the highest number of foreign fighters.

  • United Kingdom: 17.9 per cent
  • France: 11.6 per cent
  • Germany: 11.1 per cent
  • Sweden: 10 per cent
  • Belgium: 8.9 per cent

The database revealed that more than two-thirds of the fighters are affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusrah or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) – two groups that are said to have connections to al Qaeda.

Based on the data, the report found that a large number of foreign fighters receive their information about the Syrian conflict through so-called disseminators – “unaffiliated but broadly sympathetic individuals who can sometimes appear to offer moral and intellectual support to jihadist opposition groups.”

The findings also reveal that foreign fighters in Syria look to “new spiritual authorities” for guidance, encouragement and religious legitimacy as they become more radicalized.