A salient feature of armed conflict in the Muslim world since the Afghan conflict in the 1980s has been the involvement of so-called foreign fighters, that is, combatants with no apparent link to the conflict other than religious affinity with the Muslim side. With jihad becoming an increasingly globalised or transnational activity, tens of thousands of such fighters have inserted themselves into conflicts from Bosnia to the Philippines, and today especially in Syria and Iraq.
Foreign fighters matter because they can affect the conflicts they join, as they did in post-2003 Iraq by promoting sectarian violence and indiscriminate tactics. Perhaps more important, foreign fighter mobilisations empower transnational terrorist groups such as IS, because volunteering for war is the principal stepping-stone for individual involvement in more extreme forms of militancy. For example, when Muslims in the West radicalise, they do not usually plot attacks in their home country right away, but travel to a war zone such as Syria first. Indeed, many jihadi operatives began their militant careers as war volunteers, and most transnational jihadi groups today are by-products of foreign fighter mobilisations.
Foreign fighters, according to Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and a leading scholar of jihadist history, are therefore key to understanding transnational Islamist militancy.
In the 1970s, a phenomenon that Hegghammer refers to as populist pan-Islamism emerged. Political Islamist activists who had been exiled from Syria and Egypt at that time, most of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, found refuge and employment in the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia, which needed their education and skills. From there, with access to ample financial resources, they propagated an alarmist discourse emphasising external threats to the Muslim nation (umma), and also established an influential global network of charities for the provision of inter-Muslim aid.
The norms and networks established by the Hijazi pan-Islamists enabled Arab activists a short time later, in 1980s Afghanistan, to recruit foreign fighters in the name of inter-Muslim solidarity. Many of the same logistics chains and funding sources (especially Islamic charities) were involved in several different mobilisations. The ‘Arab Afghan’ mobilisation in turn laid the basis of a foreign fighter movement that went on to take part in conflicts in Chechnya, Bosnia, Algeria and elsewhere and continues to do so today.
Classic jihadi recruitment propaganda typically argues that the Muslim nation faces an existential external threat. The conflict for which volunteers are sought is but the latest and direst in a series of occupations of Muslim territory and massacres of Muslims. Documents and videos commonly contain vivid descriptions of the crimes allegedly being committed in the conflict in question: Muslim women are being raped, children and the elderly are being killed, mosques desecrated and resources plundered. Victims are systematically referred to as ‘our brothers (sisters, mothers, children)’ as if they were blood relations of the prospective recruits. Muslims are urged to fight back militarily in the area in question. The rationale is that all able Muslim men worldwide must join the fighting because Islamic law requires it. Documents cite scripture and classical jurists at length to show that the criteria for military jihad are met.
In the early period of pan-Islamism, magazines published by international Islamic humanitarian organisations were also full of articles reporting the plight of Muslims around the world, and called for financial contributions in much the same way that the foreign fighter literature called for recruits. The first Arab Afghans, Hegghammer argues, were not fighters but humanitarian workers dispatched by the Hijaz-based Islamic charities. The Hijaz also provided most of the Saudi fighters who went to Afghanistan.
Hegghammer’s research is based on extensive data on foreign fighter mobilisations, a large collection of previously unexplored primary and secondary sources in Arabic, and personal interviews with former foreign fighters conducted in Britain, Jordan, Pakistan, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. According to his analysis, the rise of transnational Islamist militancy has its roots at least as much in extreme pan-Islamism as in extreme Wahhabism and the ideas of Muslim Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb. It thus has a quasi-nationalist character as well as its fanatical religious dimension. Western governments should therefore worry less about the spread of ultraconservative Salafism than about populist anti-Western propaganda in the media and on the Internet, he says. “Those seeking to prevent foreign fighter recruitment need to recognise that the recruitment message relies not primarily on complex theological arguments but on simple, visceral appeals to people’s sense of solidarity and altruism.”
The flow of volunteers to Syria and Iraq
Foreign fighters, commonly referred to in the counterterrorism literature as FTFs (‘foreign terrorist fighters’), have continued to volunteer in their thousands to take part in the global jihad in defence of the Muslim umma and Islam, as they see it, and for the glory of the caliphate. By January 2015 the total number joining Sunni militant organisations in Syria and Iraq had exceeded 20,000 – of whom nearly 20% were residents or nationals of Western European nations, surpassing the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The largest European countries – France, the UK and Germany – also produce the largest numbers of fighters (see graphic), but relative to population size, the most heavily affected countries are Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden. With up to 11,000 jihadis, the Middle East remains the dominant source of foreigners in the conflict, led by Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan. Another 3,000 were from countries of the former Soviet Union. Per capita, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon contribute the most fighters of all.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, which produced these figures, estimates that 5-10% of the foreigners have died and a further 10-30% have left the conflict zone, returning home or being stuck in transit countries. Data from elsewhere suggest that many of the Western recruits are recent converts to Islam.
As noted earlier in section 3, a vast cache of data passed by one or more IS defectors to various media organisations in early 2016, consisting of over 4,600 personnel records produced by IS, primarily between early 2013 and late 2014, provides the most detailed and intimate picture yet of IS foreign fighter recruitment procedures. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point produced a report in April 2016 analysing this data and providing a window into the organisation’s global workforce. The records catalogue information about foreign fighters’ countries of origin, citizenship, points of entry into Syria, marital status, skills and previous occupations, education levels, religious knowledge, fighting role preferences in the group (combat, martyrdom operations or the inghimasi operations we discussed in Section 2.3), and previous jihadi experience. Taken together, the data depict an organisation attempting to vet new members, manage talent effectively within the organisation, and deal with a diverse pool of recruits.
Rather than attempt to summarise its rich findings here, we would direct the reader to the report itself. We will, however, examine here some case studies from a diverse range of source countries, together with their governments’ responses.
Moroccan foreign fighters
With a contingent of around 1,500 fighters, Morocco is one of the main exporters of foreign fighters to Syria. Until 2014 the Moroccan authorities, who were content to see their own jihadis leave and add to the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, mostly turned a blind eye to networks of recruitment. Since the dramatic rise of IS, however, concern over local repercussions and the return of war-hardened radicals has prompted Rabat to adopt a hardline, security-oriented approach instead.
During the 1980s, dozens of Moroccans from different Islamic ideological backgrounds travelled to Afghanistan to participate in the insurgency against the Soviet domination of that country. When the Taliban came to power in 1996, an organisation called Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain (Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group) was formed to represent former fighters of Moroccan origin who had settled in Afghanistan, but also to plan for attacks in Morocco at a later stage. Nothing much came of these plans, but after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq 200-300 Moroccans managed to join the fight there, most of whom ended up being killed or jailed.
From early 2012, the militarisation of the Syrian and Libyan revolutions introduced the phenomenon of foreign fighters to new arenas. After Syria, Libya has become the second most important destination for Moroccan jihadis. Some 300 Moroccan fighters have reportedly followed the call by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for North Africans to join the group’s self-proclaimed emirate in Libya.
Most of the Moroccan fighters are recent converts (from either non-religious or non-violent
Islamic backgrounds) to the jihadi line of Salafism, with only loose ideological commitment to the jihadi ideology. However, in the training camps in Syria and Libya these recruits are indoctrinated into becoming hardened jihadis. In general, recruitment is mainly based on personal relations, yet social media has become a new channel of recruitment and, according to a local NGO, around 60% of Moroccans who join the fighting in Syria are today recruited via social networks while the rest are recruited face to face.
Until 2013, what Mohammed Masbah calls “the inaction bordering on tacit encouragement displayed by the Moroccan authorities” constituted an important push factor that facilitated the travel of jihadis. This policy, he says, “was clearly driven by the desire to get rid of them and reduce the burden of controlling and containing the local Salafi-jihadi scene, within as well as outside the prison system”. Most Moroccans joined the fight in Syria through the ‘traditional’ route: a regular airline flight from Casablanca to Istanbul, then onwards by bus to Gaziantep in southern Turkey, or Jarablus just across the Syrian border. (Moroccans do not need a visa to travel to Turkey and Tunisia.) When the authorities tightened their control on Casablanca airport, jihadis took alternative routes, stopping over in Tunisia or making their way informally through Algerian territory into Libya before travelling on to Syria.
Masbah cites research by a Moroccan human rights group that points to a clear correlation between the recruitment of foreign fighters and social marginalisation. In addition, the conflict in Syria created a new boost to jihadi ideology, which had been in decline after a number of prominent radicals of the previous decade reversed their positions. In Morocco, local sheikhs started to echo the fatwas of global jihadis against the Assad regime, and vociferously called for the support of ‘Sunnis’ in Syria. They succeeded in appealing to disaffected youth, many of whom had already been deeply affected by images of the brutal regime assault on Syrians circulated through social media and transnational satellite TV stations such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera. Still, Masbah insists, many Moroccans joined the fighting in Syria for reasons less related to ideology than to their frustrations with the corrupt and semi-authoritarian environment in their own country. Since the rise of IS, the Moroccan authorities – growing more concerned about the return of foreign fighters – have reversed their formerly lenient attitude toward Salafi-jihadis travelling to Syria, and have increasingly adopted a ‘zero tolerance’ approach.
Jihadi recruitment in Turkey
A 2016 study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on jihadi recruitment in Turkey, provides interesting insights into the foreign recruitment processes of not just IS but also Jabhat al-Nusra. This study puts the combined total for foreign fighters from Turkey (including ethnic Kurds) at 2,000-2,200, much higher than the ICSR figure referred to earlier, citing data from security intelligence firm The Soufan Group.
It found that Turkish nationals have mostly tended to affiliate with either IS or Jabhat al-Nusra, while smaller numbers have joined Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra-affiliated battalions, including Jaysh al-Islam. IS has attracted two thirds more Turkish recruits than Jabhat al-Nusra, it said, quoting Turkey’s foreign ministry.
In Turkey, IS is known for employing a less rigorous selection process than Jabhat al-Nusra and for attracting less ideologically sophisticated recruits. These lower entry barriers may have facilitated IS recruitment. And while IS has a reputation of welcoming recruits to pursue martyrdom, Jabhat al-Nusra – both in and outside Turkey – is perceived as more disciplined, centralised, and pickier about potential recruits. Applicants typically need references from known Nusra members and are encouraged to know some Arabic. Nusra recruits are also said to have to complete a three-week ideological indoctrination course at various safe houses in Turkey before being sent to Syria. Potential Nusra recruits are also encouraged to possess skills useful to the group, such as medical knowhow or the ability to build websites or use a gun.
Jabhat al-Nusra has also relied heavily on al-Qaeda networks built from participation in prior waves of jihad in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq. IS recruitment in Turkey, by contrast, has appeared patchier, more personalised, and more dependent on savvy propaganda videos and publications.
Ankara’s approach to the problem of jihadi recruitment in Turkey has been hotly debated. Senior members of the US and EU administrations have alleged in the past that Turkey’s government had an open door policy with regard to jihadis, making the country a ‘jihadist highway’ through which foreign fighters flowed easily into and out of Iraq and Syria. In 2015 the US and EU acknowledged an improvement in Turkish cooperation against IS. But US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter said in January 2016: “I think the Turks can do more to fight ISIL”, and former US ambassador to Turkey James Jeffrey said that to date “Turkey has been a somewhat ambivalent warrior against ISIS”. Turkey, for its part, has been critical of what it sees as Western preoccupation with jihadis, asserting that the Kurdish PKK – which AOAV data also place in the top 10 perpetrators of IED violence – is just as much of a threat.
The appeal to Western volunteers
IS propaganda and messaging is disproportionately slanted toward foreign fighters, in both its content and its target audience. Important IS messages are commonly released simultaneously in English, French and German, then later translated into other languages, such as Russian, Indonesian and Urdu.
“Foreign fighters are overrepresented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s worst acts,” Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer has said. “So they help to kind of radicalise the conflict – make it more brutal. They probably also make the conflict more intractable, because the people who come as foreign fighters are, on average, more ideological than the typical Syrian rebel.” Syrians who take up arms to fight alongside militant groups such as IS may often have no choice about the matter; they are compelled to join up or else face being killed. There may be few other options open to them anyway to work and earn a living.
According to the anthropologist Scott Atran, Western volunteers are often in transitional stages in their lives. They may be “immigrants, students, between jobs or girlfriends… looking for new families of friends and fellow travellers. For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are ‘born again’ into a radical religious vocation through the appeal of militant jihad.”[i] John Horgan of the University of Massachusetts Lowell echoes this view: “They want to find something meaningful for their life. Some are thrill-seeking, some are seeking redemption.”
With the emergence of large numbers of foreign fighters on social media such as Instagram, Ask.fm and Twitter, providing a conversational and continual commentary on the conflict, internal motivations soon came to the fore, according to Jessica Stern and J.M Bergen. While few would dispute the importance of religious allure in attracting fighters to the field, the conversation online frequently turns to the theme of fun and adventure. On the other hand, lurid and graphic depictions of decapitations have also appealed to “thugs and violence junkies”.[ii]
Among the IS social media materials helping to spread the message is an e-book entitled ‘How to Survive in the West – A Mujahid Guide’, which was reportedly distributed through a link on Twitter in March 2015. It is allegedly one in a series of e-books compiled by IS supporters and recruiters to give practical guidance to young Muslims in the West who want to join IS or wage jihad in their own countries. The topics it covers include ways of blending in with Western society, maintaining a clean IP home address, developing physical fitness and stamina, bomb-making at home (six types: Molotov cocktail, nail bomb, microwave airbag bomb, gas canister bomb, remote-controlled bomb and car bomb), transporting weapons, and how to make contact with jihadis on Twitter.
…and back to their countries of origin
The return of foreign fighters is an increasing worry for several western European countries. The EU has expressed concern that many Belgian residents who have returned to the country after fighting in the Middle East are not being properly monitored by Belgium’s security services. In January 2014 the Dutch government revoked the passports of eight would-be foreign fighters who had tried to travel to Syria. In the UK, the government brought in powers in 2015 to strip jihadis of their British citizenship, though these powers have rarely been used. Countries including France and Denmark have been exploring ways to rehabilitate or ‘deradicalise’ returning volunteers, as we will discuss below.
The threat posed by returnees is not simply a matter of the bomb-making and shooting skills they have learned, and the emotional resilience to killing they may have acquired, but their ability to recruit new soldiers for IS, some of whom will follow the returnees back to Syria, and others who will be ordered to remain and carry out attacks at home. Moreover, because there is rarely hard evidence available of violence or terrorist acts in Syria, it can be difficult to prosecute returning IS fighters for their actions there. A report by the Dutch intelligence service AIVD comments that many returnees come home disappointed by the realities they encountered. Those who were not seen as fit to fight were reduced to menial jobs like housekeeping and cannot be said to have engaged in terrorist activity, and so cannot be convicted. At the same time, according to AIVD, it is often the case that “even those who did not fight continue to be involved in jihadist circles” when they come home. Others join criminal groups, possibly as a way to raise money to send back to Syria and Iraq.
The Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Lappin, writing for the Investigate Project on Terrorism in September 2016, argues however that while Western security officials have rightly raised concerns about a possible increase in IS attacks in the West due to setbacks in Syria and Iraq, the threat to Arab-Muslim countries is even higher, due to their proximity to IS’ heartland and the sheer numbers of IS volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa. IS, Lappin reminds us, is ideologically dedicated to toppling Arab governments it sees as apostates and Western-backed puppets. Failed states like Libya, he points out, have already become alternative IS outlets, and the group’s leadership can be expected to seek additional areas in the region to which to spread. The leading candidates mentioned by Lappin are Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia has been dealing with the problem of returning foreign fighters and their terrorist acts or plots for many years. In 2004 it set up the Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Counselling and Care Centre (MNCC) to deradicalise and rehabilitate them, and in 2008 it set up the non-Sharia Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) to try hundreds of mainly AQ members on terrorism charges. With the rise of IS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, supporters of that group have joined AQ, Jabhat al-Nusra and AQAP on the list of suspects rounded up in connection with terrorist plots in the kingdom. Since April 2015 most of those convicted in the SCC have been linked with IS.
Although the MNCC has claimed a recidivism rate of only 10-20% in recent years and generally has been seen as a success, a member of the kingdom’s unelected parliament, the Shura Council, called in 2014 for its deradicalisation programmes to be reevaluated. Latifah al-Shalan said psychologists and sociologists should be given a greater role alongside the religious scholars who had previously taken the lead. She pointed out, in support of her recommendation, the fact that 47 of the 77 individuals involved in terrorist activities that had taken place in al-Ahsa Province a few weeks previously had been former inmates of the centre. Her reading of Western practice in this field was that socio-economic factors had to be given at least as much attention as religious or ideological matters.
A number of Western states are indeed attempting to develop deradicalisation programmes, some of them still experimental, in an attempt to rehabilitate returning fighters. Sending them to prison risks being counterproductive, since prisons, as we have seen, have often proved fertile ground for radicalisation in the first place. Denmark, France, Germany, the UK and the US all have projects of some kind aimed at turning jihadis away from violent ways of thinking and acting, and reintegrating them safely into society. Yet there is no consensus on what works. Counterterrorism consultant Marc Sageman, a leading authority on terrorism networks, goes so far as to dismiss the whole concept because “no one has clearly defined radicalisation… so when we don’t know much about the process of so-called radicalisation, what is the reverse process, of which we have even less of an idea?” To Sageman, the deradicalisation schemes are “political programs for politicians to claim that they are doing something about the threat to their respective countries when in fact they don’t know what they are doing”.
In his own analysis of radicalisation, the process whereby ordinary individuals are transformed into terrorists willing to use violence for political ends, Sageman rejects both a micro-level explanation of radicalisation – the idea of some kind of “terrorist personality” – and a macro-level search for socio-economic “root causes”. He argues instead that radicalisation has four “prongs”:
“A sense of moral outrage at apparent crimes against Muslims both globally and locally is a common theme among the terrorists. This outrage is interpreted in a specific way, namely that this moral violation is part of a larger war against Islam. This ideology appeals to certain people because it resonates with their own personal experience of discrimination, making them feel that they are also victims of this wider war. A few individuals are then mobilised through networks, both face to face and now more and more commonly online, to become terrorists.”[iii]
The micro-level explanation is also rejected by John Horgan of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, who says: “Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why, hasn’t yet produced any profile.”
Other security experts who have worked in counterterrorism, and social workers, psychiatrists and other professionals who work with extremists, have warned that a blanket approach to fighters returning from Syria risks further alienation of the very populations at greatest risk of sympathising with the jihadist cause and perpetrating the attacks that governments hope to prevent.
Meanwhile, former British intelligence officer Richard Barrett has suggested that disillusioned returnees should be approached as a resource and not a threat. He has said he believes there are more disillusioned fighters than is widely known, because many are reluctant to come forward in the current climate.
Palestinian-born psychologist Ahmad Mansour, who runs a programme in Germany called Hayat, that focuses on Salafists and their families, views the focus on the dangers posed by returnees from Syria as “scaremongering”. Rather, he argues, many suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from the battlefield, or are disillusioned by the reality of life in the Islamic State. The climate of alarm surrounding returnees means that their families, who are often the first to learn of a fighter’s return, hesitate to inform the police for fear of the repercussions. The returnees themselves may face obstacles to rejoining the wider society, thus increasing the risk of alienation that could lead to further radical activity.
In conclusion, the return of radicalised foreign fighters, whether battle-hardened or traumatised by their experiences with IS in Syria, is still a new and unpredictable phenomenon for Western governments to tackle, and it is worth examining whether it might need to be handled with kid gloves rather than an iron fist.
This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.
[i] Stern, J. and Berger, J.M., ISIS: The State of Terror HarperCollins, 2015.
[iii] Sageman, M. Leaderless Jihad. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
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