Beware the New Mujahideen: The Threat from Future Jihadist Networks
The current wave of foreign fighters emerging from the conflict in Iraq and Syria will be larger and potentially more dangerous than the mujahideen guerrillas that were a byproduct of the Soviet-Afghan conflict in the 1980s, FBI Director James Comey warned last September.
That is an especially foreboding observation, since the foreign fighters borne from the Afghan conflict went on to form the core of Al Qaeda and fight in the internecine conflicts in Bosnia, Algeria and Chechnya during the 1990s.
When one conflict ends, these fighters often use their connections to move on and join another fight. This phenomenon is likely to worsen in the future.
The number of foreign fighters participating in the conflict in Iraq and Syria is significant compared to those who participated in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Even more concerning, jihadists have improved and facilitated their networking capacity—improved communication, eased transportation, and diversified access to sources of information and money can make even small cadres of experienced fighters a dangerous force. The foreign-fighter phenomenon is not new. Over the past two hundred years, they have appeared in more than a quarter of all civil wars. But now these fighters engage in foreign civil wars and insurgencies—and then export their expertise back to their home countries or to places they have newly immigrated.
While jihadism expert Thomas Hegghammer has estimated the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet conflict at between five thousand and twenty thousand, other scholars such as Edwin Bakker and Mark Singleton have pegged the crop of foreign fighters currently in Iraq and Syria at around thirty thousand. Other trusted sources have settled on a similar figure. The foreign fighters in Syria are not strictly Sunnis: significant numbers of Afghan and Pakistani Shia are also fighting alongside Hezbollah and other pro-Assad elements. Encrypted communications and the ubiquity of social media mean that even after the caliphate disappears, the ideology of Salafi jihadism will persist, existing online as a virtual caliphate, and offering aspiring jihadists hope that the next major battle is all but inevitable.
But what else might the international community glean from similarities and differences between the Afghan offspring versus the present-day Iraqi-Syrian progeny? For starters, as much as some scholars dismiss the importance of territory, the control of major cities like Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria has provided ISIS with consistent access to safe haven and sanctuary.
Given the continued assault on ISIS strongholds, there is little doubt that its members (foreign fighters as well as those from Iraq and Syria) will flee abroad to fight in other conflicts in places like Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere. With ISIS sustaining major territorial losses, some foreign fighters are refusing to fight while others are already attempting to return to their countries of origin. In Europe, this has been characterized as a low-probability, high-impact threat. Disrupting the reverse flow of the foreign-fighter pipeline remains a top priority for European governments and intelligence agencies.
To ensure that the foreign fighters who leave Iraq and Syria do not reconstitute elsewhere, it is critical they be denied safe haven, sanctuary, and the ability to train and network with other terrorists and insurgents in ungoverned territories. This must remain a priority, not only for the West, but for all nation-states affected by terrorism, including China and Russia.