Choosing a war zone can be challenging, or at least, it used to be. Today citizens of one state participate in war zones in countries which are not in conflict with their own state. These fighters usually choose the Islamic State (or Jabhat al Nusra ) in Syria instead of Al Qaeda/Taliban in Afghanistan.
Why do people become foreign fighters? Religion, ideology, kinship, a sense of purpose or belonging, isolation or confusion, adrenaline/warzone addiction, opportunity for power or status, all provide explanations. Not all foreign fighters are terrorists. Waging jihad can motivate one to fight in another country, but it is not the only reason. IS militants in particular are Wahhabi-Salafist jihadists but others go to the region solely to fight the Syrian Armed forces, or to further the Kurdish cause, as transnational activists. Some initially arrived as part of humanitarian efforts but were drawn into the conflict.
Over the course of the past 4-5 years, foreign fighters have been arriving in the Syrian-Iraqi-Turkish region and this has dramatically escalated with the rise of the IslamiState(IS/ISIS/ISIL/Da’esh/Da’ish) since 2014. While almost 20,000 foreign fighters were believed to have fought against Soviet forces in the 1980s and US forces post-2001 in Afghanistan, 20,000 have already come to Syria and Iraq of whom about 3000-4000 are from non-Middle Eastern states like the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, US, The Netherlands, Sweden, Bosnia, Serbia, Australia etc.
Today, Syria recruits most foreign fighters. Charismatic English-speaking religious figures like Ahmad Musa Jibril and Musa Cerantonio as well as sympathisers are encouraging citizens from across the globe to undertake the journey to Syria and devote themselves to the cause of the caliphate. Images of daily life in the caliphate posted by IS militants through social media paint a palatable and appealing version of a jihadist’s life and work e.g. jihadists cuddling cats. Apart from the Ukraine crisis, this is one of the few modern conflicts that is being actively documented by foreign and domestic fighters, especially via social media. Potential recruits and global communities are offered more than mere glimpses into real war zone experiences and this can be quite thrilling or appealing to those who have never actually been to the region.
The IS recruitment campaigns (often taking place in-person) promote a sense of belonging, true identity, purity of belief and conviction- as in, “if nothing else, believe in this” which is a tactic that is successful with disillusioned or isolated youth who are untethered to anything in their daily lives.
Afghanistan vs. Syria
- Syria seems to provide greater religious legitimacy than Afghanistan due to IS’ implementation of a Caliphate- an actual territory brought into existence purely based on religious justifications, as opposed to the rather abstract concept of holy war and rhetoric against the West propagated by a tribal-based terror foundation in Afghanistan.
- There has been a vast improvement in the communications technology since the 1980s and this has proven to be a catalyst for recruitment in Syria. Since IS became a coherent structural existence by mid-2014, they have appropriated social media, magazines (like Dabiq), videos and modern communications technology.
- IS is much more adept at using social media to promote its values and advertise its propaganda as compared to Al Qaeda. They adapt modern western cultural concepts- like turning YOLO (You only live once) to YODO: “You only die once. Why not make it martyrdom?”
- Unlike the Taliban- which advocates waging jihad against the west for the perceived existential threat to Islam and Muslim identity, IS propagates a state, infrastructure, governance, hospitals, education etc. and appeals to the humanitarian and religious duty of a Muslim to contribute which is more than an abstract ideal.
- IS does not talk of a long-term or generational war for a caliphate. It believes in instant results and takes what it wants. By having a territory and base of operations that does not need to be dismantled and re-assembled or leaders who are not running from one hideout to another, IS sells a sense of permanence.
- Again, unlike Al Qaeda, Caucasian “White,” Asian and African males with Western accents have been used and highlighted in IS videos. This technique offers global appeal and becomes yet another driver for recruitment. The combination of this symbolism, the intent to shock and demanding instant results, supports the image that IS practices what it preaches.
- Unfortunately for various state security services, Syria offers ease of travel. A few thousand foreign fighters hold EU passports and Turkey has travel agreements with almost 70 countries- enabling militants to freely travel to Turkey and then cross into Syria or Iraq through a Turkish border town, already controlled by IS. Such logistical convenience is one of the perceived advantages of choosing Syria over Afghanistan.
IS has unfortunately not only been successful in drawing foreign citizens to Syria, but has convinced its followers elsewhere to undertake “jihad” via terrorist activities in their home states. In fact its call to spread terror during the month of Ramadan this year was brought to fruition with simultaneous attacks in Tunisia (gunmen shot 37-39 in a resort), Kuwait (suicide bomb in a Shia mosque which killed 25 and injured 200), France (explosion and a beheading) and less than a week later on 1st July, attacks on the military in Sinai, Egypt. Not only do states have to contend with the foreign fighter phenomenon, but they must also step up intelligence-gathering and prevention on their home soil.
Afghanistan is not becoming irrelevant in the fight against terrorism nor does it lack its own IS presence. There is certainly no love lost between IS and Al Qaeda and the latter will continue to instigate terrorist events in order to attract attention to itself. However, IS, unlike Al Qaeda, has figured out how to attract foreign fighters to their cause.