«ICCT Background Note June 2014 Authorities are increasingly worried about the large number of Western foreign fighters present in Syria. The fear is ...»
Returning Western foreign fighters:
The case of Afghanistan, Bosnia and
Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn and Edwin Bakker
ICCT Background Note
Authorities are increasingly worried about the large number of Western foreign fighters present in Syria.
The fear is that these fighters will return radicalised, battle hardened and with extensive radical networks
that might encourage them to commit a terrorist attack in the home country. The recent attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels – allegedly by a returned foreign fighter from Syria – seems to be a case in point. However, the conflict in Syria is not the first to attract foreign fighters. In this Background Note,
Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn and Edwin Bakker investigate three historical cases of foreign fighting:
Afghanistan (1980s), Bosnia (1990s) and Somalia (2000s). In this paper they aim to give insight into what happened to these foreign fighters after their fight abroad had ended. The authors distinguish eight possible pathways for foreign fighters that can help to contribute to a more nuanced understanding of this complex phenomenon.
About the Authors Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn is Research Assistant at the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism (CTC) in The Hague. She holds a master’s degree in International Relations in Historical Perspective (cum laude) from Utrecht University, which she completed with a thesis on foreign fighters. Currently, she is working on the development of MOOCs – massive open online courses – at Leiden University. In that position, she assisted Professor Bakker with the MOOC Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory & Practice that attracted more than 40,000 students. Her main research interests include foreign fighters and the position of non-state actors in international relations.
Prof. Dr. Edwin Bakker is Professor of (Counter-)Terrorism Studies at Leiden University, Director of the Centre for Terrorism and Counterterrorism (CTC) of that same university, and Fellow at ICCT. He studied Economic Geography (Netherlands) and Political Geography (Netherlands and Germany). In 1997, he defended his PhD thesis on minority conflicts in Slovakia and Hungary. He taught classes in international policies on preventing and managing separatism and intra-state war in the Balkans at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM), Nijmegen University. Between 2003 and 2010 he was a fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ where he headed the Clingendael Security and Conflict Programme (since 2007). His research interests at Leiden University and the ICCT are, amongst others, radicalisation processes, jihadi terrorism, unconventional threats to security and crisis impact management.
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1. Introduction In the last two years, several Western countries have been confronted with dozens if not a few hundred nationals or residents joining violent struggles in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Motivations for joining such struggles are myriad but certainly, many have joined, what they call, the jihad 1 – regarded as a struggle for the sake of Allah
- against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. There are growing concerns that these fighters might return battle-hardened, radicalised and with extensive radical networks that might inspire or even encourage them to attack the home country. This fear for returnees has motivated some countries to elevate the terrorism threat level, such as happened in the Netherlands in March 2013. 2 Despite efforts to counter this development, the number of Western foreign fighters in Syria is still increasing. In April 2013, it was estimated that up to 600 Western Europeans had gone to Syria. 3 This indication has more than tripled in the latest report of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) which was published in December 2013. In this report, it was estimated that up to 2,000 Western Europeans have taken up arms against the Syrian regime. 4 The United States (US) and Canada are also increasingly confronted with this phenomenon, reporting a least dozens of cases, while Australia has recently put the number somewhere between 120 and 150 nationals fighting in Syria. 5 While this development has clearly come as a surprise to many, it is certainly not the first time that Western Europeans have left to fight in a foreign struggle. The existence of foreign fighters, or transnational insurgents, who are defined in this article as “noncitizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflicts” 6, is nothing new.
In this paper we will look at three past cases of conflicts in the Islamic world that attracted Western foreign fighters: Afghanistan in the 1980s, Bosnia in the 1990s and Somalia in the 2000s. 7 These cases represent three different regions and three different contexts and phases of jihadism. Our main focus is on the question what happened to these fighters after the fighting in these three countries. What can we learn from these cases in relation to the current worries about returning Western foreign fighters? For each case we will give a short background of the conflict and that of the fighters and then proceed to the question what actually happened to these fighters after their initial reason for going – fighting in a specific conflict – was no longer valid. Finally, we will attempt to categorise the different pathways of those who joined the fight in these countries: what did they do after the fighting was over?
This term refers to a violent form of the “lesser jihad”, see E. Bakker, “Jihadi Terrorists in Europe and Global Salafi Jihadis”, in R. Coolsaet, ed., Jihadi Terrorism and the Radicalisation Challenge in Europe, (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008), p.69.
National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, Ministry of Security and Justice, Summary DTN 32, 13 March 2013, http://english.nctv.nl/publications-products/Terrorist-Threat-Assessment-Netherlands/index.aspx.
A.Y. Zelin, “ICSR Insight: European Foreign Fighters in Syria”, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2 April 2013, http://icsr.info/2013/04/icsr-insight-european-foreign-fighters-in-syria-2/.
A. Y. Zelin, “ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans”, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 17 December 2013, http://icsr.info/2013/12/icsr-insight-11000-foreign-fighters-syria-steep-rise-among-westerneuropeans/.
For USA, see “FBI chief: more Americans joining Syrian war”, Al Jazeera, 3 May 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/americas/2014/05/fbi-chief-more-americans-joining-syrian-war-20145221539486269.html; For Canada, see S. Bell, “Canadians fighting in Syria could pose immediate threat to national security when they return”, The National Post, 3 February 2014, http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/02/03/canadians-fighting-in-syria-could-pose-immediate-threat-to-national-security-whenthey-return-csis/; For Australia, see M. Safi and N. Evershed, “Australians are fighting in Syria: how many have joined the conflict?”, The Guardian, 9 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2014/apr/09/australians-fighting-in-syria-how-many-have-joinedthe-conflict. It should be noted that these Western foreign fighters constitute a minority among the total number of foreigners that have flocked to Syria to join the battle against the Syrian regime. Most of the foreign fighters are from the wider Middle East, see Zelin “Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans”.
This definition is put forward by David Malet in his book Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.9.
Other examples of cases of conflicts in the Islamic world that have attracted jihadi foreign fighters include Chechnya, Iraq, Yemen and Mali.
Returning Western Foreign Fighters 2
2. Afghanistan and Jihad as an Individual Obligation
To understand the motivations that lead young Muslims to fight and die on the battlefields in other parts of the world, we must understand the changes in ideology that paved their way. The concept of the so-called violent “lesser jihad” has a long history in Islam. In modern times it was influenced by important Islamist thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj. 8 Rather than adhering to the traditional interpretation of the concept of jihad as a collective obligation (fard kifaya), Qutb and Faraj transformed it into an individual obligation (fard ayn). 9 Both were supportive of the practice of takfir: declaring a fellow Muslim an unbeliever. Especially Faraj stressed the need to target the “near enemy” first. With this, he meant the apostate Muslim leaders whom he perceived to be obstacles hindering the formation of Islamic states with Islamic jurisprudence. 10 However, while these two individuals contributed to a shift in thinking about jihad, it was not until the 1980s that large numbers of Muslims would bring this idea of jihad as an individual obligation into practice. It took a major geopolitical event – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 – and the efforts of the Palestinian Sheikh Abdullah Azzam for this to happen.
In the year of the Soviet invasion, Azzam published a fatwa (religious ruling) called Defence of the Muslims Lands: The First Obligation after Faith, in which he called upon fellow Muslims to come to the help of the threatened ummah, the community of believers. These ideas were further articulated in his work Join the Caravan (1987), in which he gives sixteen reasons for fighting the jihad. 11 According to Azzam, the ummah is one body, “so that whichever region of the Muslims’ territory is exposed to danger, it is necessary that the whole body of the Islamic Ummah rally together to protect this organ which is exposed to the onslaught of the microbe”. 12 Thus, Azzam wanted to encourage Muslims from all around the world to come and fight in Afghanistan against the Soviet aggression and its local allies. 13 The conflict in Afghanistan is without doubt the most well-known example of Muslim foreign fighting in recent history. This all started when local Afghan mujahideen – or persons who fight a jihad - fighting the Soviets and local Communists were joined by foreign fighters coming from many different countries. Azzam was a key figure in the recruitment efforts and organisation of foreign fighters. In 1984, he set up the Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK, the Afghan Services) that was responsible for coordinating all the money, men and weapons in the struggle against the Soviets. 14 Teaming up with his pupil Osama Bin Laden, Azzam mobilised thousands of foreign fighters that flocked to the conflict during the 1980s. 15 The great majority of these foreign fighters originated from Arab countries. Not all arrivals were hardened jihadists. Jason Burke notes that some “rich Gulf kids” only came during summer time to fight for a couple of weeks, if they would see any fighting at all, to return home after summer. 16 Most of the volunteers who arrived had no fighting experience at all and therefore first had to be trained in order to be of any worth in battle. 17 F.A. Gerges, The far enemy: Why Jihad went Global (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.10.
Gerges, The far enemy (2005) p.10 Ibid.
A. Azzam, Join the Caravan (1987) p.11.
As a matter of fact, Azzam fiercely disapproved of the notion of “takfir” and Faraj’s ideas of targeting the near enemy first. Rather, Azzam stressed the need to come to the help of the threatened ummah, what Fawaz Gerges calls the “defensive jihad” instead of the “offensive jihad” as propagated by others, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden. See Gerges, The far enemy.
E. Bakker and L. De Boer, “The evolution of Al-Qaedism: Ideology, terrorists, and appeal”, Clingendael Security Paper no.4., (The Hague:
The Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, December 2007), p.9.
J. Burke, Al-Qaeda (London: Penguin Books, 2007 [revised edition]), p.61. Burke notes that some estimates range up to 25,000, although that is “ludicrous”. David Malet talks about approximately 4,000 foreign fighters, see Malet, Foreign Fighters, p.158.
Burke, Al-Qaeda (2007) p.76.
Only in 1987, Azzam and Bin Laden set up the first “foreign fighters only” training camp near the city of Khost, called al-Masada (the lion’s den). See M. Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p.35.