Recent years have seen foreign terrorist fighters in unprecedented numbers. Up to 30 000 jihadist fighters, including 5 000 from Europe, are estimated to have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Foreigners who fought and still fight in the civil wars there are often perceived as a threat to European and global security. At a seminar arranged by Brussels based Egmont Institute (21 February), history professor Nir Arielli presented his new book on volunteers in armed conflicts since the late 18th century until present time. By examining previous instances of conflicts that saw the participation of foreign war volunteers, a number of common characteristics can be identified.
He identifies three waves of foreign fighters. The first wave started with the French revolution in 1789 and continued until the First World War and can be described as a fight for Liberty against Tyranny. The second wave continued until the 90-ies and pitted Left against Right. The most known example is the Spanish civil war in the 30-ies.
The current and still ongoing wave started in 1979 with the outbreak of the Afghan-Soviet war. Arielli describes it as a “clash of civilizations” or this is how the fighters perceive it, where radical Islam stands against what the Western world represents.
The common denominator among the volunteers in the three waves, according to Arielli, is a search for purpose in life and a belief that their engagement in a conflict abroad may provide or reinforce their sense of meaning.
He identifies four categories of volunteers that have some overlap between them:
– Self-appointed ambassadors for their home countries whose volunteerism is a political act of protest (example: Spanish civil war)
– Diaspora volunteers who leave their home country to fight for their own people (example: Jewish volunteers in Israel’s war of independence in 1948)
– Cross-border volunteers who fight to remove borders that split their countries (Garibaldi in the wars for Italy’s unification)
– Substitute conflict volunteers who actually want to fight against their governments at home (example: some of the jihadist fighters who joined the Islamic State)
Mussolini sent thousands of ‘volunteers’ to assist General Franco in the civil war in Spain. But these don’t fall under his definition of foreign volunteers: those who “leave their country of nationality or residence and take part in a conflict abroad on the basis of a personal decision, without being sent by their government and not primarily for material gain”.
As a historian, Arielli is wary when it comes to making predictions whether the current wave of jihadist fighters will continue for more years despite the defeat of the Islamic State. But, judging from the past, previous waves outlasted specific conflicts, he says. The same applies to the present wave, which started to gain momentum long before the civil war in Syria erupted.
“As long as the notion of the duty to defend fellow Muslims wherever they are perceived as being under attack continues, the ‘clash of civilizations’ wave is likely to persist. Waves lose their momentum when the ideology behind them begins to wane.”
Pull and push factors
Their motivation, as in previous waves, is a mix of pull and push factors. The jihadist fighters from Europe seem to have been radicalized and fallen victim to Islamist propaganda but there is also an element of feeling discriminated and outside society. How would you describe the weight of these different factors?
“Motivations are nearly always mixed and the same applies in the case of the Islamic State,” he replies. “The ideas promoted by them appeal to more people than the few thousands who travelled to the Middle East to join the so-called Caliphate. Therefore, there must be additional reasons – in addition to the pull of ideology – that compelled those men and women who decided to join them.”
“In some cases individuals felt restricted or under pressure where they lived before they volunteered. In other cases they felt bored or unfulfilled. The ‘push’ factors vary from person to person. In essence though, all foreign volunteers in the past and today search for meaning and believe that by traveling to join a conflict abroad their life (and sometimes death) would have a purpose.”
He agrees that the foreigners who joined the conflict in Syria fall under different categories. Some of them are cross-border volunteers (e.g. Iraqis fighting in Syria). Others are substitute-conflict volunteers (e.g. Chechens who joined their coreligionists).
At the beginning of the conflict there were also some “self-appointed ambassadors”, i.e. people who thought their countries ought to intervene to stop the Assad regime. When this didn’t happen, they decided to take it upon themselves. Syria is not the first conflict where we see foreigners who fall under different categories fighting side by side.
In the past foreign volunteers have been numerically insignificant (less than 10 %), although they could provide important technical skills or battle experience. Is this also the case with the Islamic State?
“I believe that foreign recruitment to the Islamic State still falls within the norm (10% or less),” Arielli replies. “The figures mentioned in the press are estimates. It will take some time before we have fuller and more exact figures. Another complicating factor is that the Islamic State encouraged immigration (hijra) more broadly. This means that not all those who joined them can be considered ‘foreign fighters’ in the strict sense of the phrase.”
Prosecution of returning fighters
Home countries of foreign fighters have dealt differently with returning fighters and not always prosecuted them, as for happened for example with Swedes who volunteered to fight for Nazi Germany during WWII. How should EU member states deal with those returning from the Islamic State? Should they be prosecuted for war crimes or terrorist acts there (if proven) or for the very fact they joined the Islamic State?
Arielli doesn’t think that there is one response that is suitable in all cases. “Where there is evidence that individuals were involved in carrying out crimes while in Syria, or that they pose a clear security threat and intend to carry out terrorist attacks after their return, they should certainly be prosecuted. Security services cannot be complacent as the involvement of returning jihadists in terrorist attacks in France and Belgium have shown.”
However, he adds that we must also bear in mind that some ex-foreign fighters return disillusioned and perhaps even traumatized by what they saw. If authorities have opportunities to detach individuals from the radical ideology, these opportunities should be utilized. As example he mentions the British security service which runs what is called a risk assessment of returnees, most of whom haven’t been prosecuted.
Authorities have been suspicious of returning foreign volunteers before. For instance, in both the United States and in Britain, those who joined the International Brigades in Spain were seen as a potential threat because of their association with communism. “What sets returnees in recent years apart from previous generations is the potential for their involvement in terrorist attacks.”
“There are organizations such as the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in Britain which makes use of networks of former extremists and survivors of violence in an attempt to de-radicalize people who look as though they begin to drift towards dangerous organizations such as the Islamic State. This method does not replace law enforcement but could operate alongside it.”
The Brussels Times