Expert Commentary

Rise of Muslim foreign fighters: Islam and the globalization of jihad

2011 article in International Security on distinctions between Muslim foreign fighters and terrorists, and related policy implications.

A key actor in many modern conflicts throughout the Muslim world has been the “foreign fighter,” defined as an “unpaid combatant with no apparent link to the conflict other than religious affinity with the Muslim side.” Such fighters rarely crossed borders before 1980, but in the last 30 years as many as 30,000 Muslims voluntarily engaged in international conflicts. In popular discourse and the news media, foreign fighters and terrorists affiliated with groups such as Al Qaeda are often confused, but scholarship suggests there are meaningful differences between the two.

A 2011 article published in International Security, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” compiles data on armed conflicts in the post-1945 Muslim world to distinguish Muslim foreign fighters from international terrorists and locally-based fighters or insurgents. The article provides an alternative account of what prompted the growth of Islamic transnational fighting and explains how this category of actor interacts with and fuels terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.

Key points in the article include:

  • The origins of the modern foreign fighter phenomenon can be traced to the populist pan-Islamist movement propagated by moderate elites based in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s. Their notion that the “nation of Islam” was under threat enabled violent activists in Afghanistan to recruit foreign fighters in the 1980s under the banner of “inter-Muslim solidarity.”
  • A private global foreign fighter contingent was involved in 18  of the 70 armed conflicts analyzed in the study. Though foreign fighters constituted a small percentage of the overall combatants, 5 of the conflicts involved more than 1,000 foreign fighters, and 2 attracted over 4,000 (Afghanistan and Iraq in the 1980s).
  • In attracting new foreign fighters, recruiters often rely less on sophisticated faith-based arguments, but on “simple, visceral appeals to people’s sense of solidarity and altruism.”
  • “The distinction between foreign fighters and international terrorists notably allows scholars to show that, although foreign fighters and al-Qaida hail from the same pan-Islamist mother movement, they do not have exactly the same political preferences. Crucially, the two communities have often competed over resources, usually to the detriment of the latter.”

The study’s author concludes with the following recommendation: “Western policymakers would be well-advised to adjust their public diplomacy to the reality that the majority of Muslims view foreign fighters and international terrorists differently. The Western tendency to conflate the two has been a major source of communication problems between the West and the Muslim world since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. At the same time, both Western and Muslim governments must continue to prevent foreign fighter activism, because most al-Qaida operatives begin their careers as war volunteers.”

Tags: Middle East, religion

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