Two weeks ago, I did a short post at FPRI on “Syria: Suffering the effects of the 2nd Foreign Fighter Glut“. The crux of the discussion centered on how Syria has become the next epicenter for a routine pattern of foreign fighter mobilization and integration into jihadi conflicts. I used the diagrams from a 2009 paper (Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut) to illustrate how this cycle perpetuates itself (See Figure 1 below) and why Syria will be the catalyst for a decade of conflict.
The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.
Analysis of foreign fighters to Iraq in 2008 and 2009 signaled how al Qaeda affiliates would regenerate in the future. Here is an excerpt Countering Terrorism From The Second Foreign Fighter Glut written in 2008 and published in 2009 discussing the implications of former foreign fighters returning to their home countries as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down and what we’ve seen the past couple of years.
2009 – Policy Implication: Fight the next terrorist threat, not the last one.
Western CT efforts should avoid the tendency to protect against the last terrorist attack rather than preventing the next one. While protecting mass transit systems and thwarting WMD proliferation remains important, the more probable next generation of attacks will be against Westerners in MENA and South Asia. Former foreign fighters from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will lead future attacks, and they may maintain only minimal connections to core AQ. As targets and access diminish in Iraq and Afghanistan, former foreign fighters will continue to recruit locally in flashpoint cities and then create their own safe havens regionally. The end result will be upstart regional groups that share some of AQ’s ideology, try to pull from larger AQ resources, and then use former foreign fighter knowledge to spearhead attacks closer to home. With limited operational space, resources and size, the scope of terrorist operations will temporarily decrease. Instead of massive, high tech, large-scale 9/11 operations, one may expect smaller scale, conventional attacks perpetrated by smaller Jihadi groups. These smaller Jihadi elements will begin with attacks on local Western targets and MENA governments in an attempt to build their popular support, gain resources and grow their capacity to execute more spectacular attacks in Europe and the United States.
Analysts might consider altering their focus to concentrate on regional nodes rather than working to link all actions back to core AQ. The North African node may be led by former foreign fighters from Algeria, recruiting from North African flashpoint cities in Tunisia and new militant enclaves in Mauritania, seeking safe haven in the trans-Sahara (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya) and conducting attacks on Westerners in Tunis, Casablanca or Niamey. The Middle Eastern node might consist of new cells led by Yemeni and Saudi former foreign fighters finding operational space in Yemen and Palestinian camps in Lebanon and attacking Western and Israeli economic and diplomatic targets. South Asia (not supported by data in this study but extremely significant) would likely see a host of Pakistani and Central Asian militant groups, holed up in tribal areas and Central Asian safe havens and conducting attacks throughout Asia.
Today, we know that Syria, much like Iraq a few years back, will be the center of gravity for future Salafi-jihadi foreign fighter violence. This is occurring for several reasons:
- It’s gone on way too long – The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters there will be mobilized to the battlefield.
- The West won’t do anything to stop fighting in Syria – Foreign fighter recruits may be a bit crazy but they are not stupid. One of the bigger deterrents of joining an al Qaeda affiliate or an emerging militant group is whether the recruit thinks the fight they are joining has a chance to succeed. Despite all their macho bravado, no foreign fighter wants to join a fight where al Qaeda is getting its ass kicked. That’s why foreign fighter flows to Iraq decreased around 2008 and will slow to places like Mali where the French have intervened. BLUF: Foreign fighters are fickle, and aside from the occasional oddball, they want to play for a winner. For example, Omar Hammami in Somalia was whining about moving to Syria from Somalia months ago. For a jihadi, going to fight in Syria is the equivalent of buying a Miami Heat jersey if your an NBA fan or a Yankees jersey if you are baseball fan: you don’t know if you’ll win the championship, but you’ve got a much better chance of winning if you support that team.
- Lots of money and weapons - Unlike other conflicts, the Syrian civil war has received substantial and sustained resources from the Gulf and now the West as well as resources from Russia and Iran on the Assad regime side. There is plenty of fuel to keep this thing going.
- Recruitment pipelines – The fighting in Syria is occurring in the exact location of foreign fighter pipelines to Iraq circa 2006-2007. These foreign fighter recruitment networks have been easily reactivated and there is far less for recruits to resolve logistically to make their way to the battlefield in Syria.
Aaron Zelin published an excellent set of data this week on foreign fighters to Syria. From martyr biographies found on social media, Aaron found that Libyans and Tunisians dominated the ranks. Remember when everyone was freaking out about al Qaeda building a stronghold in Libya? I’m sure there is an al Qaeda or al Qaeda like presence in Libya, but if hundreds of fighters from Libya are heading to Syria, we shouldn’t worry so much about an al Qaeda being resurgent in Libya. More important for me is Tunisia. The high numbers of Tunisians, I imagine, comes as much from the historical recruitment networks identified in the Sinjar records as much as anything going on currently. The best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter, and Tunisia had a solid network for getting people to Iraq a few years back. To figure out the pattern of recruitment to Syria and to anticipate the implications of the 3rd generation of foreign fighters coming out of Syria, I’m going to start looking at several things below with regards to Syria’s foreign fighters. I’m working on a couple concepts I’ll share here in the coming weeks which I think might help with some of these research issues.
- Need more data - Aaron on his own has captured an excellent data set that is approaching 300. But, its not nearly enough to understand the dynamics of recruitment to the Syrian conflict. Just yesterday there were reports of 200 Islamists from Russia in Syria. There are now thousands of foreign fighters in Syria speaking a variety of languages and communicating on a host of media. To properly understand the foreign fighter flow to Syria, there needs to be a team of researchers speaking many different languages looking at data online and on the ground. This is a big challenge that comes at a time when resources and interest in studying terrorism are on the decline; not an insurmountable challenge but one that will require some alternative solutions. Additionally, if we only capture martyrdom biographies, we may be getting a snapshot of the least effective fighters or those with more of an inclination towards martyrdom. What country’s fighters are the most talented and more inclined to stay alive and later come back home?
- Need to know the hometowns of recruits – Most news stories I read on foreign fighters speak only to countries. “FOREIGN FIGHTERS TO AL QAEDA ARE FROM SAUDI ARABIA/LIBYA/ETC.!” This is meaningless. It’s the equivalent of saying people from the East Coast are rude, the West Coast is lazy or the South is racist (All are 100% true by the way-did I get everybody angry this morning?). Foreign fighter recruitment is a very local phenomena. To understand the dynamics that produce recruits and what can be done to mitigate recruitment requires much more micro-level data. We need to know the hometowns of recruits, not their countries of origin. Just looking at Aaron’s data, I’m guessing there are some important local dynamics at play in the recruitment numbers – see my circles below on Aaron’s table. While these records report deaths, fighters from the same places often stick together, and in Syria probably die together.
- Who is heading back home? – It appears that many of the fighters to Syria are getting killed. But, which ones will return home? This is probably the more important point for understanding where this goes in the future. Maybe they’ll stay in Syria, who knows, but we need to figure it out.
- Are they joining “al Qaeda” or something “al Qaeda-like”? – What the U.S. media is calling “al Qaeda” is a broad term that likely misses the essence of what is going on in Syria. What if we are entering a post al-Qaeda age where things are similar at times to al Qaeda but in reality are turning into something new? While Ayman al-Zawahiri has rightly tried to jump on the success of jihadis in Syria, Aaron’s data shows there are many jihadi groups receiving fighters and Will McCants discussed in his “Office Space” post that there are fractures in the Syrian jihadi groups similar to what has been seen with AQIM. In the aftermath of Afghanistan 1980s, the mujahideen manifested into a threat called “al Qaeda”. But after Syria, will we talking about a threat called “al Qaeda”? Or will it instead be morphing into a new threat known as “al-Nusra” with some of al Qaeda’s ideological goals plus some new ones? If al-Nusra focuses on fighting Hezballah after the Assad regime falls, we might not care too much. But if al-Nusra turns its sites on Israel, well, I think there is a huge mess on the horizon.