The end of the Soviet Afghan campaign did more than leave a nation in civil war. Thousands of Muslim foreign fighters from around the world were left to find a new path for their life. Many returned home to pursue a relatively mainstream existence, pursuing normal daily work while at night repeating tales of jihadi battles fought in far off lands.
For some fighters, the opportunity to fight in Afghanistan turned into a one-way ticket. Many Middle Eastern and North African countries preferred not to have trained, battle hardened mujahideen return home. Likewise, some foreign fighters now craved more conflict and actively began seeking new theatres in which to fight. Osama Bin Laden seized upon this first glut of idle foreign fighters to create a “base” – al Qaeda – which served as a focal point for the restless energy of homeless fighters. This first glut of fighters not only formed al Qaeda’s core cadre, but acted as the connective tissue to an informal network of veteran Afghan foreign fighters spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Al Qaeda successfully activated this network of former foreign fighters from the first Afghan jihad to fill its pipelines with a second generation of young men to serve in the post 9/11 campaigns of Afghanistan and Iraq.
While al Qaeda’s jihadi campaigns of Afghanistan after 2001 and Iraq after 2003 have not come to a complete close, these conflict are both well past their peak with a second generation of foreign fighters returning to their homes and neighborhoods. This second generation of fighters has now repeated the cycle of their predecessors from the first foreign fighter glut, spinning tales of combat and facilitating the radicalization and recruitment of new crops of fighters to serve in jihadi campaigns as fresh battles arise. In essence, the best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter. While the Internet and social media provide a powerful conduit for introducing recruits to jihadi ideology and reinforcing extremist messages perpetuated by local clerics, it’s the physical relationships between former foreign fighters that catalyzes the reception, training, staging, onward movement and integration of new recruits into jihadi ranks. (A conceptual graphic of this cycle is below (Figure 1) and a more in depth description of this process can be found at this link: “Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut”, 2009)
Today, the second glut of former foreign fighters, as well as their family, social and religious circles, have become fully activated generating the rapid supply of a third generation of jihadi fighters to the Syrian battlefield. Jabhat al-Nusra, now an official al Qaeda affiliate, has received hundreds if not a thousand or more new recruits from North Africa and the Middle East as well as handfuls from Europe and a small trickle from North America. The hometowns of this third generation of recruits are likely similar to their first and second generation predecessors to Iraq and Afghanistan. Likewise, they probably travel the same pathways, physically, socially and ideologically, that their predecessors passed through just six to seven years ago while making their way only a short distance away to places like Sinjar, Iraq.
In 2009, I tried to estimate the volume of foreign fighters remaining after the scaling down of U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Figure 2 above, I show a hypothetical example of what foreign fighter numbers might look like if there were actual data available to measure the flow of global foreign fighters. Marked with yellow stars, each tried to estimate the number of al Qaeda affiliated foreign fighters at differing periods. Each conflict, Afghanistan in the 1980s (#1), al Qaeda pre-9/11 (#2), Afghanistan & Iraq mid-2000s (#3) and what the number of fighters might look like in the future (#4). These represented only hypothetical estimates and did not anticipate how future unforeseen conflicts might change the foreign fighter recruitment pattern. Essentially, point #4 tried to anticipate foreign fighter recruitment as a steady, low rate without the presence of any other jihadi conflicts to increase the volume globally.
Today, Syria has mobilized foreign fighters, I estimate, at a volume equivalent to that of Iraq and Afghanistan just a few years ago and if left in its current state will far outpace the above estimate of foreign fighters of 2012 and beyond. Syria has not only jumpstarted the networks of the second foreign fighter glut, but will likely sustain those informal networks for the perpetuation of a third generation of foreign fighters. Additionally, Syria has inspired foreign fighter recruitment on several sides. While much attention has been paid to jihadis linking up with the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra, more secular Sunnis have joined the Free Syrian Army while Shiites from Hezballah and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have arrived to support the Assad regime.
Why has Syria ignited foreign fighter networks so quickly, to such a great extent and in the presence of other conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa? First, the Syrian revolution has continued far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising. With each passing day, the Syrian conflict draws the attention of additional recruits. Second, in Syria, foreign fighters have made a difference in sustaining the fight against Assad due to the absence of international support for the rebellion. 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.