We have heard a great deal recently about the “foreign fighters” flocking to take up arms against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war — and the threat they may pose if they eventually return to their home countries as battle-hardened jihadis.
The numbers certainly demand our attention. Of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 foreign fighters in Syria, as many as 2,000 are said to be European nationals, as well as some 100 Australian citizens and several dozen American passport holders, according to published sources. While some are fighting alongside “moderate” rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army, most have reportedly joined the ranks of the militant Jabhet al-Nusra and the formerly Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
I know the mentality of these nationless combatants. I fought beside them.
As a teenage Afghan refugee living in Pakistan in the 1980s, I joined the anti-Soviet resistance. I took up arms in a cause we called jihad, or holy war — but one focused on liberating our homeland, not exporting an ideology. War came to us through Soviet invasion: We hated it, and we wanted to live through it to see a free Afghanistan at peace.
Pitting a small, impoverished Muslim nation against an infidel invader, Afghanistan’s conflict attracted up to 20,000 foreign fighters in the 1980s, the largest contingent drawn to any Muslim country in modern history. Made up mostly of Saudis and Pakistanis, the army of volunteers also included Egyptians, Tunisians and Indonesians, among others.
Make no mistake: The Afghan mujahedeen, equipped with Western arms, won that war. International volunteers played a marginal role in sealing our victory, their numbers notwithstanding.
This was my fight, but I also found myself encamped with foreign fighters. I was curious about what motivated them. Many were well intentioned, driven by a sense of religious duty. Some were thrill-seekers, who wanted to experience the adrenaline of combat. Others were pure zealots; they sought not national liberation, as I did, but martyrdom. Some young Arab men, hoping to be martyred, chained themselves to trees in the waning days of the Soviet occupation. You can imagine how much this contributed to Afghan freedom.
It is said that war makes brothers out of strangers, but the foreign fighters and we native Afghans remained strangers to the end. While some bonds were formed, the foreigners could never shed their outsider’s baggage and win full acceptance.
Their foreign tongues, their strange garb and mien and, above all, their reasons for fighting kept them apart. Their novice’s clumsiness drew giggles; their religious dogmatism baffled us. And their suicidal embrace of martyrdom caused revulsion.
At best, we viewed them as uninvited guests; at worst, a nuisance imposed on us by jihadi leaders eager to win Saudi financial support. The divide hardly narrowed as the war drew to a close. While we yearned for the fighting to end, I heard more than one of the foreign fighters say how they looked forward to carrying on the jihad until they hoisted the green banner of Islam over Moscow and Washington.
As the instigator of global jihad, Al Qaeda has become a brand unlike any other terrorist organization in history. Hundreds of young Westerners have joined rebel forces affiliated with Al Qaeda and other militant groups, often doing stints in more than one battleground nation. Foreign fighters are active from Libya to Somalia.
While some Western officials, such as Britain’s counterterrorism chief, Helen Ball, have distinguished between “romantic freedom fighters” and “those who get themselves trained to use weapons or build bombs and engage in fighting,” the concern is that the young volunteers, radicalized and combat-trained, will wreak havoc on their return. That distant civil war in Syria “has become a matter of homeland security,” said Jeh C. Johnson, secretary of homeland security.
With an estimated 1,500 groups fighting in Syria, the conflict is clearly far more complex than the Afghan war. Europeans and Americans of Syrian heritage are fighting to liberate their homeland from the murderous Assad regime. Sunnis from Saudi Arabia and Libya have been drawn by their solidarity with coreligionists.
Religious fundamentalists may be driven by a desire to revive the Caliphate. Others couldn’t care less where they’re fighting — as long as the battlefield affords them an opportunity for martyrdom. Whatever their motives, they see the Syrian conflict as a just cause. As one British Sunni convert fighting in Syria commented on a social networking site: “what motivates me is that the Muslims of sham” — meaning Syria — “are being killed, tortured and raped and as Muslims we must believe that they are also family.”
In an attempt to understand the foreign fighters, some Western experts have crafted caricatures — the revenge-seeker, the status-seeker, the identity-seeker and so on — but the legion of fighters with varied and often overlapping motives defy easy stereotypes. As the scholar Thomas Hegghammer observed: “In reality, most foreign fighters never engaged in out-of-area operations, but fought in one combat zone at the time.”
The homeland security threat may be an issue of needing better intelligence about disaffected homegrown radicals, rather than foreign fighters bringing mayhem home. The young men behind the 2010 Times Square car bombing attempt and the Boston Marathon bombing seem to have had as much in common, psychically, with the Columbine shooters as with veterans of foreign wars.
Before summarily prosecuting the fighters upon their return from Syria, as Britain is considering, or revoking the United States citizenship of fighters with dual citizenship (as some have called for), we should determine their guilt by more than association. For most, a deradicalization program, such as those run by Saudi Arabia, could help reintegrate them into civilian life.
In Afghanistan, hundreds of veterans stayed behind and followed in Osama bin Laden’s footsteps to later infamy. Others, gripped by religious fervor and martial wanderlust, went on to cause mayhem in places like Algeria and Egypt during the 1990s.
But not all did, of course. For some, their adventure concluded, quiet civilian lives beckoned. I befriended a young Arab-American from New York who was happy to be heading home at the end of the war. A Harvard-educated British convert I knew went on to become a distinguished war correspondent. I, too, became a writer and journalist. You might say that in the end, we were more closely allied in peace than we had been in war.
Masood Farivar is a senior broadcaster for Voice of America and the author of Confessions of a Mullah Warrior.