The phenomenon of foreign volunteers fighting in wars abroad has passed through a number of phases in modern history. Among the most important was the case of the group of Catholic youths who responded to Pope Pius IV’s call to fight against Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel during the Italian War of Unification in the 19th century.
Several decades later came the International Brigades supported by the Russian Communist Party and the Comintern that fought on the side of the republican government against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Following the formation of the PLO, numerous foreign fighters also joined that struggle, some carrying out fedayeen (fighter) operations against Israeli targets.
The rise of Islamism in the1970s combined with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan brought a qualitative shift in the phenomenon with respect to the Arab and Islamic worlds. Foreign fighters began to flock to Afghanistan in the framework of a global “jihad” mobilised by a number of radical Islamist organisations.
The fighters were primarily from Arab and other Muslim countries, while only a handful came from western countries during the decade-long war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Further foreign jihadist waves followed, from the Balkans during the Bosnian War against the Serbs in the 1990s to the Chechen insurgency against Russia and then to Iraq against the US occupation during the first decade of the present century. The Al-Qaeda organisation also gained increasing notoriety during this period.
However, the most significant qualitative shift in the history of the foreign fighters phenomenon took place with the rise of Daesh or the Islamic State (IS) group, in the wake of the Arab Spring Revolutions and in tandem with the eruption of the Syrian crisis. The pro-Shia, anti-Sunni sectarian policies of the Iraqi government added momentum to the growth of IS, which culminated in leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s proclamation in 2014 of an “Islamic caliphate” in Iraq and Syria.
Unlike Al-Qaeda and other radical groups in its orbit, IS worked to broaden its geopolitical and cultural domain by building a transcontinental identity.
Using the Internet, it actively sought to recruit foreign fighters, not just from the Middle East, but also from Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.
It built on Al-Qaeda’s experience in this regard. But whereas Al-Qaeda generally relied on jihadist Websites and chatrooms to find its recruits, IS forayed into the use of social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (as well as the multi-language IS mouthpiece Dabeq) in order to broaden the circle of potential recruits as well as to promote the concept of the “Islamic State” with its six to seven million inhabitants and to boast of its military conquests.
The transcontinental character that IS established for itself was further consolidated by a broadening sphere of groups that subscribed to its ideas and declared allegiance to it. From 2014 to 2016, IS established its presence to varying degrees in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Chad, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Niger, Nigeria and Yemen, as well as in a number of Western European countries (primarily France and Belgium), in addition to Syria and Iraq.
The natural effect of this geographic expansion was to precipitate an unprecedented increase in the numbers of Arab and foreign volunteers in IS ranks, a process that was aided and promoted by a number of Sunni countries in the region. No other radical Islamist organisation has been able to match this, including Al-Qaeda. The number of foreigners fighting in the ranks of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front pales in comparison, for example.
According to the available statistics, there are some 30,000 foreign fighters in IS ranks, in ratios that represent the major geographic areas that are playing a role in the current global jihadist wave. These are primarily the Middle East and North Africa, due to geographical and cultural proximity, Western Europe, Russia and the Caucasus, and the Balkans, and to a lesser extent South and Southeast Asia and North America.
What is striking in this regard is the growing role of Western Europe in the recent jihadist wave in Syria and Iraq. Some 5,000 fighters from this part of the world have joined the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq, whereas only a decade ago western recruits in jihadist organisations were very rare. Perhaps the most famous was the Belgian national Muriel Doganque, who carried out a suicide bomb attack for Al-Qaeda in 2005, becoming the first western female suicide bomber in history.
The statistics reveal some interesting patterns regarding the geographical origins of the Western European recruits. For example, 3,700 out of the 5,000 come from four countries: France, Belgium, Germany and Britain. These are the Western European countries with the largest numbers of immigrant communities from North Africa in particular. This makes it difficult to dissociate that phenomenon from the fact that 8,000 foreign fighters with IS come from North Africa (6,000 from Tunisia, and 1,200 from Morocco).
Two factors account for the Western European-North African link. The first is the vertical axis created by the dissemination of the Salafist movement and ideology from North Africa through France and other parts of Western Europe via its North African communities, a process that began to gain momentum in the 1990s.
The second relates to the surge, also in the 1990s, of asylum-seekers of North African origin in Europe who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In addition to being instrumental in the spread of the Salafist movement in Europe, these later became the “gateway” for European Muslim recruits into Al-Qaeda, creating a network on which IS was then able to capitalise in the course of promoting a new Islamic identity in order to build the so-called Islamic State and penetrate Western Europe.
The other major geographical region represented in IS ranks is Russia and the former Soviet republics. An estimated 4,700 fighters come from that part of the world, some driven by the jihadist fervour they acquired during the Chechen War and others by the security and military clampdown in the Caucasus. The Russian military intervention in Syria has also drawn more jihadists from this region to IS ranks.
The following is a geopolitical breakdown of the phenomenon: Middle East and North Africa (MENA): More than 16,000 of the foreigners fighting with IS come from the MENA region, making this the largest geographical bloc represented in the organisation.
Within MENA, the Middle East accounts for more than half of these, with a total of 8,270 fighters: 2,500 from Saudi Arabia, 2,200 from Turkey, 2,000 from Jordan, 900 from Lebanon, 600 from Egypt and 70 from Sudan. According to statistics compiled in December 2015, 8,000 come from North Africa (the Maghreb), with Tunisia taking first place with 6,000 fighters (of whom 700 are women), and including 1,200 Moroccans, 600 Libyans and 170 Algerians. The main reason why Libyans are not strongly represented in IS in Syria and Iraq is because of the IS franchise that was created in Libya.
The large proportion of fighters from North Africa is due on the one hand to the experience and outlook acquired during the war in Afghanistan and on the other to the dissemination of Salafist recruitment networks in North Africa. Sometimes the figures point to particular towns or regions as recruitment centres. For example, in Libya Derna and the outskirts of Benghazi have furnished the largest number of Libyan recruits to IS. These jihadist centres were also the two main sources of Libyan volunteers to the war in Afghanistan.
In Tunisia, the town of Benqardan (population 80,000) is the chief source of Tunisian recruits to IS. It is followed by Bizert and Tunis. As for Morocco, the Casablanca suburb of Sidi Momin supplies IS with the largest number of Moroccan recruits.
It is worth noting that the jihadist recruitment networks in North Africa have taken advantage of the breakdown in security in Libya and its porous borders in order to use the deserts of southern Libya and Sudan as transit zones for recruits to Syrian and Iraq.
Western Europe and North America: The number of foreigners from Western Europe fighting with IS in Syria and Iraq rose from 2,500 in mid-2014 to 5,000 at the outset of 2016. 3,700 of them come from four countries: France (1,500), Britain (760), Germany (750) and Belgium (470).
On top of these are another 115 from Denmark, 300 from Sweden, 60 from Finland and 70 from Norway. The vast majority are of African and Arab origin. Recruits from Italy and Spain are very few.
The fact that the majority of these recruits come from the first four countries listed is because these are the countries that have the largest immigrant communities. Second or third-generation children in them may suffer from identity and assimilation crises, making them vulnerable to the influence of Salafist and jihadist proselytisers, especially in marginalised immigrant quarters such as Molenbeek in Brussels and certain suburbs of Paris and Lyon.
In addition, an estimated five to 10 per cent of the recruits are recent converts to Islam who because of their poor knowledge of it are easily influenced by the jihadists and salafis that frequent certain mosques and Arabic language-learning centres in Europe. About 50 per cent of IS recruits from European countries such as Belgium have criminal records. IS gives recruits such as these the chance to make a new start by taking part in building its “Islamic State” and the creation of a transnational Islamic identity in exchange for defending the “caliphate”.
Fighters from North America are far fewer in number: 150 Americans and 130 Canadians as of the beginning of 2016. Most of these are of Muslim immigrant origin. The lower number, compared to Western Europe, is in part due to geographical distance and in part due to more successful mechanisms for assimilating immigrant populations.
Russia and former Soviet republics: The North Caucasus includes the Russian territories in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. According to some estimates, between 2,000 and 3,000 Chechen fighters are now with IS in Syria and Iraq.
Jihadist movements have proliferated to such an extent in the North Caucasus, which includes the Russian territories in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, that it has become notorious as a major centre of international terrorism in spite of attempts on the part of Russian military and security agencies to staunch the phenomenon, especially given its strategic importance due to its oil resources and natural gas pipelines to Europe.
The South Caucasus is a strategic military and commercial crossroads. Georgia shares borders with Chechnya and Dagestan, both major jihadist areas, and this has made Georgia a chief transit zone for recruits to Syria and Iraq via Turkey. The latter has long served as the last stop for foreign fighters en route to these countries.
The number of recruits from the South Caucasus is much smaller than from the northern part of the same region. Estimates place them at around 500 fighters. In addition to the foregoing, around 2,000 recruits come from such former Soviet republics as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and it is important to bear in mind that the Uzbek Islamic Movement declared its allegiance to IS in August 2015.
The Balkans: The Balkans are strategically important in this context as they serve as another major transit zone for foreign recruits to IS from various parts of the world. There are also jihadist networks and Salafist groups that sympathise with IS in some Muslim countries of the Balkans, such as Albania.
In addition to recruitment, these groups offer logistics services for recruits from other parts of the world on their way to Syria via the Balkans and Greece and Turkey. The Balkans are also important for IS for movements in the opposite direction, which is to say as a transit point for operatives into Western Europe and a staging point for terrorist operations.
The Balkans, and specifically the western portion of them, have become a major recruitment base for IS due to their high rates of unemployment and the growing size of marginalised sectors of society. This helps to explain why the number of IS recruitments from the Balkans and the Western Balkans in particular rose from 675 in 2015 to more than 1,700 in 2016. The vast majority come from four countries: Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
South Asia: The relatively low number of foreign fighters with IS from the Indian Subcontinent (50 from Afghanistan, 500 from Pakistan and fewer than 10 from India) may be due to the fact that this region, especially Afghanistan, parallels Syria and Iraq as an arena for international jihad.
In addition, IS has not succeeded in penetrating this region due to Al-Qaeda’s greater influence there. It should be born in mind that the two terror organisations are engaged in a geopolitical contest in many parts of the world. Another reason for IS’s inability to extend its influence into Afghanistan has to do with the Afghan Taliban, who see IS as a source of threat in terms of recruitment and funding, as well as in terms of ideology. Intermittent clashes have erupted between Taliban fighters and IS supporters in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, IS has succeeded in obtaining a pledge of allegiance from the Kharasan Group that operates in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as from the Pakistani anti-Shia Jundallah Group, the Uzbek Islamist Movement, some members of which are active in northern Afghanistan, and some dissident Taliban leaders.
Although IS has also secured the allegiance of the Mujahideen Group in Bangladesh, its influence there is negligible in terms of the constituent regional components of the foreign fighters with IS.
Southeast Asia and China: Muslims in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, and Malaysia account for 95 per cent of the Muslim population of Southeast Asia, which makes this region a major exporter of foreign fighters to IS.
Burma, the Philippines, Thailand and western China are also significant, since these have large Muslim minorities. According to the available statistics, 700 to 1,000 Indonesians are fighting with IS in Syria and Iraq. They were recruited through two parallel channels: locally by groups such as the Ansar Al-Tawhid and the Mujahideen of Indonesia, organisations which have pledged allegiance to IS, and abroad through jihadist cells formed by Indonesian students at various Islamic centres of learning in the Middle East. The latter helps explain the relatively high number of Indonesian recruits in IS in spite of the distance between Indonesia and battle zones in Syria and Iraq.
Only about 160 Malaysians are fighting with IS. This relatively low figure may have induced IS to create its so-called Katibah Nusantara in Southeast Asia, as well as schools for child recruits in order to expand its influence in the region. As for western China, about 300 Uighur Muslims have enlisted with IS in Syria, and there has been a steady migration of members of this minority to Turkey.
In the end, it can be said that there is a certain similarity between the motives driving foreign volunteers with IS and the radical left-wing groups that took part in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, for example. The latter had only superficial familiarity with communist ideology gained from a few abridged pamphlets, and their purpose was to enlist with the revolution with Soviet support.
There is a similar situation in the case of foreign fighters with IS today, in this case with the support of certain Sunni countries and other powers in the name of the “defence of Islam.” Three factors are at work here: the existence of an identity crisis and an existential crisis and the readiness to use violence, all stemming from certain social and personal conditions. In addition, there is the international nature of the crisis which helps generate the funding necessary for recruitment and warfare.
The writer holds a PhD in international affairs from the sorbonne in Paris.