By Jack Berger
New York City–After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, voices began to rise up within the Islamic world, calling for young men to travel to Afghanistan to defend their Muslim brothers and sisters. Many heeded the call, and it is estimated that anywhere from 20,000 to 35,000 foreign fighters – known as “Arab Afghans” – traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Red Army. After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, many of these foreign mujahideen remained active, with some remaining in Afghanistan, and others returning to their home countries as folk heroes.
Instilled with the spirit of jihad, the “Afghan Arabs” – including Osama bin Laden – preached against the threat posed by the West, and railed against Arab governments that they claimed had abandoned Islam. These men eventually formed the ranks of al-Qaeda, helping to bring legitimacy and funding to the organization. In Bosnia, they formed the Katibat al-Mujahideen regiment to fight against the Christian Serbs. In Algeria, former mujahideen played an important role in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in its war against the Algerian government. In Egypt, veterans of the Afghan conflict led a resurgence of Islamist militancy, launching attacks against Coptic, government, and tourism targets – and culminating in the massacre of 60 tourists at Luxor in 1997.
The effects of the Soviet-Afghan War are still being felt today, as the same tradition of jihad that drove thousands of young men to Afghanistan is now drawing thousands of others – more than 20,000 by most estimates – to Syria. In this conflict, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has replaced the Soviet Union as the villain – reviled for the brutality it has exhibited against its own citizens. As was true in Afghanistan, the young men coming to fight in Syria have a variety of motivations: Some truly believe in the righteous cause of defending their fellow Sunni Muslims; some seek to achieve religious enlightenment by living in the self-declared Islamic State; and a certain percentage are likely psychopaths seeking an outlet for their antisocial and violent behavior.
Regardless of the initial motivations of these foreign fighters, the environment in Syria is undeniably radicalizing. The self-described jihadis – most of whom have no exposure to war – are immediately exposed to extreme levels of violence, with many compelled to commit acts of brutality against civilian populations. This exposure to violence can cause severe detachment from reality, which in turn aids in the process of indoctrination and radicalization. For the fighters, the violent environment becomes normalized, and they become accustomed to achieving their goals through the use of force. While groups like the Islamic State get the most coverage for their brutality, the dynamic of shell-shocked and desensitized fighters is present across all parties to the conflict.
Foreign fighters in Syria present a particular risk to regional and international security because their process of detachment also includes a detachment from their own national identities. In highly publicized videos, many foreign fighters of the so-called Islamic State are even shown burning their passports, indicating their desire to live – and die – in the Caliphate. Fighters who do wish to return to their own countries are likely to be discouraged by the high possibility of arrest upon their arrival. The Islamic State has also taken to beheading deserters, further disincentivizing their foreign fighters from returning home. This reality means that even after a formal ceasefire is reached between the Syrian government and the various rebel movements, tens of thousands of fighters will be abruptly thrown into a context of peace that they may not be able to adapt to.
Some of these fighters – especially those belonging to the Islamic State – will continue to destabilize Syria, seeking to improve their own positions at the expense of the peace process. Some will seek out conflict in other countries, traveling to Iraq, Libya, or the Sinai. There is already evidence that returned fighters from Syria are also looking to stoke conflict in their home countries, with local fighters affiliated with the Islamic State carrying out attacks in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tunisia, and France. Even if returnees from Syria do not carry out attacks themselves, they are proving to be a radicalizing presence wherever they end up.
The aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan War showed the serious security risk posed by foreign fighters in post-conflict settings. The longer the conflict in Syria continues, the more likely the post-conflict foreign fighter dynamic will mirror that of the Soviet-Afghan War. Syria will remain unstable for years to come, and fighters will scatter, carrying a tradition of violent extremism wherever they go. While ending the conflict is key to avoiding this eventuality, so too is effective post-conflict reconstruction. After the mujahideen pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan, the country was largely left to fend for itself. If the same is allowed to happen in Syria, it is guaranteed that those with the most guns will fill the post-conflict vacuum.
Jack Berger is a Research Analyst at the Soufan Group, a leading international security and intelligence firm based in New York City. Mr. Berger has extensive experience in the Middle East and North Africa region, having spent time in Morocco, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. Mr. Berger received his M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
You can follow him on Twitter @jbergeriv