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ISIS and the question of foreign fighters


By Mustafa Gurbuz

Kurdish struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) may turn to be the new “normal,” as the war endures longer than expected.   A critical aspect of the war on ISIS is a steady stream of foreign fighters. Mobilizing 16,000 foreign fighters in Syria, ISIS draws 1,000 volunteers a month, a rate so far unprecedented in any major civil war of recent decades.

US airdrops have not proven to be effective in deterring potential recruits around the globe.

The US involvement perhaps may even have complicated the overall foreign fighter phenomenon for all sides in the conflict.  On the one hand, the narrative of “imperialist occupation” would further appeal to some radicalized Muslim youth; on the other hand, the PKK/PYD recruitment from the Kurdish diaspora has begun to emerge.

As Joost Lagendijk, a former member of the European Parliament, pointed out in his recent speech at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, European officials are also concerned about radicalization of Kurdish youth in Europe.

Last week, a Canadian-born immigrant to Israel became the first non-Kurdish foreign woman to join the YPG forces battling ISIS in Syria. Still, the foreign fighters against ISIS remain negligible, especially compared to ISIS.

The roots of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon go back to the Afghan Mujahedeen war against the Soviet Union. Populist pan-Islamism was based on the global network of charities, mostly drawing recruits from the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia. The Afghan war enabled pan-Islamist activists to flourish across borders.

Between 1980 and 1992, thousands of foreign fighters joined the ranks of the Mujahedeen, including citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, most Arab countries, Indonesia, Philippines, some European countries and the Unites States. The cost of joining was not so high, compared to Syria today. Only about 5 percent of foreign fighters lost their lives and average tours in late the 1980s were so short that some volunteers were called jihad “tourists.”

Since the United States and Saudi Arabia provided considerable financial and military support to the Mujahedeen, some analysts rushed to argue that al-Qaeda was a US-Saudi creation that turned against its benefactors after the Cold War.

This “blowback” perspective may be useful in highlighting the complex nature of the problem. Yet, there is no substantial evidence of systematic support to foreign fighters, most of whom were known as “Arab Afghans.” What may be worth greater attention, as suggested by Thomas Hegghammer, are the Saudi elites who were competing for pan-Islamist propaganda, for fear of being perceived as unsympathetic toward suffering Muslims abroad. “At the heart of the story of the transnationalization of jihad,” maintains Hegghammer, is “a process of elite competition.” 

That sounds like what is happening between Turkey and ISIS: there is no substantial evidence of systematic support, but a discursive affinity, emerging from a fear of being perceived as unsympathetic toward suffering Sunnis.

Discursive competition with radicals, however, is a challenge by itself.

“Hope the murtad (apostate) Turkish government re-considers its policy,” said an ISIS militant on Turkey’s cut-off of Euphrates’ water supplies to Raqqa. “If not, we will conquer Istanbul!”

The ISIS declaration of the AKP government as “apostate” came in July 2014, long before Ankara’s decision to join the US-led coalition. At that time, only 62 per cent of the AKP supporters perceived ISIS as a “terrorist” organization, according to the Metropol survey agency. Now, for ISIS fighters, there are plenty of reasons to consider the AKP as an “apostate,” the key word in Daesh terminology to target Muslim competitors.

Considering the fact that Tunisia has sent 3,000 foreign fighters to Syria -- exceeding all countries including Saudi Arabia -- the question of foreign fighters deserves scrutiny more than ever.

What attracts Tunisian youth in large numbers? Is it the grievances of the Syrian opposition? Or is it their own grievances under state repression and persecution? Perhaps both, by people believing the two to be tied together. For those feeling “relative deprivation” in the most extreme, globalization offers opportunities. But it is often plagued with failed states and new conflict zones.

In the Middle East and North Africa, ISIS and al-Qaeda draw Sunni-Shia lines for decades to come. So do al-Shabab and Boko Haram in continental Africa, along the Muslim-Christian divide.

As modern state borders are redrawn, a tempest of fear dominates the air. Thomas Friedman’s recent quote from Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini, a former adviser to Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, is noteworthy: “We in the axis of resistance are the new sultans of the Mediterranean and the Gulf. We in Tehran, Damascus, (Hezbollah’s) southern suburb of Beirut, Baghdad and Sana will shape the map of the region. We are the new sultans of the Red Sea as well.”

Friedman calls Kurdistan, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman “islands of decency” which need to be protected from the Sunni-Shia frontline. As long as failed states exist, however, indecency of no man’s lands will enable foreign fighters to pursue their career, moving from one zone to another.

MUSTAFA GURBUZ is a policy fellow at the Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Transforming Ethnic Conflict: Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey (Forthcoming, Amsterdam University Press).


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KIM | 16/11/2014
ISIS is not our priority. Let the coalition forces deal with that. Kurds go your way ( independence).
Join The Kurds | 16/11/2014
The mosques are centers for recrutement of jihadists everywhere.Turkey is the main gate to the terrorland of Syria and Iraq.In this war there are three axes.1-The Sunni-Jihad, with the Islamist state as its spearhead, consists mainly of the former military of Saddam Husein and is supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey.2-The Shia which consists of Iran,Shia Iraq,the Syrian regime and Hozbollah,which is supported by Tehran ,Baghdad and Russia.3-The third axis are the Kurds,who have no proper stake in this war,but have been attacked by the IS.For the Kurds it is their existential war,they want to preserve their land and people and defend their civic values,which are human and pro-western. Despite their bravery they are largely outgunned and outnumbered and they desperately need Western help as they are trapped between ruthless hostile enemies .The West if it is serious about defeating the IS, it has to join the Kurds.
kurt basar | 16/11/2014
The hell with the Shiite or Sunni, all are followers of the Bedouin Mohamed who was looter & villain, the Arab Muawiya sold him as a Prophet to the other nation by fear of the sword. The Muslim religion is nothing but disease and need to be reformed for the sake of the humanity. Nobody should have right to kill, rape or sale others people sons and daughters or cut the hand of thief because he stole. The ISIL practices are same as the Mohamed and medieval Arab fighters and need to be stopped for good because new world doesn't need these savagery and savager, and it is a time to outlaw all these organized religions for good.
Kurdish God | 16/11/2014
This is a bad comparison. Just because last week, a Canadian-born immigrant to Israel became the first non-Kurdish foreign woman to join the YPG forces, that does not mean thousands of Westerners, Aryan Nations, Socialists, Communists and Kurds across the globe joining YPG . I don’t know anything about this writer but one thing I sense is that he is irritated by this Canadian gal‘s decision. Oh. By the way that means we the Kurdish Nation now can redraw our borders and declare independent Kurdish State just like ISIS did. Do you know why we are not doing that dear Mustafa? Because we are respecting your “international laws”, “constitutions” and “rule and regulations”. But no one sees the Kurdish right for a State existence, because again you have to redraw the map of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. I could feel that’s coming soon too. Freedom and independence for KURDIA now. No Turkyia or Mongolia :)…Mmmm the sound of great business = Religion is the opium of masses which you forgot to mention that.
Qaraman | 16/11/2014
There are hundreds of detailed reports about how Turkey has worked with ISIL and all the other jihadi groups in Syria, that's to 1. to keep Kurdish aspirations of freedom in check 2. to topple Assad and install a Turkish friendly Sunni rule. Even in Turkey several outstanding investigative Turkish journalist have published extensive reports in the Turkish media about the jihadi networks and the degree of cooperation between the Turkish state and these groups. You have testimony from ex- jihadi or ISIL members that have given detail discretion of how Turkish authorities helps them with logistics and turns a blind eye when they operate from Turkish territory, you have ISIL prisoners who have confessed of the same thing, Turkish id cards on dead ISIL members etc, in fact there's so much evidence that you have to be deaf, blind and dumb to overlook all that. I'm sure the Turkish authorities have toned it down these past couple of months because of all the media attention but Turkey is very much in bed with these groups. Some government friendly media in Turkey were so happy that they found ONE jihadi nut job that threatened Turkey in a video that it has become the poster card Turkey uses to tell the world "look! they're threatening us too!", well these jihadi groups threaten everybody, they're constantly in a state of cooperation and war even with each other, ISIL and Al-Nusra have declared each other "enemies of God that need to be destroyed" several times, but always go back to cooperating with each other again, like they're doing now. Start with in the right end mr. Gurbuz, be honest about Turkey's dirty role in all this, 90% of the jihadists from Tunis and else where have poured in into Syria from Turkey, all the weapon's these jihadists are using to murder people with have crossed into Syria from Turkey, I can go on and on, Turkey is very responsible for what has happened in Syria, when Turkey has done their part and stopped their support for these jihadists then they can point to other factors.
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