The threat posed by so-called ‘foreign fighters’ has intensified over the last few years. Dr John Harrison attempts to place the complex issue in context and offer some ways in which the international civil aviation system can play a role in addressing the threat.
One of the defining characteristics of the al-Qa’eda (AQ) and Da’esh (the author will use the Arabic acronym for so-called Islamic State) has been the ability of both groups to attract, and train individuals globally to come and fight for their cause. Al-Qa’eda, for example, is thought by some to have processed as many as 100,000 people in its camps between 1996 and 2001, albeit the figure most likely stands between 10-20,000. Similarly, Da’esh has been able to attract foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Libya. According to the United Nations 360,000 have entered Syria since 2011, and while around 30,000 remain, tens of thousands have either died or otherwise departed. Some, as demonstrated by the attacks in Europe since 2014, are returning to their home countries with their extremist ideology intact.
The Threat in Context
Since the beginning of the Iraqi insurgency in 2004, the concept of the foreign fighter has been gaining wider traction. Experts understand the term to mean individuals who leave their country of origin or residence to join a non-state armed group fighting abroad. The typical profile of a fighter is a male between 18 and 30 who is either ideologically motivated -(usually a radical and distorted understanding of Sunni Islam), looking for meaning in their lives, or simply seeking adventure. While many are paid better than local fighters, money does not seem to be their primary motivation, so they are not considered mercenaries.
The phenomenon is of course not new; 35,000 so-called ‘Afghan Arabs’ – Muslims from 43 different countries – fought against the Soviets during their invasion of Afghanistan. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) almost 60,000 foreigners fought, primarily for the Republicans. Perhaps most famously, Lord Byron and other English foreign fighters went off to fight in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s. What defines the current wave of fighters – including those who participated in the Soviet War in Afghanistan – is that some have remained active combatants, travelling from the Balkans to Chechnya, to Algeria to Yemen throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, and are increasingly returning to their homeland and countries of residence.
The Two Foreign Fighter Threats
The international focus on the foreign fighter phenomenon has, understandably, fixated on those fighters aligned with Da’esh and other anti-Syria regime combatants (predominantly Sunni Muslims). As a consequence, a smaller but strategically important group has been overlooked: the pro-regime Shi’a fighters – the Syrian regime comes from the Alawites, a Shi’a group. Iran – a Shi’a majority state that backs the regime – has recruited 20,000 Afghan Shi’a, and an unknown number of Pakistani Shi’a to fight as part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces in Syria. Additionally, Iran has used its air force, the state carrier Iran Air, and private carriers Yas and Mahan Air to help move combatants. The latter two have been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council for transporting equipment and personnel to fight for the Syria regime. The air route between Iran and Syria is the most critical supply corridor as the land routes through Iraq are currently controlled by Da’esh and Iran does not have sea-lift capabilities.
These Shi’a fighters are perhaps more of a strategic threat than Da’esh; when these trained and experienced fighters return to Afghanistan, or Pakistan, they may serve as a catalyst for further sectarian violence in these countries, which already face deepening sectarian divides. But unlike Da’esh, Iran will have a greater ability to direct and support and even control these groups to advance its strategic interests.
It is important to note that al-Qa’eda has not ceded the field to Da’esh. Not only is it now aligned to two other groups, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as Jabat al Nursa) and Ahrar al-Sham, but AQ has also sent a special unit, identified by the US as the Khorasan Group, to conduct mass casualty attacks in Europe including aviation targets. US airstrikes in Syria in September of 2014 are understood to have disrupted the group.
That said, the recent Da’esh-linked attacks in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and elsewhere have demonstrated that the threat posed by these fighters to the rest of the world, and the aviation industry in particular, is no longer theoretical.