How Sunni ‘foreign fighters’ choose to travel is not easily answered given that it was and remains a semi-clandestine activity. A review of past behaviour – Afghanistan I, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan II networks – suggests a number of general factors are present.
Legitimacy: The country of destination has to be perceived as legitimate. The notion of legitimacy includes whether participation in the conflict is sanctioned, a discourse that could include ‘fatwas’ or a consistent flow of images both through text and other media of oppression and suffering that has not been addressed, for example travel to Bosnia or Iraq as opposed to the Sahel. Thus legitimacy has often been framed within the notion of a defensive jihad against a foreign occupier.
Resonance: The conflict or cause needs to find resonance among those who are considering travel. An individual needs to have both a rational and emotional connection to events. This connection may initially be viewing of media reporting combined with a jihadi narrative and small group dynamics – in-group love and out-group hate. An example is the 19eme network in France.
Access: ‘Foreign fighters’ need to be able to travel to the area of the conflict. Issues of logistics are important – visas, airline routes, language, presence of clandestine support networks determine the volume of ‘foreign fighters’ traveling. Syria was a hub for Iraq, in part, because there were numerous flights or overland access points, visa at entry for North African and Middle Eastern travelers, and no language barriers. Further the presence of language and religious schools gave foreign fighters a semi-legitimate excuse for travel. Finally Syrian interdiction efforts varied over time, at times limiting access and at other times appearing to be less interested. In contrast travel to Afghanistan II (Post-9/11) has been more difficult – surveillance, control of entry ports, etc meaning that the volume of travel has in recent years not been equal to the peak of the Iraq networks. The second Sinjar report and the first FRPI Foreign Fighter conference both deal with these issues.
Social connections: Finally, a would-be ‘foreign fighter’ needs social connections via friends or family to facilitate access to the conflict zone. A member of the group needs to know someone who knows someone who will vouch for the travellers. In Iraq, networks seem to have made contact with facilitators in Syria via language schools or because an individual in their wider social network had contact with prior networks. For example, the Sinjar documents often contain reference to the individual who recommended travel.
However, the process, if it can be called that, is somewhat haphazard and probably less organized than it sometimes appears. Academics and bureaucrats (security officers and analysts etc) at times mirror-imaging or replicating their own experience and structure on these entities. Vidino in a presentation to the 2010 FPRI ‘foreign fighter’ conference notes that prior to 9/11, Tunisians in Italy wanted to travel to Chechenya but because of the contacts they were able to make and the networks that were functioning they instead ended up in Afghanistan. Another example is the Mauritanians associated with the GSPC/AQIM because they were aggrieved about Iraq and were seeking to participate in the conflict in Iraq. However, due to the capacity or limitations of the network they were initially involved in they ended up remaining with AQIM. A final example is that of the “Internautes de Zarzis”, a group of Tunisians arrested and sentenced to long terms in prison on allegations of downloading bomb-making material by the Tunisian authorities. The intervention of a number of human rights groups led to the individuals being released and some the individuals leaving Tunisia for Europe. Curiously, two members of the group would be later linked to the 2006 wave of ‘foreign fighters’ to Somalia. Interviews with members of the group in Arabic can be found here and here.
Finally, to cofound the conventional wisdom, a blog post by an American ‘foreign fighter’ and press reporting on another one suggests that travel to combat zones, even ones involving Muslim populations, is not exclusively Sunni nor necessarily linked to al-Qaeda.