return of the mack: facilitators in the syrian and iraqi foreign fighter networks

So, I’m back up in the game/(Running things like my swing)/Lettin’ all the people know/That I’m back to run the show

The arrest of a number of people in Bosnia in the past week suggests that facilitators not operating in social media played a role in the movement of up-to 100 persons to Syria and Iraq. They facilitated travel for not only Bosnians but also individuals from Slovenia. A recent article about an Australian national states that he played the role of facilitator for at least half of the 60 Australian nationals fighting with ISIS (IS). The Bosnia arrests relate to a number of well known radical communities across the country and a key individual, who started out as an accordion player in a folk band playing bars in Germany and Austria, is alleged to have played a role in a large number of departures. The origins of the activity of the Australian appear to have been in a street dawah group with a side business in acting. Both articles point to diversity in the origins of facilitators.

“The Netherlands Comprehensive Action Programme to Combat Jihadism” defines a facilitator as “a person who gives or has given others the opportunity, means or information in support of the jihadist struggle.” This is as good a definition as any including key elements in the facilitation role of ‘opportunity, means or information’. The definition can include individuals active on social media as well as those with no social media profile but playing a role connecting would-be fighters with information and contacts to join groups on the ground in Syria or Iraq.

Another article also pointed to facilitators as playing roles in the current Syria and Iraq mobilisation. The Guardian report, “Isis recruitment moves from online networks to British mosques” states “Networks of radicals are re-emerging in British mosques and elsewhere to encourage and facilitate Muslims wanting to travel to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State (Isis).” Arguably, the networks have always been present but the visibility of the social media clusters led to an emphasis on this mechanism contrary to the older network-based facilitator paradigm seen in previous foreign fighter mobilisations.

The presence and role of facilitators in aiding foreign fighter mobilisations has been somewhat obscured with the proliferation of social media use by foreign fighters and research on this activity. This is not to say that social media has not played an important role in aiding would-be foreign fighters to mobilise for the battlefield but it is important to not overdetermine the social media role. Romain Caillet’s review of David Thomson‘s, “Les Français Jihadistes”, contains a quote from François Burgat which is worth repeating, “Sauf à confondre la voiture et l’agenda politique du chauffeur, il faut relativiser cette surdétermination du facteur Internet. Depuis la bande à Bonnot, on a eu souvent tendance à expliquer des mouvements de résistance, légitimes ou non, par les moyens technologiques qu’emploient leurs militants.” Loosely translated, “without wanting to confuse the car and the political leanings of the driver, it is necessary to be careful about overdetermining the factor of the Internet. Since the Bonnot gang, we have often had a tendency to explain resistance movements, legitimate or not, by the technical means employed by their militants”. Gilles Kepel in the same interview was less convinced of Burgat’s position stating, “Je ne suis pas d’accord. Il n’y aurait pas Al-Qaeda sans l’Internet et sans Al-Jezira.” (I don’t agree. Al-Qaeda would not exist without the Internet and al-Jazeera).

There is much that is not yet understood about how foreign fighters move from their countries of origin and it is important not to assume that foreign fighter networks function in exactly the same ways as jihadist networks involved in attack planning or seeking training abroad. Leuprecht and Hall in “Networks as strategic repertoires: Functional differentiation among Al-Shabaab terror cells” (Paywall) make some interesting observations about differences between what they term recruitment networks and financing networks and Andrew Zammit in “Explaining a Turning Point in Australian Jihadism” (Paywall) has some interesting insights on facilitators.