Le Point has short article which distinguishes between different types of foreign fighters from France engaged in the conflict in Syria and Iraq.
“Classics” – jihadists who have participated in conflicts across the globe – Balkans, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Another term for these individuals is ‘old skool’ foreign fighters, who are, for the most part, interested only in foreign fighting and have participated or tried to participate in numerous conflicts. They are likely a minority in Syria and Iraq. Examples would include Said Arif, Abdelkader Hakimi, and perhaps, to a lesser extent, individuals like Raphael Gendron or Sabri Essid.
“Lone Wolves” – young, inexperienced and only recently engaged in the jihadist cause. The term lone wolves is problematic as these individuals often travel to Syria in clusters, not necessarily at the same time, in some cases, there is a precursor who then facilitates the rest of the group; examples could include, the shariah4Belgium grouping, the Portsmouth cluster from the United Kingdom, or the Calgary cluster from Canada.
“Family jihad” – an increasing number of jihadists are leaving in family groups. Their goal is to construct a state and to live in accordance with their beliefs without being subject to what they perceive as discrimination and harassment in the west. The French estimate that there are as many 175 females involved in the Syrian foreign fighter issue and 40 minors of whom a dozen have managed to reach Syria. This is not completely new as many jihadists traveled to Afghanistan pre-9/11 with their families. Malika el-Aroud’s rise to prominence was in part due to her time in Afghanistan and her book, “Soldiers of Light”, contains details on the other families living there at that time.
It is not clear that the three groupings above are the best way to describe the varying groups within the foreign fighter mobilisation but distinguishing between groups of foreign fighters and not treating them as a homogenous whole is important. There are clearly differing motivations between those taking their family and those going to fight. In the group of those going to fight there are those who have experience and those who do not have experience. Foreign fighters, from the west without experience have tended to not rise to positions of influence with the insurgent organisations, an exception was Mohammed Moumou in AQI and more recently Moez Garsalloaoui in the Af/Pak zone. A recent discussion at a MOSECON function referred to many of the European foreign fighters as ‘greenhorns’ and ‘cannon-fodder’.
The MOSECON lunch talk also has comments relevant to a discussion of types or sub-groupings within the foreign fighter contingent. Claudia Dantschke’s insights are particularly interesting (from 36 minutes onwards) and she discusses in some depth the second grouping above although she does not use the term lone wolves. The New York Times ran a profile on her work with foreign fighters and their families.
Typologies of pathways into organisations engaged in political violence are not new and Lorenzo Bosi and Donatella Della Porta have written on “Micro-mobilization into Armed Groups: Ideological, Instrumental and Solidaristic Paths”, where they write based on research in the PIRA and the Red Bridgades that they were able to find, “three general paths…the ideological path, the instrumental path and the solidaristic path. Each of these is characterized by complex interactions between the individual motivations for involvement (micro-level), the networks that facilitate the recruitment process (meso-level), and the effects of repression on individuals (macro-level).” They found that those who came through the ideological path were motivated by what they term a counter-hegemonic consciousness, and recruited via family and territorial traditions. Those who took the instrumental path were motivated by an aspiration to change and recruited via political networks and finally, those who came via the solidaristic path, were motivated by defense and revenge, and recruited via the peer group. Their whole study is worth reading containing rich observations of relevance to the foreign fighter issue. In a study on mobilisation of women into the Salvadoran guerrilla army. Viterna wrote, “I find that Salvadoran women followed three distinct paths to guerrilla activism: I call them politicized guerrillas, reluctant guerrillas, and recruited guerrillas.” She added that, “These mobilization paths arose from the patterned intersections of individual-level biographies, networks, and situational contexts. The implications of these findings extend beyond studies of revolutionary activism to analyses of microlevel mobilization in general.” This suggests that if individuals join organisations for multiple reasons and through numerous paths, then exit from violence is likely to require multiple exits and one-size fits-all solutions, whether repressive or at the soft-end – are unlikely to sufficiently address or mitigate the long-run risks associated with the diverse foreign fighter population currently engaged in Syria and Iraq.