the incompetency conundrum: are there too many foreign fighters in syria and iraq?

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now; entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now; entertain us/A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido

The return of an Indian foreign fighter after finding that the jihad was less about the fighting and more about cleaning toilets hints at an interesting problem for insurgent groups that find themselves inundated with would-be fighters with more experience of video game combat from the safety of their couch than skill sets that are transferable to an active war zone. Two further articles, one about a number of French foreign fighters expressing their dismay about washing dishes and a second in the Australian press about two brothers too fat to fight again suggest that there may come a time when the sheer mass of volunteers becomes too much for an insurgency to handle…

While experienced or suspicious minds could think, the appearance of these articles at the same time resembles the beginning of a coordinated pushback against the ‘snickers and swimming pool’ jihad, it is difficult to imagine the Australians, French and Indians with their bureaucracies and multiple agencies being able to get it together just so.

Whatever the case maybe, the stories do raise an interesting question – when is too many volunteers too much for an insurgency to properly manage and channel into activities that are both useful to the organisation and appropriate for the volunteering foreign fighter. Jacob Shapiro’s important book, ‘The Terrorist’s Dilemma’ examined in some detail the problems covert organisations have in managing their business and operational efficiency without compromising the need for security and secrecy. This problem is likely to exacerbated in an organisation the size of ISIS which has grown rapidly in the last two years. The group is based around a core Iraqi cadre, and there are probably significant levels of incomprehension between its European and Western members with their cultural tics and preferences, which are for the most part dissimilar to the experiences of their Iraqi ‘managers’.

Business management has the ‘Peter Principle’, which posits that ‘managers rise to the level of their incompetence’. Simply put people are promoted until they reach a level at which they are incompetent and because the incompetence manifests itself they have no chance of being promoted beyond this post. Is there a ‘Peter Principle’ for insurgent organisations where they reach a point at which they are no longer able to usefully manage and appropriately deploy volunteers, thus the volunteers are reduced to ‘cleaning toilets’ and ‘washing dishes’ and eventually become disillusioned because they are not gainfully participating or involved in activities in a manner that conforms with their initial expectations influenced by the insurgent frame, narrative or propaganda. When the snickers run-out, the swimming pools are empty and the bombs are falling an organisation is confronted with the challenge of dealing with in-coming recruits it cannot find work for and who it can no longer entertain at the pool.

Similarly, the economic principle of the ‘law of diminishing marginal returns’ suggests that there may come a time when organisations gain no further benefit from in-coming recruits. There may come a point at which the ever increasing numbers of volunteers may no longer improve or efficiently contribute to the groups deployment of violence. The reasons for the diminishing return despite the numbers of fighters are likely to have less to do with economics and more to do with who is coming to participate. The numerous articles and pieces on foreign fighters in Syria and now Iraq suggest that it is a heterogenous group with varied abilities to make contributions – the benefits of a Said Arif or ex-Albanian commando are obvious but those of a 17 year old teenager much less so. Thankfully, there is one Arif and four commandos and a larger number of inexperienced and potentially easily disillusioned adolescents. Some of the French cases, most notably the two boys from Toulouse, indicate that expectations and ground level reality are not necessarily compatible and can provide a point of intervention for the authorities, but most often parents begin the process of ‘demobilising’ the would-be foreign fighter.

Has the foreign fighter mobilisation reached a point where ISIS and other groups are saturated with volunteers and does the return of toilet cleaners and dishwashers suggest that the flow could slow – is there an the incompetency conundrum for  foreign fighters joining insurgencies and if so how could it be exploited to better demobilise returning foreign fighters?