By Michael Jansen
September 19, 2016
Last month US drones tracked Daesh fighters as they were fleeing from the northern Syrian town of Manbij following its fall to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
While Syrians apparently shed their uniforms and weapons and tried to melt into the local residents, the US focused on foreign fighters in order to discover whether they fled Syria or went to nearby Jarablus or Daesh’s capital Raqqa. The US and the rest of the world must try to identify and keep track of these battle-hardened veterans as some are likely to popup elsewhere to carry out attacks on civilians or wage war in other theatres where Muslims are in conflict with their governments or other antagonists.
Following the war to drive Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Arab Mujahideen remained in that country, married Afghan women, and became soldiers in Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the movement that assumed leadership in 1989. His primary objectives were to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and liberate Palestine. About 4,000 Arab Afghans joined battle in Bosnia where Muslims were fighting Christian Serbs but were invited to depart after peace was imposed and Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged.
Algerian veterans returned home and took up command positions in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that fought a protracted war with the government after the army stepped in to prevent a fundamentalist party from winning the election set for January 1992. Under ideologue Seif Allah Djafar, who fought for two years in Afghanistan, the GIA killed civilians and foreigners as well as Muslim moderates. When the war ended in the late 1990s, somewhere between 40-200,000 people had been slain.
Similarly, fundamentalists fighting the Egyptian government during this period included Afghan veterans, notably Ayman al-Zawahiri, who now heads al-Qaeda central. He dispatched another Afghan Arab, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, to Iraq following the 2003 US invasion and occupation with the aim of establishing a branch of al-Qaeda in that country and waging war against the US occupiers. This organisation won the allegiance of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis and mounted attacks in Iraq as well as Jordan and Lebanon. Al-Qaeda in Iraq became al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria, Daesh, and Jabhat al-Nusra, groups now plaguing the region.
Bin Laden and other Afghan war veterans were involved in the planning, financing and implementation of the attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001, the establishment of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Yemen – which became al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – and the creation of al-Qaeda off-shoots across North and Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Afghan-Arab” fighters formed international radical brigades which fought in conflicts in Europe, the Caucasus, the Philippines, Kashmir, Eritrea, Somalia, Tajikistan and elsewhere.
Daesh has followed al-Qaeda’s example and won the support of militants across the world.
These developments amount to blow-back from the ill-advised war mounted by the US Reagan administration to oust Soviet forces from Afghanistan although departure was always on the cards. No one has ever managed to subdue the tough and deeply conservative Afghans so it was a matter of time before the Soviet Union would be forced to pull out of their country. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan was a man determined to weaken the Soviet Union with the aim of bringing it down. He succeeded but at the great cost of creating a different sort of global threat which cannot be easily tackled or crushed because it is like the many headed hydra of Greek legend. When one head is lopped off, another grows in its place. The hydra regenerated heads and remained invincible until all its heads were cut off.
In its report issued last December, the Soufan Group estimated between27-31,000people from 86 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Daesh and other radical Salafist groups. While there have been several thousand since then, recruitment has apparently slowed due to Daesh’s battlefield losses and clamp-downs on routes by which recruits reach these two countries. While the overwhelming majority of these recruits have been from Arab countries, substantial numbers have come from Europe, Russia and the Central Asian republics, Asia, and Australia. Although many of these fighters have been killed, many others have returned to their home countries and now pose a serious threat to security.
Daesh is also highly adept at recruiting volunteers online and is likely to continue this effort even if the organisation loses its territorial holdings in Syria and Iraq.
Daesh could very well create a global virtual “caliphate” attracting even more adherents than it has now. None of the governments involved in the struggle against Daesh have come up with a strategy to deal with it either on the ground or in the virtual world.
Daesh and similar groups are certain to look to the example of the professional “Afghan-Arabs” and other foreign veterans who fanned out across the world in pursuit of fresh combat to which they had become addicted. In many cases, their home countries, struggling with faltering economies, corruption and high unemployment had nothing to offer them.
Daesh organisers have the advantage of advanced technology to spread their message, promote their ideology and “groom” young men and women to join their ranks. There is a large pool of alienated angry young Muslims eager to join the fight against the Christian West which has colonised them, dominated the governments in their home countries which have failed to provide productive lives for them and discriminated against them.
The only way to deal with Daesh is to tackle the roots of the alienation of Muslim youth but no one has worked out a strategy to carry out such a massive and challenging enterprise.
Michael Jansen a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.