To avoid the global proliferation of jihadi networks, we must learn from past experiences, argues Mubaraz Ahmed.
The concentration of militants, domestic and foreign, in Syria today has been described as the "largest gathering of jihadi groups in modern times." ISIS, al-Qaeda, and a plethora of other armed Islamist groups, some of which have even been deemed 'moderate' at times, have led to the Syrian conflict becoming the most significant jihadi networking opportunity on the planet.
While the clear and immediate priorities are to combat these groups and to work towards a political solution that addresses the root causes of the Syrian conflict, understanding the risks posed in the aftermath by this congregation of jihadis is paramount. Battle-hardened, well-connected, and imbued with the fervour and fanaticism of the jihadi ideology, returning fighters may seek to continue their fight at home.
It may be easy to dismiss the threat of returning fighters, given that many are believed to have died fighting and those that do make it back are likely to be swiftly picked up by security services. But as history shows us, it only takes a few experienced, charismatic individuals to light the spark for a generation of jihadi violence.
Whether in the 1980s to fight the Soviets or the 1990s to attend training camps in the 'al-Qaeda safe haven' that Afghanistan had become under the Taliban, the assembly of international jihadis was the precursor to the proliferation of the movement worldwide. The founders and early leaders of many of the jihadi groups that are continuing to cause death and destruction in the Middle East, East Africa, South-East Asia, and elsewhere, can be traced back to al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Receiving weapons training, developing new networks, and above all, becoming firmly acquainted with the warped pseudo-religious creed of Salafi-jihadism, Afghanistan offered a hub for jihadis to develop the mind-set and means needed to set up one's own franchise of global jihadism.
It was the returnees from the fighting and training camps in Afghanistan that were responsible for spreading the seeds of jihadism from West Africa to East Asia. While the contexts of Afghanistan in the past and Syria today are different, the phenomenon of returning foreign fighters is one that we have witnessed before.
Indeed, ISIS itself is part of the legacy of jihadi activity in Afghanistan. The founder of the group's forerunner al-Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, joined the jihadi caravan in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, eventually establishing his own training camp for recruits from the Levant. Many others like Zarqawi, emboldened and empowered from the environment they had experienced, returned to familiar grounds to establish their own networks.
The likes of Algerian jihadis Abdelmalek Droukdel and Mokhtar Belmokhtar both spent time in al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, with the latter considered to have close ties to al-Qaeda's central leadership. The pair would return from Afghanistan and go on to bring global jihadism to North Africa and the Sahel with groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Mourabitoun. Similarly, it was returnees from the Afghanistan jihad in the 1980s that founded the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria that fought against the government and army in the country's civil war.
The founder of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al-Wuhayshi, had spent time working closely with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, while his successor and the group's current leader, Qasim al-Raymi, also spent time in the country training with al-Qaeda. These two Yemeni returnees have been responsible for the leadership of AQAP since the group's inception.
The Somalia-based group al-Shabaab, which has continually maintained its loyalty to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, was also founded by returning militants who had travelled to Afghanistan. Ahmad Godane and Ibrahim Haji Jama Mee'aad, also known as Ibrahim al-Afghani, both spent time at al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s before returning home and laying the foundations for al-Shabaab.
There is yet again a similar story with the founder of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Asim Umar, and the first leader of Philippines jihadi outfit Abu Sayyaf, Abdurajak Abu Baker Janjalani, both of whom joined the al-Qaeda bandwagon in Afghanistan before returning to set up domestic jihadi groups.
Domestic instability, weak governance, and conflict provide an environment conducive for returning jihadis to exploit, but the proliferation of global jihadism through the likes Abu Sayyaf, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda groups in the Maghreb, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Arabian Peninsula was undoubtedly facilitated by the indoctrination and network-building at camps in Afghanistan. These groups' continued allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, in spite of overtures by ISIS, is testament to the role that personal connections have in the international jihadi landscape.
At one stage or another, the founders of al-Qaeda's global affiliates spent time fighting or training in Afghanistan, honing skills, developing networks, and immersing themselves in the thought and culture of Salafi-jihadism. Syria today represents a similar scenario, where hundreds of foreign fighters from dozens of countries have also had the opportunity to forge new relationships with likeminded jihadis, learn new skills, and become fully acquainted with the ideology of Salafi-jihadism.
Those returning from Syria to their home countries are likely to be viewed as potential security threats, which may in turn create further disenfranchisement and rsentment. States with strong institutions and robust security apparatus may find it easier to detect and apprehend returnees, while countries where conflict, instability, and weak governance flourish may face a tougher challenge. For those returnees who fall through the net, how they seek to operationalise their newly acquired skills and contacts will differ from context to context.
Salafi-jihadism is, by its very nature, transnational and transgenerational, and as we find today, seeks to employ different means of operations in different theatres. A new generation of men, and increasingly women, returning from time spent in a hostile environment carry the potential of institutionalising their own tributary for the current of jihadism that the world is grappling with today.
Learning lessons from the past is key. Whether in the Middle East, Africa, or Europe, understanding the vulnerabilities - physical, social, and ideological - that jihadis were able to exploit as they established jihadi movements in their home countries is important for policymakers seeking to prevent the next jihadi franchise from appearing in their country.