The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad

Is the Soviet war in Afghanistan the source of the mobilization of the Muslim foreign fighter? Thomas Hegghammer is one of the first to investigate this question from a comparative political science perspective, process-tracing the roots of transnational war volunteering in the Muslim world. The received explanation, that the Soviet-Afghan War was the birthplace of international jihadism, is for Hegghammer incomplete. Instead, “the increase in transnational war volunteering is better explained as the product of a pan-Islamic identity movement that grew strong in the 1970s Arab world from elite competition among exiled Islamists in international Islamic organizations and Muslim regimes.” This is the claim made in “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad” in the Winter 2010/2011 issue of International Security. The article effectively argues that the Muslim foreign fighter should be treated as a distinct and discrete actor category in political science, not merely a fringe phenomenon in terrorism studies. Since the 1980s, between 10,000-30,000 unpaid Muslim fighters fought in conflicts from Bosnia to the Philippines. They continue to play a game-changing role in Iraq and Afghanistan, emboldening al-Qaeda in the process. Understanding their origins is a project of utmost importance, one that Hegghammer undertakes with analytical rigor.

The author’s process-tracing substantively begins in the 1970s, with the growth of nonviolent international Islamic organizations in the Hijazi region of Saudi Arabia. These networks grew out of two exogenous developments in the 1960s: the exile of numerous Muslim Brotherhood activists from Egypt, Syria and Iraq and the establishment of new Islamic universities and other Islamic institutions in Saudi Arabia. Western Saudi Arabia thus became a supportive center for transnational Islamic activists. As exiles, these players recognized the obstacles for domestic change in their own countries and so looked internationally, propagating a populist pan-Islamism that served as the motivational force for future networks of foreign fighters. A number of variables facilitated their growing influence in the 1970s: a flood of oil money, new technologies, and a lack of government oversight combined to allow these nonviolent pan-Islamist networks inordinate ideological influence. The “foreign fighter phenomenon represents a violent offshoot” says Hegghammer, of a “populist pan-Islamism–which emerged in the 1970s as a result of strategic action by marginalized elites employed in nonviolent international Islamic organizations.”

The article also presents an impressive and comprehensive dataset that records the rise of the Muslim foreign fighter. Hegghammer compiles cross-country and chronological variation of the phenomenon, explaining why some areas received more volunteer fighters at different times. The findings generate two testable hypotheses: first, that most organized mobilization of volunteer fighters should be observed after 1980; and second, that the foreign fighter ideology, rooted in the nonviolent pan-Islamist networks of the 1970s, differed significantly from previous Islamist ideologies (notably Qutbism and Wahhabism). The article gives careful attention to the latter hypothesis, evaluating the content of foreign fighter ideology through primary sources and interviews conducted by the author with foreign fighters. Hegghammer revises the causal story about the rise of international jihadism, presenting an authoritative account of a remarkably understudied phenomenon.

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