TSG IntelBrief: The Downside of Foreign Fighters
November 19, 2014

The Downside of Foreign Fighters

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• A great deal of attention has rightfully been paid to the benefits the Islamic State gains from its large number of foreign fighters; left unexamined is the significant downside of managing a multinational, disparate group of violent extremists

• Last week in the Syrian city of Raqqa—the capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate—a group of Uzbek fighters returning from Iraq fought with both Chechen and Arab fighters who had moved into houses the former had previously claimed, leaving at least six dead

• Even in the best of times, foreign fighters are unaccustomed to the norms and traditions of local populations, leading to tension between those who want to live there and those who want to die there; it is likely that pressure will increase as Islamic State advances stall

• Breaking the issue down further, Chechen and Uzbek fighters tend to set up residence in their adoptive new homes (as seen in Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier in the decade), while foreign recruits from the Arab Gulf and Northern Africa seek martyrdom or a make-believe vision of war, inevitably leading to violent conflict

• The group is now in its “hold and govern” stage, in which foreign fighters really don’t play a constructive role; the more the dissimilar groups of foreigners congregate, the more fighting there will be between them and locals as well as between themselves.

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Since its breakout victories last June in Mosul, the Islamic State has seen an influx of foreign fighters into its ranks, providing the group with thousands of recruits whose motivation, hyper-violence, and propaganda-value seem to more than make up for their lack of military acumen and discipline.

The issue of foreign fighters is of great concern to many countries. The threat that a small but unknown percentage of the fighters will find their way back to their respective homes and continue the fight is now felt in more than 80 countries. But looking at the issue from the Islamic State’s point of view suggests the impact of foreign fighters—despite the non-stop Islamic State social media messaging—is not all positive. Indeed, there are significant downsides in trying to manage such a broad coalition of international violent extremists. These vulnerabilities should be exploited to further weaken the already thin bond between the Islamic State and the populations within its dominion.

Last week, in the northeast Syrian city of Raqqa—the capital of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate—internal violence served as an example of the problems the group faces in managing the unmanageable. A group of Uzbek fighters, who had set up residence in several luxury houses along a lake outside of Raqqa, had gone to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq. Upon their return, they found that the houses they thought they had claimed as spoils of war were now occupied by Chechen and Arab foreign fighters. Uzbek and Chechen fighters are highly regarded for their fighting prowess, as seen most recently in Afghanistan and Pakistan; however, this does not translate into an equally effective ability to negotiate or mediate conflict. The situation escalated and after snipers and assault rifles entered the fray, at least six Islamic State fighters were dead. Leadership became involved, through both the group’s sharia courts and direct intervention.

This incident is significant because it illustrates the downside of Islamic State recruiting efforts. The idea of a global collection of individually-motivated fighters is far from the reality of handling such a diverse group. Twitter helps the Islamic State attract international recruits but it doesn’t keep them from fighting with each other and everyone else. It is difficult enough to manage a fighting group bound by local ties and goals—as seen in the failure of the Free Syrian Army. It is nearly impossible to do so with a group whose goals vary from martyrdom to marriage, in 20 different languages. The same difficulties that beset the anti-Islamic State coalition—competing goals, petty rivalries, language barriers—also beset the Islamic State, which has less of an ability to mitigate those problems as it also deals with airstrikes and ground attacks.

One of the issues is that the term “foreign fighters” doesn’t really encapsulate the full spectrum of who joins the Islamic State and why. In Waziristan, Pakistan, and northeastern Afghanistan, Uzbek and Chechen fighters tended to fall into the ‘permanent’ side of foreign fighters. They joined local groups, married into the society, and planned to live there as long as their chosen profession would allow. While still extremely violent and maladjusted, they preferred to lead small units in small unit tactics, further integrating them into the local fight. This contrasts and conflicts with the aims and intentions of many of the foreign fighters now gathered under the black flag of the Islamic State. These recruits either come to die or to partake in a summer camp vision of jihad that fails to materialize amid the squalor of battle-scarred Aleppo. While the group tries to oblige the recruits in their suicidal wish, sheer numbers mean that these people congregate, with inevitable conflict. The summer camp jihadists, who want the idea but not the reality of fighting, are anathema to both the local fighters and the Uzbek and Chechens, leading to even more conflict.

The issue of foreign fighters is significant, but it is weighty for all sides. Trying to govern with an army of psychopaths and suicidal foreigners is probably more difficult than it is for governments to keep those very same people out of their countries. As the Islamic State digs deeper into its areas of conquests in order to withstand increasing pressure, one of its greatest triumphs—fighters from all over the world, with many who can’t wait to die for the cause—will prove to be as problematic as it is beneficial.

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