Beware the New Mujahideen: The Threat from Future Jihadist Networks


Mar 14, 2017

Pakistani soldiers at an army post in the Shawal mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, near a known haven for al Qaeda militants, April 29, 2006

Pakistani soldiers at an army post in the Shawal mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, above a known haven for al Qaeda militants, April 29, 2006

Photo by Stringer/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on March 13, 2017.

The current wave of foreign fighters emerging from the conflict in Iraq and Syria will be larger and potentially more dangerous than the mujahideen guerrillas that were a byproduct of the Soviet-Afghan conflict in the 1980s, FBI Director James Comey warned last September.

That is an especially foreboding observation, since the foreign fighters borne from the Afghan conflict went on to form the core of Al Qaeda and fight in the internecine conflicts in Bosnia, Algeria and Chechnya during the 1990s.

When one conflict ends, these fighters often use their connections to move on and join another fight. This phenomenon is likely to worsen in the future.

The number of foreign fighters participating in the conflict in Iraq and Syria is significant compared to those who participated in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Even more concerning, jihadists have improved and facilitated their networking capacity—improved communication, eased transportation, and diversified access to sources of information and money can make even small cadres of experienced fighters a dangerous force. The foreign-fighter phenomenon is not new. Over the past two hundred years, they have appeared in more than a quarter of all civil wars. But now these fighters engage in foreign civil wars and insurgencies—and then export their expertise back to their home countries or to places they have newly immigrated.

While jihadism expert Thomas Hegghammer has estimated the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet conflict at between five thousand and twenty thousand, other scholars such as Edwin Bakker and Mark Singleton have pegged the crop of foreign fighters currently in Iraq and Syria at around thirty thousand. Other trusted sources have settled on a similar figure. The foreign fighters in Syria are not strictly Sunnis: significant numbers of Afghan and Pakistani Shia are also fighting alongside Hezbollah and other pro-Assad elements. Encrypted communications and the ubiquity of social media mean that even after the caliphate disappears, the ideology of Salafi jihadism will persist, existing online as a virtual caliphate, and offering aspiring jihadists hope that the next major battle is all but inevitable....

The remainder of this commentary is available on

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT)-The Hague. Chad C. Serena is a political scientist at RAND. Amarnath Amarasingam is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a fellow at The George Washington University's Program on Extremism.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.