Return of the Jihadi
Thousands of foreign fighters are streaming back from Iraq to places as far-flung as London and Lebanon. What happens when the jihadis come marching home?
Today, as the American adventure in Iraq nears its endgame, prescient policymakers have begun turning their focus toward the American soldiers returning home: How will these soldiers cope with society? How will society cope with them? How have our soldiers been affected by their experiences? It seems that every week the media reports another story of the pains of return, from the horrors of navigating the military’s medical bureaucracy to the families broken on the shoals of post-traumatic stress. Among the costs of the Iraq War are the millions being spent–and the millions that will be spent–to treat their psychological wounds.
Of course, it takes at least two sides to have a war. Yet nowhere are policymakers seriously considering where the other side’s soldiers go when the war is over. While we shouldn’t be too concerned for our adversaries’ health and well-being, it nevertheless has security implications when considering what comes after a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Accordingly, we need to ask what happens when Omar comes marching home. What will the foreign jihadists do? Where will they go? And what should we do about them?
Our enemies are already having the conversation. From refugee camps to Internet chat rooms, jihadists-in-waiting eagerly ask those either still in Iraq or just returned how they should carry the fight to the American imperialists. “Don’t come to Iraq,” they are told. “We’ve already won here.” In the same way that Iraq has gone far worse than our policymakers imagined it would in 2003, it has gone far better than the jihadists ever imagined. Now these jihadists–and their followers–are looking for new battlefields.
We should not take these jihadists lightly. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the toughest opponents I fought from 2002 to 2004 were foreign fighters. I vividly remember a raid in late 2003 on a compound near Fallujah, in which eight foreign fighters armed with AK-47s and grenade launchers chose to fight–rather than surrender–against several dozen Army Rangers and other commandos backed by close air support. They all died quickly, but they fought ferociously in what anyone could see was a hopeless battle. And that was five years ago; jihadists’ fighting skills and collective combat knowledge can only have improved since. That means tough times ahead for the moderate Muslim nations they will return to–countries like Morocco and Jordan–and tough decisions for U.S. policymakers. They talk about the need to leave enough troops in Iraq to prevent a regional war or genocide. But what happens if that regional war takes place not in Iraq but in, say, Lebanon, where the United States has no troop presence? Already, returning jihadists have been party to that nation’s fiercest domestic conflict since the end of its civil war in 1990. By focusing all of its energies on Iraq, the United States is oblivious to the fact that the regional war so feared by analysts and generals may have already seeped out of Iraq’s borders.
So far, the U.S. presidential campaign has reflected a debate between Republicans, who largely prefer to focus U.S. military and political efforts in Iraq, and Democrats, who largely favor a renewed effort in Afghanistan with a policy of “conditional engagement” in Iraq. Both views of the global war on terror, though, are far too restrictive. What we need is a low-intensity, global approach capable of working with dozens of countries around the Middle East and greater Asia to not only defeat far-flung terrorist cells and insurgencies but also to manage the inevitable return of jihadists who now have the skills to bring the battle back home, threaten the stability of nations throughout the Muslim world, and present serious challenges to Western countries with large, unassimilated Muslim populations.
The effect of “return” differs from country to country and, in many cases, depends on the individuals and their specific environment. A college-educated engineer returning to London is going to face different conditions than an illiterate shepherd returning to Yemen. But any jihadist who has been part of a pan-Islamic struggle in Iraq would hardly be content to consider his fighting days over, move back home, and settle into a normal life. Theirs is a different war than the one fought by Americans in a conventional war like World War II, or even Americans fighting today in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlike conventional soldiers, jihadists are driven by an ideology that is both all-encompassing and sectarian, separating them from the rest of even Muslim society. Whereas conventional soldiers return “home” in both the physical and ideological sense, a jihadist is likely to see the same alien forces around him in Beirut or Birmingham as he is in Baghdad or Basra.
But more important than ideology may be psychology. Just as U.S. veterans struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, so too can we expect returning jihadists to suffer from disorientation after leaving Iraq. Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman, a respected military historian who served as one of General David Petraeus’s strategists in Iraq and has done considerable research on combat trauma, notes four factors that affect how combatants respond to their experiences: the nature of the combat, their social environment while in combat, the social mores they bring to the combat environment, and the social environment to which they return.
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