Issue #9, Summer 2008

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 Return

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.

In each of these cases, the trauma of war is likely to be harsher for jihadists than most soldiers, with the result that they are likely to continue their combat lives regardless of their ideological disposition. The experience of a jihadist in Iraq might not be as jarring as that of a doughboy in the trenches of World War I, who was subject to endless artillery barrages and gas attacks. But at least those soldiers deployed with large units comprising their friends and neighbors. A jihadist leaves for Iraq in a pair or as part of a small group. Unit cohesion, perhaps the defining stabilizing factor in a conventional soldier’s combat experience from training to battle to home, is missing for him. Thus, even if he undergoes the same objective traumas as a U.S. Marine, he is more vulnerable to the stresses of combat and liable to react violently to his home environment.

We’ve seen this happen before. Consider the return of the “Afghans” in the 1980s, men–including Osama bin Laden–who took the ideology, experience, and trauma of war against the Soviets into the Balkans, the Maghreb, and the Middle East, resulting in over a decade of war and terrorism. And we have already seen examples emerging from the latest round of jihad-driven conflict: The fighters of Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, many of whom had combat experience in Iraq, treated both the local authorities in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared and the Lebanese state with disdain during the battles there last year.

Indeed, these new, transnational cadres are in many ways more dangerous than local actors like Hezbollah or Hamas. Both Hezbollah and Hamas draw their legitimacy from the support of their local constituencies. But the rootless returnees are not responsible to any local constituency and thus have no “red lines” they won’t cross. They answer to no one but their pan-Islamic visions. Local authorities have negligible sway over their behavior. Thus, as militants filter back home, more violent clashes between Islamist militants and Arab states outside Iraq are almost inevitable–and many of these states will be fragile nations allied with the United States.

All this leaves policymakers in a bind. The obvious solution is to assist the security services in the affected countries. But doing that in places like Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan would mean supporting illiberal regimes often anxious for an excuse to silence their secular and Islamist dissenters. The irony here is clear: Whereas success in Iraq was supposed to usher in an age of democratization throughout the Middle East, the failure in Iraq may have instead led to the largest crack-down on dissidents and political speech the region has seen in decades. The challenge, then, lies in finding solutions that address the problem without surrendering our values.

This is not to say that in cities throughout the Muslim world, men with the dust of the battlefield on their boots and AK-47s slung over their shoulders are walking off planes and onto new battlefields. The homes to which they return are varied. Some will return to weak states (such as Lebanon), others to strong states (such as Egypt), and some to liberal democratic states (such as the United Kingdom). Understanding these differing home environments is critical to devising an appropriate policy response. At the same time, the jihadist return is not just a threat to the countries that they call home. The Internet facilitates cooperation among returning jihadists worldwide, creating, in effect, the “cyber-return,” a phenomenon with drastic implications for the United Kingdom, France, and other western countries with large and unassimilated Muslim populations.


Lebanon is a prototypical weak, democratic state and as such provides an excellent case study for how returning jihadists can upset an already fragile domestic security situation. Less than a year after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, the people of Lebanon were again held hostage to violence, this time sparked not by Shia militants but rather by Sunni groups based in the Palestinian refugee camps. As in the 2006 conflict, the weak central government in Beirut deserved part of the blame. Since the 1960s, the camps have been no-go zones for the government, a strategy that avoided immediate conflict but allowed the construction of, essentially, safe havens for not only Palestinian militants, but also other militant groups and criminal elements. The office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between 20,000 and 40,000 Iraqis have taken refuge in Lebanon, with another 1.2 to 1.4 million refugees in neighboring Syria.

No reliable estimates exist to show how many foreign fighters might have traveled from Iraq to Lebanon. But given their prominence in the 2007 fighting, the number is significant. The militants from Fatah al-Islam were not majority Palestinian; rather they were both Lebanese and citizens from a number of other Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia. As Nir Rosen reported for the Boston Review, some of these militants had fought in Iraq with Ahmed Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda-allied organization, while others were lured to Lebanon in the hopes of training in the camps and then fighting in Iraq or the Palestinian territories. Rosen, interviewing jihadists in other Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon who had fought in Iraq, explained that in Nahr al-Bared, “The new men in the camps were largely foreign jihadists, with the same weapons, tactics, and sectarian goals of Iraqi resistance fighters.” These men brought a deadly new mentality to the camps of Lebanon. They fought without regard to collateral damage or civilian casualties. When the shooting stopped, Nahr al-Bared–previously home to 30,000 luckless refugees–had been reduced to rubble. One hundred sixty-three Lebanese soldiers lay dead along with more than 200 militants and 42 civilians.

On a visit to Beirut last summer, I was struck by the prevailing fear–from secular Maronite Christians to even Hezbollah supporters–that the latest round of fighting with Sunni militants is only the beginning. Everyone agrees that it is not a question of whether more militants will return from Iraq, but rather how many. What happens, they asked, when two or three Sunni militants, fresh from Iraq, decide to continue that country’s war in Lebanon and blow themselves up in a Shia mosque on a Friday afternoon? Hezbollah, the Shiite guerrilla group-cum-political party that is the de facto ruler of large parts of Lebanon, might respond forcefully (of course, that fear may have a silver lining, driving the country toward firm action against an untenable situation in the camps). The Lebanese border with Syria continues to be porous, which has both allowed Hezbollah to re-arm and Sunni militants to cross back and forth through Syria on their way to Iraq. The result will be, at the very least, a heightened political tension, if not a more brutal and explosive war in the near future.


In contrast to Lebanon, Morocco is a stable monarchy, and as such it, and other nations like it, will face dramatically different challenges from returning jihadists. In July 2007, while on a State Department-funded tour of northern Morocco, I walked off the beaten path with two friends in the town of Tetouan, the former Spanish colonial capital. At no point in our aimless walk did I feel in any danger. It seemed like a typical Moroccan village. And yet a few weeks later, a friend in Rabat told me that Tetouan has a reputation for providing most of the Moroccan suicide bombers in Iraq and was the hometown of the men who plotted the 2004 Madrid train attack that killed 191 people. A little while later, a long cover story in the New York Times Magazine profiled Tetouan as a center for jihadist militarism. The revelation upset assumptions about terrorist “breeding grounds.” But it also raised another, unanswered question: What happens when Tetouan’s jihadists return home?

Whereas Lebanon is a weak state with very little central authority, Morocco is an established monarchy with effective bureaucracies and a strong security service boasting a close working relationship with the Western security services. Theoretically, Morocco’s institutions should be strong enough to handle even a serious internal security threat.

Issue #9, Summer 2008
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Rick Howe:

Frightening prospect you've written of, Mr. Exum. I hope politicians read your words. Have you sent this piece to the retired officers magazine?

Jun 15, 2008, 8:29 AM

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