Case Studies in History

Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya

The Islamic State group has mobilized tens of thousands of individuals from over 120 countries to fight in Iraq and Syria on behalf of the organization.1 Although the scope and scale of the (mostly) Islamic State-inspired migration is unprecedented, the foreign fighter phenomenon has shaped military conflicts in recent history. As the Islamic State continues to shrink, and sheds fighters who joined the battle from abroad, lessons from previous conflicts featuring foreign fighters may be illustrative.

The “anti-Soviet Jihad” in Afghanistan in the 1980s was the first modern conflict to see high levels of foreign fighter participation. From that conflict, a global militant community established the funding networks, credibility, and battlefield proficiency operationalized in Bosnia and Chechnya a decade later.

These conflicts follow similar patterns: conflict-induced humanitarian crises eventually precipitate supranational struggles drawing worldwide volunteers. After September 11, 2001, subsequent foreign fighter mobilizations evolve in how fighters migrate, fight, and communicate, but maintain the basic commonalities that shaped the first conflicts. The personal networks built in Afghanistan strengthened in Bosnia and Chechnya and were critical to shaping the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Returning fighters from previous conflicts moved on to found many of the terror networks that gave rise to current jihadi-salafi organizations such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Conflict-induced humanitarian crises eventually precipitate supranational struggles drawing worldwide volunteers.

Despite differences in space and time, common themes link each successive jihad. Each conflict was considered a defensive war on behalf of a local Muslim population, which enabled international supporters (both donors and fighters) to frame participation in the conflict as a religious duty. These conflicts were further linked by a common group of fighters who gained credibility and combat experience ultimately culminating in improved military effectiveness. As technology evolved, so too did the foreign fighters, and each conflict pioneered new approaches to waging “jihad through the media.” 2 Media outreach began with Afghanistan in the 1980s with flyers and newsletters for propaganda purposes, while today’s international militants broadcast their battles using video cameras and curated social media strategies. The fighters’ force-multiplying potential and military experience allowed them to change the nature of conflicts from national to supranational by situating local grievances within a pan-Islamic jihadist narrative. 3

Foreign Fighters in Modern Times

Afghanistan: 1979

Key Judgements

  • Defending Muslims against a non-Muslim invader motivated volunteers to travel to Afghanistan.
  • U.S., Saudi Arabian, and Pakistani assistance allowed recruiting networks to develop.
  • The evolution of volunteers from international humanitarian workers to fighters helped establish the credibility and militant networks that would drive future conflicts.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to defend its communist proxy government in Kabul from a growing insurgency. Almost immediately, madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan began a campaign to encourage foreigners to travel to Afghanistan to join the jihad.

At first, many of the Arab volunteers who traveled to Afghanistan with the help of Hijaz-based Islamic charities4 viewed themselves as humanitarian workers.5 These largely Arab volunteers sought to keep a low profile and to help Afghan refugees who were residing in Peshawar, Pakistan, after fleeing the conflict. In contrast, volunteers arriving during the latter half of the war were fighters facilitated by Abdullah Azzam, an influential Palestinian sheikh who called upon all Muslims to defend Afghanistan.

As the Soviet invasion turned into a prolonged occupation, Peshawar became a hub for fighters to organize and mobilize across the border into Afghanistan. Facilitators like Azzam, who was publishing recruitment literature and teaching in Islamabad, relocated to Peshawar to assist.6 Azzam’s extensive paramilitary experience and networks from his Islamic education in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia gave him the ideological and operational clout to effectively mobilize foreign fighters against the Soviets.7

In 1985, Azzam reached an agreement with a local guerrilla coalition called the Islamic Unity of Mujahedeen allowing him to establish training camps and an office focused on facilitating the flow of fighters to the war.8 Azzam continued to call on Muslims to defend their brothers and sisters, declaring that it was “incumbent upon every Muslim today, capable of carrying a weapon, to march forward to jihad to aid their Muslim brothers in Afghanistan.”9 Among the individuals who joined the fighters in Peshawar was a young Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s personal wealth, connections to other funding networks, and friendship with Azzam allowed him to facilitate training and travel for the fighters.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to defend its communist proxy government in Kabul from a growing insurgency. Almost immediately, madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan began a campaign to encourage foreigners to travel to Afghanistan to join the jihad.

Geopolitical competition also played a role in mobilizing fighters. The invasion, and subsequent occupation, of Afghanistan prompted the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan to counter Moscow’s presence in the so-called “shatter-zone” 10 by supporting local Afghan insurgents and their foreign volunteers.11 Rather than initiate a full-scale war with the Soviet Union, the United States, through the CIA, alongside Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), provided the local (mainly ethnic Pashtun) fighters with weapons, funding, and military training to combat the Soviet army.12 The newly empowered mujahedeen fighters drew on a pool of volunteer jihadists reaching far beyond the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan in their fight against the Soviets.13

Azzam’s grassroots efforts and abundant war materiel attracted foreign fighters from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Europe, and the United States to wage war against the infidels (nonbelievers) occupying Afghanistan.14 There is no consensus as to how many people traveled to Afghanistan, but estimates range from 10,000 to 35,000.15 Those who did travel to the battle were largely supported by private donations or nongovernmental Islamic organizations.16 Despite mistrust and enmity among the “Afghan Arabs”17 and friction between the foreigners and their local hosts, the volunteers’ international connections helped them establish patronage networks and strong interpersonal bonds.

The departure of Soviet troops in February 1989 removed the raison d’être for many of the foreigners. Some fighters returned to their countries of origin, where they either demobilized or joined local causes. A further cohort attempted to follow Abdullah Azzam’s vision of a vanguard that would “continue the jihad no matter how long the way is until the last breath and the last beating of the pulse or we see the Islamic state established.”18 Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam founded Maktab al Khidamat (MAK, or “Bureau of Services”), which was subsumed into al Qaeda in 1988 and facilitated ongoing operations.19 Despite a limited military impact in Afghanistan, the battlefield skills and personal relationships fighters established provided credibility and the networks carried forward to other conflicts—including to that underway in Bosnia.

Bosnia: 1992

Key Judgements

  • Migrating fighters from Afghanistan brought funding networks, credibility, and military experience to the conflict.
  • The influx of foreign fighters shifted the conflict from a national struggle to a supranational jihad.
  • Foreign fighters began filming and distributing videos and using media more extensively as a recruiting tool.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Balkans provided fertile ground for foreign fighters to continue fighting. Increased nationalist sentiment among Catholic Croats, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and mostly Muslim Bosniaks culminated in a wave of declarations of independence. Influenced by Slovenia and Croatia, which both declared independence in June 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence in March 1992. Bosnian Serbs refused to accept separation from Serbia and, backed by the Serbian military, took up arms against the Bosnian Muslims.20 The overt religious nature of the war, atrocities committed against civilians, and the timing of hostilities made the conflict attractive for the former mujahedeen coming from Afghanistan.

The first Afghan Arabs arrived in Bosnia in April 1992, one month after the war in Bosnia began. The initial movement of fighters began slowly with the transfer of trainers and facilitators from Afghanistan under the guise of humanitarian assistance. However, it quickly increased in 1993 when the Pakistani government ordered training camps closed and threatened those remaining foreigners with deportation.21 One commander and associate of Osama bin Laden who fought in Afghanistan and arrived in Bosnia in April 1992, Sheikh Abu Abdel Aziz “Barbaros,” quickly established the El Mudžahid Battalion and began moving fighters from Peshawar to Bosnia.

As in Afghanistan, Muslim charities financed the movement of foreigners to Bosnia. The Al Kifah Refugee Center in Brooklyn, New York, raised funds in the United States for organizations led by bin Laden and Azzam during the Afghan war, and soon redirected its activities to Bosnia. Al Kifah and, later, the Benevolence International Foundation (BIF), led by Enaam Arnaout, an associate of Osama bin Laden, operated openly in the West.22 Both organizations purported to raise money for humanitarian operations but instead laundered funds and directed money to arms trafficking and moved fighters to the conflict. The Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK) distributed leaflets in the United States encouraging those sympathetic to the plight of Bosnian Muslims to support the jihad through donations or by traveling to the conflict themselves. As in Afghanistan, groups supporting foreign fighters blurred the lines between humanitarian and military aid to garner support in a more socially acceptable way.

Groups supporting foreign fighters blurred the lines between humanitarian and military aid to garner support in a more socially acceptable way.

Instructors who came to Bosnia from the Peshawar camps created military-religious training facilities for Bosnian soldiers and fighters who had little combat experience or religious education. Thus, Bosnian Muslims came to identify with the greater Muslim world while building combat experience. In addition to involving Afghanistan war veterans, the conflict in Bosnia attracted new recruits as well. The Serbian military’s ethnic cleansing pushed young, untrained individuals to view Bosnia, according to journalist Chris Hedges, as “a Muslim country, which must be defended by Muslims.”23 Young foreign fighters who joined the war gained credibility, connections, and experience similar to those who fought in Afghanistan.

There is no agreement on the numbers of foreign fighters who traveled to Bosnia. Figures range from 500–5,000 with a preponderance of estimates in the 1,000–2,000 range. 24 Influential clerics from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen endorsed the jihad in Bosnia and fighters traveled from their countries to fight.25 Others came from the United States, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, and Syria, among other states. The multinational nature of the fighters and their unifying Muslim identity helped forge a new sense of religious identity and unity for the Bosnian Muslims with whom they fought alongside.26

In an evolution from the war in Afghanistan, those fighting in Bosnia often filmed their military maneuvers and distributed videos on the nascent Internet. The use of media in the form of both sympathetic reporters and battlefield recordings represented an important enhancement for the global jihadi movement’s messaging efforts.

The signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995 effectively ended the combat role of foreign fighters in Bosnia. The Dayton Accords required all forces “not of local origin” to withdraw from the country within 30 days.27 Despite the relative relief that the end of the war would bring to Muslim civilians in Bosnia, many of the fighters were upset at the peace because it not only ended the war but also robbed them of the opportunity to become martyrs.28 However, the end of the Bosnian conflict resulted in a quick shift of fighters from the Balkans to the North Caucasus with another chance to fight for their cause.

Chechnya: 1994

Key Judgements

  • A local struggle for autonomy was co-opted by an interconnected, well-financed, and growing group of mobile violent extremists.
  • The fighters’ extensive combat experience made them more militarily effective than in prior conflicts and sped acceptance among local forces.
  • Enhanced information technology facilitated wider and more effective recruiting, the first example of “jihad through the media.”

In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Caucasus, like the Balkans, experienced political unrest as nationalist groups demanded autonomy. As the conflict in the Balkans ended, an ethno-religious struggle between Chechnya and Russia escalated. Chechnya was the only one of the Russian republics that refused to sign an understanding regarding its relationship with Russia. A Russian Air Force general, Dzhokhar Dudayev, was elected the head of the All-National Congress of the Chechen people in 1990; shortly thereafter Dudayev unilaterally declared the independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Russia attempted to overthrow Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev but was ultimately unsuccessful.29 Chechnya was divided along various lines and loyalties but Dudayev, campaigning on a platform of independence, won the 1991 elections with 90 percent of the vote.30

Repeated attempts to reach an agreement between Russia and Chechnya regarding Chechnya’s status failed, and Russia moved troops to the Chechen border in October of 1992. Amid the instability, Sheikh Ali Fathi al Shisani, a Jordanian-Chechen and veteran of the Soviet Afghan War, moved to Chechnya in 1993. Sheikh Fathi became largely responsible for mobilizing foreign fighters to the republic.

Russian civilian leadership, working under the assumption that victory could be achieved quickly, ordered its forces into Chechnya on December 10, 1994. Outnumbered, the Chechen forces adopted guerrilla tactics to combat the Russian military. The Chechen style of warfare exacerbated long-standing issues in the Russian military like low morale, poor supplies, and ineffective leadership—and eventually helped Chechen forces stave off a complete rout.

The invading Russian forces burned villages to the ground, raped local women, and killed thousands of civilians during the initial assault. Like in Afghanistan and Bosnia, the invading force’s brutal tactics, in concert with the clear delineation between the Muslim population and the opposing power, galvanized the population and served as a catalyst for militant recruitment.31

Chechen historical resistance to the Russians was placed squarely within the canon of global jihad and the struggle quickly became gazavat or jihad.32 The Chief Mufti of Chechnya, Akhmad Kadyrov, declared the responsibility of Muslims to wage holy war against Russia and a Chechen commander, Shamil Basayev, began working with fighters arriving from abroad.

Using his connections to recruit in Afghanistan, Sheikh Fathi began facilitating the transport of fighters, among them prominent Saudi Arabian fighter Samir Salih Abdallah al Suwaylim who went by the nom de guerre Emir Khattab.33 Khattab believed Chechnya was ripe for jihad, and capitalized on his reputation as an experienced fighter and respected leader to establish a foreign fighter unit among the Chechen rebels.

'In the modern age, the media has become more important than rifles and guns’ - Emir Khattab

Working initially under Shamil Basayev, Khattab observed local customs and treated traditions with respect. This approach, along with the sponsorship of Basayev, enabled him to establish credibility and acceptance among the nationalist Chechens.34 As important to his success was Khattab’s understanding of the power of media on a potential jihadi recruit. In a later interview, Khattab reflected that “in the modern age, the media has become more important than rifles and guns.”35 Khattab required all operations to be filmed and distributed, pioneering a critical form of jihadi media and propaganda. Emulating Abdullah Azzam’s recruiting role from Afghanistan, Khattab directed media to a website called “Jihad in Chechnya,” published by Azzam Publications.

Unlike Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent Bosnia, Chechnya did not draw thousands of foreign volunteers. The difficulty of travel to Chechnya prevented the movement of larger numbers of fighters, including figures such as bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, from joining the conflict. In 1997, Zawahiri attempted to travel to Chechnya but was stopped in his attempt by Russian security forces, which imprisoned him for six months in Dagestan.36 In the wake of his attempt to join fighters in Chechnya, in 2001 Ayman al Zawahiri advocated for others to travel so that Chechnya would serve as a “hotbed of jihad (or fundamentalism as the United States describes it) and that the region would become the shelter of thousands of Muslim mujahedeen from various parts of the Islamic world.”37

Owing to prior conflicts in Afghanistan and Bosnia, those who did reach Chechnya between 1994–1996 were more likely to have extensive battlefield experience than foreign fighters in previous conflicts.

Over half of the Arab foreign fighters who fought in Chechnya had participated in wars in Afghanistan, Tajikistan,38 or Bosnia.39 The First Chechen War drew between 200–300 fighters who remained present in Chechnya as hostilities waned.40 During the Second Chechen War the number of foreign fighters rose to 700 before sharply dropping. Fighters’ roles and motivations were largely determined by their nation of origin: Algerians built explosives and Moroccans worked as facilitators, whereas Turks and Jordanians were field commanders and foot soldiers.41 Although fighters from the Middle East constituted the bulk of the force, small numbers of North African, Turkish, and Central Asian fighters also participated.42

Travel to Chechnya became easier as the conflict dragged on, in turn simplifying funding flows from Islamic organizations and Arab financiers, and facilitating movement from large Chechen diasporas, particularly that in Jordan.43

Although the Russo-Chechen War was largely a nationalistic fight for Chechens, the supranational Islamic facet of the conflict grew due to the efforts of Sheikh Fathi and Emir Khattab.44 This new sense of religious identity among Chechens following the end of the first war in 1996 later played a role in shaping the political structure of the de facto independent republic.



Next Chapter: Watershed

1. Significant discrepancies in foreign fighter numbers result from the complexity of counting and tracking the flow of fighters into Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, the United Nations, and other entities monitoring foreign fighters are unable to provide wholly accurate information on what was believed to be 38,500 fighters from 120 nations by the time foreign fighter flows began to slow in 2016. “Remarks by Lisa O. Monaco at the Intelligence Studies Project at the University of Texas-Austin,” Lawfare, March 30, 2016, https://www.lawfareblog.com/lisa-monaco-speech-university-texas.

2. Cerwyn Moore and Paul Tumelty, “Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya: A Critical Assessment,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 31, no. 5 (April 11, 2008): 417.

3. Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35, no. 3 (Winter 2010): 56.

4. Ibid., 85.

5. A network of Islamic charities based in the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia was established by the Saudis in the 1980s to fund the Afghan mujahedeen. The elaborate network of donors, charities, and sponsors has since become a pipeline for terrorist group financing in conflicts from Chechnya to Palestine. (Juan Zarate, Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 67–69).

6. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 86.

7. Edwin Bakker and Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn, “Returning Western Foreign Fighters: The Case of Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia,” ICCT Background Note, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), The Hague, 2014.

8. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 86.

9. Sheikh Abdullah Nassah al Waan to Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, “Defense of the Muslim Lands,” accessed March 1, 2017, https://archive.org/stream/Defense_of_the_Muslim_Lands/Defense_of_the_Muslim_Lands_djvu.txt.

10. “Shatter-zone” refers to border areas between major powers, in this case in Afghanistan, in which conflict frequently erupts as major powers compete for influence. (R. McMaster, “Harbingers of Future War: Implications for the Army with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster,” May 4, 2016, https://www.csis.org/analysis/harbingers-future-war-implications-army-lieutenant-general-hr-mcmaster/?block1.)

11. Ibid.

12. Brian Glyn Williams, “On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam’: Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980–2010,” Orbis 55, no. 2 (2011): 216–39.

13. The term mujahedeen refers to those who participate in a struggle or fight against the enemies of Islam. The term popularly was used to refer to the guerrilla forces in the Soviet-Afghan war, but can be used to refer to those fighting in the name of Islam in any conflict.

14. Williams, “On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam,’” 219; Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 61.

15. West Point’s CTC Sentinel estimated the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at 10,000. Mohammed M. Hafez, “Jihad after Iraq: Lessons from the Arab Afghans Phenomenon,” CTC Sentinel 1, no. 4 (March 2008): 1–4, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/CTCSentinel-Vol1Iss4.pdf. Peter Neumann and Thomas Hegghammer both estimate the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at 20,000. Peter Neumann, “Foreign Fighter Total in Syria/Iraq Now Exceeds 20,000; Surpasses Afghanistan Conflict in the 1980s,” International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, January 26, 2015, https://icsr.info/2015/01/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan-conflict-1980s/; Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 53–94. However, Ahmed Rashid estimated that the number of fighters in Afghanistan was closer to 35,000. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, Second Edition, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010): 129.

16. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 62.

17. The term “Afghan Arabs” refers to the primarily Arab mujahedeen who traveled to Afghanistan to help their fellow Muslims fight against the Soviets.

18. Evan Kohlmann, Al-Qaida’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network (New York: Berg, 2004), 9.

19. Azzam was killed by an IED in Peshawar several months later. It remains unclear who was responsible for his assassination, but suspects include Ayman al Zawahiri, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, and Jordanian intelligence in coordination with the CIA. See also Williams, “On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam,’” 219.

20. “The Balkan Crisis: A Brief History,” CNN, 1997, https://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1997/bosnia/history/.

21. Mark Urban, “Bosnia: The Cradle of Modern Jihadism?,” BBC News, July 2, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33345618.

22. Apart from Al Kifah Refugee Center and Benevolence International Foundation, the International Islamic Relief Organization, the Third World Relief Agency, and the Islamic Cultural Institute in Milan all played major roles in recruitment, finance, money laundering, and transportation for the mujahedeen fighters in Bosnia.

23. Chris Hedges, “Foreign Islamic Fighters in Bosnia Pose a Potential Threat for G.I.’s,” New York Times, December 3, 1995, https://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/03/world/foreign-islamic-fighters-in-bosnia-pose-a-potential-threat-for-gi-s.html.

24. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 61.

25. Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Alison Pargeter, The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

26. Hedges, “Foreign Islamic Fighters in Bosnia Pose a Potential Threat for G.I.’s.”

27. State Department, Dayton Peace Accords, November 21, 1995, https://www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/or/dayton/52578.html.

28. Urban, “Bosnia: The Cradle of Modern Jihadism?”

29. Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 101–102.

30. Ibid., 99.

31. Ibid., xi.

32. Gazavat, or holy war, comes from the Arabic word “ghazi” or holy warrior. The term is roughly equivalent to jihad but historically associated with folk Islam and specifically in the Chechen context, with war against the Russians. Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International, 2011), 56.

33. Moore and Tumelty, “Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya,” 416.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid., 417.

36. Lorenzo Vidino, “How Chechnya Became a Breeding Ground for Terror,” Middle East Quarterly 12, no 3 (Summer 2005): 57–66.

37. Ibid.

38. The civil war in Tajikistan, which lasted from 1992 to 1997, broke out one year after Tajikistan declared independence. The conflict was primarily between the Moscow-backed government and a liberal and Islamist opposition that received significant support from foreign fighters.

39. Murad Batal al Shishani, “Abu Mus’ab Al-Suri and the Third Generation of Salafi-Jihadists,” Terrorism Monitor 3, no. 16 (August 15, 2005), https://jamestown.org/program/abu-musab-al-suri-and-the-third-generation-of-salafi-jihadists/.

40. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 61.

41. Vadim Zaitsev, “Наемники В Чечне” [Mercenaries in Chechnya], Журнал “Огонёк,” March 21, 2011, https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/1604045.

42. Moore and Tumelty, “Foreign Fighters and the Case of Chechnya,” 418.

43. Ibid., 416.

44. Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), xiii.