In the late 50s and early 60s, there was a TV show called Have Gun, Will Travel. I’ll be honest: I don’t know if I ever have seen a single episode. Maybe on Channel 50 when I was a kid, on a TV that still had a dial, but there are no clear memories. Still, the name always stuck out. In my imagination, it captured a desolate and sad American west, where if you were a violent man, or at least someone willing to do violence, you could travel the vast landscape and keep order. Or at least someone’s version of order. Whether lawman or outlaw, and the two sides could shift back and forth, if you had a gun, you were always needed somewhere.
That might seem a flippant way to talk about the next stage of jihadism, but that is the spirit. Because the next stage is going to be the vast spread of foreign fighters, stateless men who have been trained in war, that will come when ISIS crumbles or partially crumbles in Iraq and Syria. Yesterday, in a speech overshadowed by Trump and the convention, FBI director James Comey laid it out: we’re going to see “a terrorist diaspora out of Syria like we’ve never seen before.” But what does that mean? Who are they?
While for years, the massive impact of suicide attacks, whether in Beirut or Tel Aviv or New York, dominated the news. That was our idea of jihad. And to be sure, it was terrifying, terrorism in the true sense. But with some exceptions, it was also always the short game. Suicide bombers were, by definition, expendable, regardless of their courage or conviction. The real force of jihad was the battle-tested soldiers who might not have been afraid to die, but who were more useful alive. These were men who were comfortable with violence, and with gun, traveled.
They traveled throughout the 90s, coming from the Middle East, South Asia, and places like Malaysia and Singapore. They were veterans of the jihad in Afghanistan, and many weren’t welcome home. They fought in Bosnia, trying to take over the multi-confessional resistance driven by a secular and cosmopolitan Islam and make it reflect the sands of Saudi Arabia. They fought in Chechnya, and in the mountains of Nagorno-Karabakh. The biggest victory of the 90s came in Yemen, where they helped Ali Abdullah Saleh win the civil war against the godless communist south, and were granted free reign to smash breweries and occupy the land.
The late 90s and early 2000s saw war in Afghanistan, first against the Northern Alliance, the Hazara, and other enemies of the Taliban, and then against the US. In the biggest boon to jihad, they got to fight the US in Iraq after the invasion. Fighters from around the world trekked there. The West was briefly granted a reprieve because the short-sighted bloodlust of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi helped turn the locals against al-Qaeda, but from those wounds, they regrouped, and eventually became the ISIS we know.
Through those years there was essentially a fierce rivalry to attract the best foreign fighters to the cause. People who actually fought, and who knew battle tactics, were incredibly valuable to a militant organization who had long-term plans, who needed to vanquish a near enemy so that they could have operating room to grow. AQAP in Yemen did a great job attracting them, with their track record of success. ISIS has also done a more remarkable job, after establishing a “caliphate”– or at the very least having what amounted to a literal country-worth of territory. Late last year, the Soufan Group estimated that at least 31,000 fighters had flocked to ISIS, up from 12,000 only a year or so before. Success is attractive.
The presence of foreign fighters tells us a few things. One, that professional jihadists think a cause is worth fighting for. You didn’t have a lot of FFs in Libya before the fall of Qadaffi because the Maghrebi groups didn’t seem to secure, they didn’t have a lot of success, and they spent more time fighting against each other. AQAP’s success in recruiting and attracting them demonstrated that they were a goal-oriented organization who knew the lessons of successful militancy, and were also interested in learning lessons. That’s how they’ve maintained a presence even in the face of ISIS.
We can also learn from their movements what the next stage might look like, by the kind of fighters they have attracted, and how. ISIS has had their success not just by capturing land, but by offering a sense of the bloodily spectacular, a complete inversion of any morality. That’s attractive to a lot of people, and the lesson learned is that the more gruesome, the better. They are able to create a self-perpetuating cycle of publicity and violence, where they don’t really have to do much work. Small groups or lone wolfs can do it for them, and they can get more recruits from that idea of success, whether at “home” or abroad.
Not all their recruits are great fighters, of course, but that’s fine. They can be sacrificed, and martyred, and that just makes it more attractive. But there are enough, enough battle-tested fighters, to go out and wave the flag around the world. Finding a trove of information about them, as we have done, is hugely important. But the attacks will continue.
I actually think that this will burn itself out. Not soon, and not without horrible deaths and terrible scenes, in which all of us, everyone reading, is on a shifting and improvised frontline. It will reshape our world in terrible ways. But there will be both infighting and dissipation, especially among the younger fighters, who can either explode from the frenzy or step back. The people who aren’t true fighters will either grow up, grow harder, or die.
No, the real worry are the true fighters, who can intelligently establish cells, make the world coherent plots, and also work with established groups around to impart the lessons of ISIS, and move a local ISIS or Qaeda cell forward. There will be a reshuffling toward localized franchises, and a mutation of them. A group like AQAP will benefit from the shifting of ISIS into whatever comes next. At the end, the group that can offer the best chance of victory to the professional fighters will be stronger, and will be the one best prepared to lead the way.
The breakup of Syria and Iraq, 100 years in the making, will reveraberate around the world for the rest of our lives. We’re just at the beginning.