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Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, fighters from abroad have journeyed in ever-greater numbers to conflict zones in the Muslim world to defend Islam from-in their view-infidels and apostates. The phenomenon recently reached its apogee in Syria, where the foreign fighter population quickly became larger and more diverse than in any previous conflict.
In Road Warriors, Daniel Byman provides a sweeping history of the jihadist foreign fighter movement. He begins by chronicling the movement's birth in Afghanistan, its growing pains in Bosnia and Chechnya, and its emergence as a major source of terrorism in the West in the 1990s, culminating in the 9/11 attacks. Since that bloody day, the foreign fighter movement has seen major ups and downs. It rode high after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, when the ultra-violent Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attracted thousands of foreign fighters. AQI overreached, however, and suffered a crushing defeat. Demonstrating the resilience of the movement, however, AQI reemerged anew during the Syrian civil war as the Islamic State, attracting tens of thousands of fighters from around the world and spawning the bloody 2015 attacks in Paris among hundreds of other strikes. Although casualty rates are usually high, the survivors of Afghanistan, Syria, and other fields of jihad often became skilled professional warriors, going from one war to the next. Still others returned to their home countries, some to peaceful retirement but a deadly few to conduct terrorist attacks.
Over time, both the United States and Europe have learned to adapt. Before 9/11, volunteers went to and fro to Afghanistan and other hotspots with little interference. Today, the United States and its allies have developed a global program to identify, arrest, and kill foreign fighters. Much remains to be done, however-jihadist ideas and networks are by now deeply embedded, even as groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State rise and fall. And as Byman makes abundantly clear, the problem is not likely to go away any time soon.
Byman (A High Price), professor of security studies at Georgetown, examines in this illuminating study the origins, movements, influences, and impact of people who travel to other countries to join violent Islamist organizations. Each chapter profiles a foreign fighter, tracing his background and motivations, and explores the broader historical and political trends that his experience most exemplifies. Byman identifies trends: for example, fighters from Arab nations tend to excel at organization, infrastructure, and fund-raising, and recruits from the West are most useful for their marketing and outreach abilities. (Occasionally the latter can be too successful; he recounts one case in which, "attracted by... propaganda, many foreign fighters came to Somalia with no relevant skills and unable to operate in the harsh environment. had to babysit them, to its dismay.") Byman also compares those who have traveled to join jihad to the socialist volunteers who flocked to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, drawn by adventure, camaraderie, and a search for purpose. The author has a light touch with his biographies, which are engrossing and frequently humorous one subject is described as "a jihadist mix of James Bond and Severus Snape." Byman's work, one of the few scholarly entries on this topic, is essential for any reader interested in the global nature of Islamism and the forms it is likely to take in the wake of the Islamic State's defeat in Syria.