On Foreign Fighters

Good episode from the Irregular Warfare Initiative.

In this fascinating discussion, our guests discuss what political, social, and economic circumstances create the conditions that enable the mass recruitment and radicalization of foreign fighters. Their research on this topic represents a startling departure from conventional wisdom and, as such, offers opportunities to preempt this destructive process before it begins. There doesn’t have to be another wave of diaspora-fueled jihad, they argue, but prevention will require Western governments to take comprehensive and determined action now.

ON THE ROAD TO JIHAD: THE ROLE OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN IRREGULAR WARFARE

A few things struck me as I listened to this one.

Foreign Fighters and Information Warfare. Early in the episode, the guests brought up the concept of foreign fighters supporting a cause remotely through information warfare. While the focus of the episode was primarily on foreign fighters who actually pick up and travel to a foreign land, there is so much more to know about what actively supporting the same movements looks like when done digitally. Propaganda support (creating/sharing memes), harassment, actual hacking – there’s a lot to be explored there. We saw a lot of this in the mid-2010s during the rise of ISIS. I’d love to learn more.

It’s our fault. Jasmine El-Gamal plants the flag on the things we’re not allowed to talk about – chiefly, that there are policy decisions that the US has made which may be the proximate causes for motivating foreign fighters in the first place. As she rightly indicates, having those conversations were (and are) rare – and it leads to us coming up with new strategies and magic to try to solve the problem. It’s what led to the GWOT effect.

Stanford Prison Experiment. There was a brief mention of the infamous Stanford Prison experiment, which despite all of its flaws and the continuing information that comes out on it which calls into question the validity of the results, it is still popularly understood to hold water. It is true, of course, for an experiment to be flawed but the results still valid.

Human Rights as Counter-Terror. I like this concept. We don’t really talk about human rights anymore. It used to be a driving force of policy. It has the benefit of allowing you to stand on the moral high ground, as well. It seems we’ve moved very deeply into the realm of states’ interests above all else.

Measures of effectiveness. There’s a conversation at the end discussing possible solutions to the problem of foreign fighters – dissuasion and de-radicalization. This led to the fact that many of these solutions appear to be ineffective because of how difficult they are to measure. If you’ve been reading my newsletters lately, you’ll know that I have an against the grain take on “MoEs” – that is, we don’t always need them. Just because something is difficult to measure doesn’t mean it isn’t working.

We have an obsession with “showing” results – that’s how you get more money, get promoted, get more resources. Thus, we tend to enact policies and programs that are easy to measure instead of actually effective. If we truly want to win, we have to extend some trust. I don’t need to know how you did the magic trick – I just want to be amazed.

The episode ends with a short story of a stunning encounter between one of the guests and a soldier deployed to Iraq. It’s sad, and it captures the absurdity of war and violence neatly. You can do all the planning and training you want, but when war requires men and women to enact violence on behalf of some cause, it will always be nasty and brutish. There will always be trauma. There will always be psychological scarring.

There is no clinical war.

Lastly, as an exercise in self-awareness it’s helpful to ask yourself (or others) in a given country, where do the majority of foreign fighters come from?

The answer will indicate how close they are paying attention.

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