(W)Archives: Wandering Mujahidin Menace?

Bin Laden

Today’s historical document is an analysis written in 1993 by Gina Bennett, then a young terrorism analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.  Ms. Bennett went on to become a senior official in the Intelligence Community’s counterterrorism field.  She got today’s document declassified in connection with the publication of National Security Mom, her 2009 book which points out the overlap between child-rearing and terrorism policy.

In her 1993 paper, “The Wandering Mujahidin: Armed and Dangerous,” Ms. Bennett noted that the “support network that funneled money, supplies, and manpower to supplement the Afghan mujahidin” in the war against the Soviets, “is now contributing experienced fighters to militant Islamic groups worldwide.”  Buoyed by their victory over the Soviets, these fighters were inspired to continue their jihad against Middle East regimes, Israel, and the United States.  This analysis turned out to be prescient as the 1990s were a decade in which jihadist groups flourished across the globe and at the core of each was usually a small group of Afghan veterans.  What would become the most prominent of these groups, of course, was Al Qaeda—a name that was still largely unknown in the West in 1993.

Despite the passage of time, the issues Ms. Bennett raised in her 1993 work continue to be relevant today.  This fact is a sign of the persistence of the problem of Sunni jihadism and the “wandering mujahidin.”  Today, of course, the problem isn’t Afghanistan but Syria.  While the war there is far from over, there is already widespread nervousness, particularly in Europe, about what will happen when the foreign fighters return from that conflict.

We also saw similar fears with respect to Iraq.  A lot of analysts worried about “bleedout” from that country, as the war there wound down and foreign fighters returned home.  That concern largely fizzled because many of the foreign fighters who went to Iraq were used as suicide bombers, and possibly also because the war there never fully ended, despite the departure of the U.S. military.

Now, the war in Syria is far from over, so the foreign fighters aren’t likely to start coming back en masse to Europe and elsewhere soon.  But if they do, it may be worse than after the American pull-out from Iraq for the simple reason that certain dynamics of the war in Syria are different from those of the war in Iraq.  In particular, fewer foreign fighters are engaging in suicide bombing and more are engaging in traditional terrorist operations, guerrilla warfare and jihadist snuff porn.  (It’s OK.  That link does not contain graphic images.)  Unfortunately, those skills transfer nicely elsewhere.

Gina Bennett was onto something important in 1993.  It’s too early to know if history will repeat itself, but it’s worth reviewing what she wrote and asking if it could happen again.  Forewarned is fore-armed.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.