Martyrs without Borders: Iraq's Foreign Fighters and the Third Generation of Global Jihad


Project Details


This project sought to answer the following questions: What explains the growth of transnational radicalization and mobilization to conflict zones? Why are so many young Muslims eager to volunteer as foreign fighters in distant conflicts, especially since many of them end up in the ranks of suicide bombers? The research sought to sketch the underlying structural, organizational, and ideological variables that make this phenomenon possible. Moreover, it also focused on the micromobilization processes (pathways) through which ordinary individuals become radicalized, recruited, and prepared for martyrdom. The project was conducted using:

1. Historical case studies of international "volunteers" following participation in conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kosovo, including classification of returnees from conflicts into specific categories based upon their post-return behavior: 

(a) Integrationists: Jihadists who seek to go back to non-militant lives;

(b) Opportunists: Jihadists who serve as foot soldiers for existing regimes or for security services entangled in internal civil wars or regional competition;

(c) Revolutionaries: Jihadists who seek to play a militant role in opposition politics to secular states, or

(d) Transnational Jihadists: Individuals who seek to join other radical movements outside their home countries or become active participants within regional or global terrorist networks.

2. Collection and analysis of event-based data on successful and failed attacks launched by groups with links to Iraq-based terrorists and insurgents (done in conjunction with the Global Terrorism Database project) to determine the trajectory of post-Iraq behaviors.


Primary Findings:

The study yielded several findings:

  1. There is not a single motivation for volunteering to a conflict zone. At least five motivations appeared recurrently across the historical cases.
    • "True believers" who were motivated by religious or ideological ideals and inspired by vivid imagery of the suffering of their fictive kin.
    • "Opportunistic revolutionaries," who consisted of experienced militants that used foreign conflicts to build up their capabilities and skills to fight their own governments.
    • "Itinerant exiles" who were seeking safe havens from fellow travelers and were thus inexorably entangled in a radical transnational support structure.
    • "Adventure seekers" made up of young men seeking an outlet to express their masculinity, especially from societies in which the state elite generally monopolizes heroic figures (less prominently represented).
    • "Entrepreneurial criminals" seeking wealth through illicit smuggling of goods, persons, and arms.
  2. There are a number of facilitating factors that could aid the phenomenon of transnational volunteerism as well as increase its size. These include state sponsorship or acquiescence; social ties rooted in bonds of kinship and friendship; small group dynamics that bolster commitments to a radical path; and the strategic use of emotional imagery by recruiters.
  3. Preexisting ideological and clerical support for volunteerism and martyrdom played an instrumental role in breaking down moral and normative barriers to self-sacrifice; indeed they framed self-immolation as an ultimate act of religious and national devotion.

This was a comparative study of historical and contemporary cases that drew upon Arabic sources. The study sought to identify patterns in radicalization, recruitment, and foreign fighter behavior across cases. The study drew mainly on primary data between 2003 and 2008 from Iraq's foreign fighters, but it also explored historical examples of transnational volunteerism in Palestine (1947-1948), Afghanistan (1979-1992), Bosnia (1992-1995), and Chechnya (1994-2000s). It also explored historical cases of volunteerism outside of the Muslim world (e.g. volunteers in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939). The data collected included: 1. Various estimates of the number of volunteers 2. Biographical data on "martyrs," up to 600 biographies in Arabic 3. Field research in the Middle East to interview academic experts and security specialists.


Project Period: