The next generation of extremists is being trained in Middle Eastern conflicts, in bigger numbers than before 9/11. By Anthony Bubalo.

Anthony Bubalo
The new jihadists

These days, the tumult in the Middle East seems to evoke in the West little more than a collective, weary shrug. No one is surprised that the Arab uprisings have failed to transform the region democratically. Nor have the region’s conflicts, and the enormous humanitarian consequences that have resulted from them, provoked much empathy. 

But we should care. In fact, we should be worried. For decades, authoritarianism and upheaval have been great incubators of extremism in the Middle East. To understand how serious the current situation is you only need to look back at the conditions in the Middle East in the period leading up to 9/11. 

The men that would go on to form al-Qaeda emerged from conflicts between Islamists and authoritarian regimes in the 1980s and 1990s in countries such as Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Forced into exile, these extremists fled to other regional conflicts, most notably to Afghanistan, where they found opportunities to enhance their military skills and sharpen their ideology.

These conflict zones eventually became havens from which al-Qaeda’s jihadists plotted a new campaign of violence directed against the West and connected with other like-minded extremists from around the world. It was in Afghanistan in the 1990s, for example, that al-Qaeda built ties with those members of the Indonesian extremist movement Jemaah Islamiyah who would go on to plan the 2002 Bali bombings. 

Yet today, the conditions in the Middle East, in terms of the creation of jihadists, are actually much worse than those in the ’80s and ’90s. 

In Syria the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has become a magnet for jihadist groups from around the world. Today there are some 7000 “foreign fighters” in the conflict from more than 50 countries, including 120 to 150 from Australia. By comparison there were never more than 3000 to 4000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan at any one time.

Not all of these foreign fighters, including the Australians among them, are serving with jihadist groups of the al-Qaeda variety. But if even only a small number are fighting alongside the worst extremists it will undo one of the main achievements of the War on Terror era. 

In the decade after 9/11, al-Qaeda and its affiliates lost many of their most experienced members who were either captured or killed. Their links with other terrorist groups were also disrupted by the loss of their haven in Afghanistan.

But after three years of conflict in Syria, a new generation of jihadists is gaining military experience, is being trained to make bombs, and is forging personal ties with other jihadists from around the globe. 

According to the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, some groups are setting up training centres in Syria – not for the Syrian conflict, but to train their members for conflicts in their home countries. This echoes what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the country became a training hub for myriad international jihadist groups. 

Syria is far from the only problem, however. The fallout from the Arab uprisings has created multiple new conflict zones and semi-governed spaces for jihadists to exploit. 

Before 9/11 there was a handful of countries in the wider Middle East where jihadists could operate with relative impunity: Afghanistan, Sudan, parts of Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria and Somalia. Today, most of those countries are still on a list of jihadist havens that has grown to include Syria, Libya, western Iraq, Sinai in Egypt, as well as parts of North and West Africa. 

Weapons are also flowing freely across the region, often from looted government armouries. Political unrest has deepened the socioeconomic crisis that in many countries helped cause the uprisings in the first place.

Against this background it is little wonder that many people both inside and outside the Middle East seem to be welcoming the revival of old authoritarian structures. The hope is that a strong hand will bring back stability and contain advances being made by extremist groups under the cover of democracy.

You see this most clearly in Egypt. Last June the military grabbed power in a popular coup after three years of democratic experimentation that led to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power. The problem is that the military’s move is unlikely to revive the stability most Egyptians crave any time soon.

The military has placed itself on a collision course with the Brotherhood, which it has declared a terrorist group, arresting most of its leadership. The Brotherhood is happy to play the martyr, hoping to win back popular sympathy and to use the instability as leverage with
the military.

The military will ultimately win this confrontation, but at what cost? Younger members of the Brotherhood are already questioning the movement’s hitherto largely non-violent approach to politics. Meanwhile, more extreme jihadist groups are exploiting the confrontational atmosphere that has been created to sow more unrest and gain new recruits.

If you think none of this matters to the West, think again. It is true that this new generation of jihadists is currently focused on events in the Middle East. But we have seen in the recent past how their focus can shift quite quickly from targets in their own countries to targets in the West.  

America’s wars in the region during the past decade and a half will linger long in the regional memory. US efforts to stem the flow of jihadists to Syria will bring it into more direct conflict with these groups. The significant number of citizens from Western countries, who will one day return home from these conflicts
with new military skills, gives the situation an added edge. 

Three years ago some commentators were rightly heralding al-Qaeda’s struggle for relevance amid the popular uprisings of the Arab world. Today, the regional tumult has created a new pool of jihadists that may end up significantly larger than the one that existed before 9/11. Is it any wonder that al-Qaeda has christened its new English-language magazine Resurgence?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "The new jihadists".

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Anthony Bubalo is the research director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

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