Clint Watts compares the current jihadi movement to the Soviet Afghan campaign of the early ’80s:
For some fighters, the opportunity to fight in Afghanistan turned into a one-way ticket. Many Middle Eastern and North African countries preferred not to have trained, battle hardened mujahideen return home. Likewise, some foreign fighters now craved more conflict and actively began seeking new theatres in which to fight. Osama Bin Laden seized upon this first glut of idle foreign fighters to create a “base” – al Qaeda – which served as a focal point for the restless energy of homeless fighters.
While al Qaeda’s jihadi campaigns of Afghanistan after 2001 and Iraq after 2003 have not come to a complete close, these conflict[s] are both well past their peak with a second generation of foreign fighters returning to their homes and neighborhoods. This second generation of fighters has now repeated the cycle of their predecessors from the first foreign fighter glut, spinning tales of combat and facilitating the radicalization and recruitment of new crops of fighters to serve in jihadi campaigns as fresh battles arise. In essence, the best recruiter of a new foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter.
He worries about the effect that these “second generation” foreign fighters will have on the civil war in Syria:
Why has Syria ignited foreign fighter networks so quickly, to such a great extent and in the presence of other conflicts across the Middle East and North Africa? First, the Syrian revolution has continued far longer than any other Arab Spring uprising. With each passing day, the Syrian conflict draws the attention of additional recruits. Second, in Syria, foreign fighters have made a difference in sustaining the fight against Assad due to the absence of international support for the rebellion. The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more foreign fighters will descend on the country. Western inaction in Syria will not only sustain foreign fighter flows to Syria, but will sustain a decades long jihadi foreign fighter recruitment cycle and likely produce a third foreign fighter glut fostering conflict for the next decade.
But what Western action wouldn’t also direct these Jihadists toward targeting the West rather than their own infidels or sectarian rivals? And wouldn’t this point also strengthen the Russian argument that Assad is better than what would replace him?