Reinforcing the Mujahideen: Origins of Jihadi Manpower

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 18

Much is written about how non-indigenous, would-be Islamist fighters enter the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to join the mujahideen fighting U.S.-led coalitions in both countries. Do they enter Afghanistan from Pakistan? Or Iran? Perhaps Central Asia? What about Iraq? Which border is the most porous? Does that dubious honor belong to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Iran?

These are, of course, important questions. To know and close the entry points of these aspiring mujahideen would slow the pace at which foreign fighters could join the fray. It also would make local insurgent field commanders unsure about the dependability of the flow of replacement fighters for their units, and thereby probably limit their willingness to undertake operations that are likely to result in sizeable manpower loses.

A more basic question, however, is seldom asked or debated. While it is clear that closing points of entry would give the U.S.-led coalitions a better chance to reduce the level of each insurgency, the more important path to victory probably lies in determining exactly from where these prospective insurgents emanate. There has been an intense concentration in both the media and academic literature on the role that madrassas play in producing young men eager to join the war against the West. Indeed, so thoroughly has this been discussed and analyzed that we are nearing the point where it will become common wisdom that if Washington, London and their allies can close down the madrassas, we could halt the flow of reinforcements to the Iraqi and Afghan mujahideen.

On the basis of at least two factors, it would be wise to hold off on enshrining as common wisdom the belief that madrassas are the main producers of nascent mujahideen. The first lies in some recent academic work. Marc Sageman, in his excellent book Understanding Terrorist Networks (Philadelphia, 2004), and Robert Pape, in his equally outstanding study Dying to Win (New York, 2005), demonstrate that few of the non-indigenous Islamist fighters the West is encountering in the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies are the products of madrassas. Both Sageman and Pape show that these fighters are, more often than not, young men educated in areas beyond the strictly religious studies that dominate the madrassas’ curriculum. Many have studied sciences and engineering and hail from stable, middle-class families. In short, Sageman, Pape and a few other analysts have concluded after extensive research and statistical study that the largest number of foreign fighters who travel to participate in the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are not madrassa graduates. (NB: The exception to this conclusion is Pakistan, where it seems likely that madrassas produce the majority of Pakistanis who join the Afghan insurgency.)

The second factor that argues against accepting that madrassas are the main source of the insurgencies’ reinforcements requires a bit of historical background. During the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union (1979-89), the Afghans played the overwhelming role in defeating the Red Army. Non-indigenous Muslims did, of course, travel to Afghanistan to assist the Afghans. Their numbers grew as the war wore on, and among the foreign fighters were Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Ibn Khattab, Mustafa Hamza and many others who later helped to form al-Qaeda and other like-minded organizations. Others simply returned to their homes in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and began to attack their national governments.

Where did the non-indigenous Muslim fighters come from during the Afghan jihad? Their travel to the battlefield was certainly facilitated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations—and some members of those groups, like Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and the Saudi Wael Julaidan, joined the fight—as well as by some wealthy Muslim individuals and Arab governments. It is well-known, for example, that the bin Laden family business helped aspiring mujahideen travel to Afghanistan, and that Riyadh ordered Saudia, its international airline, to offer reduced-fair “jihad” tickets to young men on their way to Afghanistan.

Many of these non-Afghan Muslim mujahideen came out of the prisons of Arab states. The West often forgets that Arab prisons are built not only to house criminals, but to confine ideological opponents of the regime. Thus, the prisons are generally full-to-overflowing with Islamic militants who, for example, oppose the brutality of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime or the al-Sauds’ greed, corruption and opulence in Saudi Arabia. Incarcerating these militants helps the regimes maintain societal control. Their detention, however, also has proved to increase their Islamic militancy because the extremist inmates tend to congregate and to be easy targets for instruction by jailed radical Islamic scholars and clerics, both of which breed a sense of fraternity. Al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri emerged much more militant after his incarceration and torture in post-Sadat Egypt, as did Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after his imprisonment in Jordan and his instruction by the renowned Salafi scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.

Faced with a large population of young, Islamic-extremist prisoners during the Afghan jihad, governments across the Arab world found a release valve for radical religious pressures in their societies by freeing ideological prisoners on the condition that they would go to fight the atheist Soviets in Afghanistan. Many such prisoners agreed and were released by regimes that hoped they would go to Afghanistan, kill some infidels, and be killed in the process. Many of these fighters were killed, but many were not and returned to bedevil their respective governments to this day. Still, for more than a decade, the Afghan jihad allowed Arab governments to redirect domestic Islamist activism outward toward the hapless Red Army. Although the policy proved shortsighted, it reduced domestic instability for most of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.

Today, it is hard to know for sure whether this trend is repeating itself. Yet, we do know three things for certain: (a) every Arab government faces a domestic Islamist movement that is broader and more militant—though not always more violent—than in the 1980s; (b) the insurgency in Iraq, because the country is the former seat of the caliphate and is located in the Arab heartland, is an attraction for Islamists far more powerful than was Afghanistan; and (c) the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan seems to be more than sufficient to allow a steady increase in the combat tempo of each insurgency. Thus, the situation seems ideal for Arab governments to try a reprise of the process that lessened domestic instability during the Afghan jihad.

This circumstantial argument that the current situation in Iraq is an almost ideal opportunity for Arab regimes to export their Islamic firebrands to kill members of the U.S.-led coalitions and be killed in turn is augmented—if not validated—by the large numbers of Islamic militants that have been released by Arab governments since the invasion of Iraq. The following are several pertinent examples drawn from the period November 2003-March 2006:

November 2003: The government of Yemen freed more than 1,500 inmates—including 92 suspected al-Qaeda members—in an amnesty to mark the holy month of Ramadan [1].

January 2005: The Algerian government pardoned 5,065 prisoners to commemorate the feast of Eid al-Adha [2].

September 2005: The new Mauritanian military government ordered “a sweeping amnesty for political crimes, freeing scores of prisoners…including a band of coup plotters and alleged Islamic extremists” [3].

November 2005: Morocco released 164 Islamist prisoners to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan [4].

November 2005: Morocco released 5,000 prisoners in honor of the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence. The sentences of 5,000 other prisoners were reduced [5].

November-December 2005: Saudi Arabia released 400 reformed Islamist prisoners [6].

February-March 2006: In February, Algeria pardoned or reduced sentences for “3,000 convicted or suspected terrorists” as part of a national reconciliation plan [7]. In March, 2,000 additional prisoners were released [8].

February 2006: Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali released 1,600 prisoners, including Islamist radicals [9].

March 2006: Yemen released more than 600 Islamist fighters who were imprisoned after a rebellion led by a radical cleric named Hussein Badr Eddin al-Huthi [10].

The justifications offered by Arab governments for these releases vary. Some claim they are to commemorate religious holidays or political anniversaries; others claim they are part of national-reconciliation plans. In some of the official statements announcing prisoner releases, Islamists are said to be excluded from the prisoners freed; in others, they are specifically included. In all cases, the releasing governments are police states worried about internal stability in the face of rising Islamist militancy across the Islamic world, the animosities of populations angered at Arab regimes for assisting the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the powerful showings Islamist parties have made in elections across the region. While the motivation of Arab governments in releasing large numbers of prisoners is impossible to definitively document, it seems fair to conclude that those governments are not ignorant to the attraction that the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan will exert on newly freed Islamists, nor of the chance that it might take no more than a slight incentive to dispatch some of the former prisoners to the war zones. It may well be that the West is seeing but not recognizing a reprise of the process that supplied manpower to the Afghan mujahideen two decades ago.


1. “92 al-Qaeda suspects freed in amnesty,” Los Angeles Times, November 17, 2003.

2. “Algeria pardons 5,065 prisoners to mark Muslim feast,”, January 18, 2005.

3. “Mauritania: Junta declares general amnesty for political prisoners,” Reuters, September 5, 2005.

4. Said Moumni, “One-hundred and sixty-four detainees belonging to the Salfia Jiahdia group are pardoned,” Annahar al-Maghribiyah, November 5, 2005.

5. “Morocco pardons 10,000 to mark independence,” Reuters, November 17, 2005.

6. “Saudi Arabia: Almost 400 prisoners released,”, December 19, 2005.

7. “Algeria to pardon or reduce sentences for 3,000 terrorists,”, February 2006.

8. “Over 2,000 Algerians to be released under reconciliation charter,” Radio Algiers/Channel 3, March 1, 2006.

9. “Ben Ali frees 1,600 Tunisian prisoners,”, February 27, 2006.

10. “Yemen frees 627 Zaidi rebels,”, March 3, 2003.