© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Foreign Fighters A Fixture Of Conflict Throughout Modern History


We've heard a lot this year about foreign fighters - young jihadis from Europe, America and elsewhere joining the Islamic State. And in just the past week, we have heard about young men joining up to fight against ISIS alongside the Kurds - Danish and German bikers, a small number of American ex-soldiers.

The phenomenon of foreign volunteers in faraway wars has been described as alarming and new, and while it may or may not be alarming, David Malet says it is certainly not new. He's an American political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and he wrote a book about the subject called "Foreign Fighters." Welcome to the program, David Malet.

DAVID MALET: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, how old is the phenomenon of men running off to fight in faraway wars?

MALET: We see it going all the way back through modern history. Certainly, the American Revolution had famous names like L'Enfant and Kosciuszko, some of whom became involved in what we would consider blowback today by going back to their home countries with the skills they had learned in the field and leading fights against their monarchies.

Probably about a quarter of the civil wars over the last couple of centuries have had volunteers from elsewhere with rebel groups. And they've been, certainly, Islamist, but they've been Jewish diaspora members. They've been communists. They have been Catholics going to fight against communism in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. There have been a huge variety of causes.

SIEGEL: But what you've written is that the rationale for effectively recruiting young men to go off to civil wars not in their own country is typically to defend a civilization - to defend a great cause that is imperiled and would be destroyed but for their going to fight for it.

MALET: That's right. We don't know exactly why every individual goes. Some of them are honestly just adventure seekers. Most of them don't seem to be in it for the money. What recruiters do offer them is the imperative of defending some transnational identity group. They tell them to forget their citizenship, and they often come from marginalized ethnic or socioeconomic groups, so it's easy for them to do. And they're told your real people are in trouble in this distant conflict which is an existential threat to all of us, and it's also in your self-interest because if we lose over here, they'll come for you where you live.

SIEGEL: Is it fair to say that your research undermines the argument that it's the 24-hour cable satellite news cycle, it's Al Jazeera - it's pictures of conflict and corpses that drives people to volunteer? People were doing this long before media was that sophisticated or that instant.

MALET: Well, there's always been the role of - let's say propaganda if not mass media. You can go back to some of the cases with the Texas Revolution or the Spanish Civil War, and you see that rebel groups tend to make extensive use of atrocity stories. They often use very gendered accounts of the women of the community being violated and being in need of defense by these sort of college-age, you know, young guys who want to be heroes. In some cases like Bosnia in the 1990s it's actually true, and if it's not, they make them up anyway. So even without, I guess, the CNN effect, you always did have this humanitarian motivation - this imagery that would make the threat seem very real.

SIEGEL: If, in fact, the appeal is to rally to the defense of your people, your civilization, your religion - whatever it might be, I guess the case for going to fight for ISIS is that there's a war against Islam from Afghanistan across to the Middle East. What's the argument to go fight for the Kurds - that the Kurds are imperiled? Is that what you think is appealing to these biker gangs that are signing up to go fight alongside them?

MALET: Well, it's a good as justification as any you're going to find, I suppose. Besides the Dutch bikers, you've had some people from other Western countries saying they're going to go off and fight with the Kurds because they're fighting ISIS - not that they're interested directly in the Kurdish cause, but the Kurds are sort of the one group in the area that's not considered a terrorist organization by the United States government. So they don't want to run afoul with the law. Clearly, they're planning to come home and presumably settle back down to normalize after they go have their adventure.

So the argument a lot of the jihadi groups make is this is a defense of Sunni Muslims against the Shia governments of Iraq and Syria. But the argument on the other side is there are Christians in the Middle East. There are, you k now, minority groups like the Yazidi who are under threat of the Islamists and somebody needs to stand up for them.

SIEGEL: Well, David Malet, thank you very much for talking with us.

MALET: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Malet is an American political scientist. He's associate director of the Melbourne School of Government and senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Melbourne in Australia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.