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Something Worth Dying For? by Andy Blunden

How we might understand the motivations and self-sacrifice of ‘foreign fighters’

Perhaps the most challenging thing about the foreign fighters—those people who disappear from their suburban homes and reappear on Facebook in Syria or Iraq carrying a grenade launcher or wearing a suicide jacket—is that they have evidently found something they think is worth dying for. Probably most of us would lay down our lives for our immediate family. Beyond that—Anzac Day parades and endless military posturing by political leaders notwithstanding—it is difficult to imagine most people in this country genuinely willing to put their life on the line for democracy, Australia, socialism, the Liberal Party, Jesus or anything else. Most people would probably fight like hell to hang onto what they have, but would they be willing to put their life on the line for an idea?

A society that cannot give its young people an idea worth dying for is shocking. It is a sad reflection upon such a society that some of its young people will go to extreme lengths to find something worth the ultimate sacrifice of a life. A suicide bomber may be misguided, but unless there’s something worth dying for, how can there be something worth living for?

The rise of foreign fighters may be usefully understood through the lens of collaborative projects. In the overwhelming majority of cases collaborative projects are entities that people join rather than launch. A project differs from a group. A group is a collection of people united by some attribute, such as ethnicity or beliefs, but a project is an aggregate of actions directed towards the collaborative realisation of an ideal. All entities that motivate actions that do not satisfy a person’s immediate needs are projects.

A foreign fighter is someone who participates in an insurgency but has neither citizenship nor kinship links in the war zone and has travelled from afar as a private citizen to fight as an unpaid volunteer. Foreign fighters are quite distinct from terrorists who carry out violent acts outside any war zone and those who travel overseas to attend a terrorist training camp. Foreign fighters are engaged in conventional warfare.

Before anyone can become a foreign fighter, someone has to be waging an insurgency that they can join. I will deal with the ‘demand side’ of foreign fighting first, where I rely on the work of Thomas Hegghammer, before turning to the ‘supply side’, where I rely on a variety of sources.

Islamism and the duty of the individual Muslim

The Muslim Brotherhood was launched at a meeting on the Suez Canal construction site in 1928 with the aim of ridding Egypt of foreign influence and exploitation and instituting a lifestyle and government in line with Muslim principles. Its project was not directed against the West as such, however, but rather against the corrupt Egyptian government. The Islamist project was then, and is still largely today, a domestic project aimed at bringing a nominally Islamist country to a truly Islamic way of life.

The Brotherhood supported Nasser’s secular nationalist revolution in Egypt in 1952, but it was suppressed in 1954 after it was implicated in an assassination attempt on Nasser. This was followed in 1958 by its suppression in Syria and Iraq. Those Brothers who escaped prison went into exile, to be followed by thousands of imprisoned Brothers released by Anwar Sadat in 1971. These well-educated and highly motivated leaders were now stateless and without hope of participation in the political life of their homeland.

Meanwhile, the Wahhabi aristocracy in Saudi Arabia was amassing great wealth from oil revenue. They set about building a nation-state on the Arabian Peninsula, and the flood of capital following the 1973 oil embargo created unprecedented opportunities. The Saudis made the creation of an education system a priority and set up a university district in the Hijaz region on the Red Sea coast. All the positions in these universities were filled by exiled Muslim Brothers, who also took up positions in a range of international Islamic organisations whose missions were purely philanthropic. The Wahhabis did not interfere in the Brothers’ activities, and every year the Hajj brought Muslims from all over the world to nearby Mecca. With their positions in the charities and the universities, the former Muslim Brothers found themselves at the centre of a well-funded international Muslim network.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s project had emerged as a social movement aiming to restore the Brothers’ own societies to a religious life. This largely peaceful project had been thwarted by secular nationalist movements that had come to power in their homelands, leaving them no prospect of fulfilling their project as they had initially envisioned it. At the same time they were presented with an opportunity to agitate for their religious ideals on the international stage through education and philanthropy. As Russian psychologist Fedor Vasilyuk explores in his Psychology of Experiencing, when a project is thwarted, the subject is faced with the necessity of reframing their conception of the object and re-orienting to a new system of activity that sublates the former object in a new project. For example, an adventurer who is injured in an accident might go on to become a Paralympic athlete.

An important arm of this philanthropic work was providing relief for refugees, initially Palestinian refugees expelled from their homeland by Zionism, and then Afghan refugees fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion. This included a major refuge located at Peshawar, near the Afghan border in Pakistan. The international Muslim organisations saturated Muslim communities all over the world with well-produced images of women and children bearing the scars of war and desperately in need of aid.

Until the mid-1980s there was no military component to these activities. The key person who brought about a change was Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian preacher who was displaced from Palestine and later from Jordan. He was taken in and given employment by the Brothers, and was sent to Peshawar in 1986. Azzam was particularly well connected as a result of his work for the Brotherhood in the Hijaz region west of Saudi Arabia, but he was also a substantial Muslim scholar.

Under Islamic law as it was understood throughout the twentieth century, an individual Muslim who went to fight in a war in another country would be committing a sin. While Islam did entail an obligation upon Muslims to come to the aid of fellow Muslims under attack from a non-Muslim country, this was a collective obligation placed upon Muslim communities as a whole. Before an individual could leave his country to participate in a war he would have to gain the permission of his parents, his creditors and the political authority in his own country. Not only was there no obligation on an individual Muslim to go and fight in another country, it was forbidden, and to encourage such actions was a direct affront to the authority of a Muslim community over its own members.

In the past, it was rare to see individuals volunteering to fight in foreign wars. The nearest equivalents were the members of the Comintern who fought Franco in Spain in the 1930s, and those Jews who were organised by the Jewish Agency to defend the Zionist occupation in 1948. In both these cases, there was a deeply felt identification with a transnational quasi-state entity that mobilised for war.

In the 1980s and early nineties, when Muslims were suffering severely under attack from non-Muslims—the massacres by the Phalange in Lebanon, the Israeli incursions into Palestine, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia—a young Muslim would have had the tacit approval of his or her community to go and fight alongside fellow Muslims, but national governments were not consenting to such actions. This was despite the fact that, even in the West, Muslims were widely seen as the innocent victims in these conflicts; the representation by Muslim media of Muslims as victims of aggression was broadly reinforced by the mainstream non-Muslim media.

Nation-states had never done much for Abdallah Azzam, and nor did the ancient scriptures have anything to say about nation-states, which were an invention of modernity. Azzam’s scholarship gave considerable weight to his argument that individual Muslims had not only a right but a duty to come to the aid of fellow Muslims under attack from non-Muslims and that, furthermore, they were under no obligation to seek the permission of the political authority in their home country to do so.

Islam is embedded in the structures of Muslim communities, and nothing in Islam speaks of individual rights or duties that transcend the authority of local religious leaders. The appeal to the individual conscience over the heads of the religious and political authorities governing the individual was a truly postmodern innovation in Islamic doctrine. But amid the destruction of Muslim states, genocide at the hands of non-Muslim states, and the rule of often corrupt secular-nationalist regimes in the Muslim world, Azzam’s doctrine had a strong appeal.

So the foreign-fighter movement grew out of a philanthropic religious movement. Propaganda depicting the plight of Muslim refugees and victims of war that had mobilised Muslims across the world to come to the (nonviolent) aid of fellow Muslims went on to draw Egyptian and Syrian Muslim revolutionaries to Peshawar to meet up with the Afghani mujahideen and to fight alongside them. Foreign fighters initially mobilised in the Soviet–Afghan War continued as the military leadership of a social movement able to intervene in insurgencies in any Muslim land.

Who is fighting?

Muslim revolutionaries in predominantly Muslim regions are focused on overthrowing governments in their own territory, not on travelling to foreign theatres of war. However, the exile of many of these revolutionaries before their insurgencies became permanent conflicts provided the first wave of foreign fighters. Muslim revolutionaries had not previously invited foreign fighters to join them, but when the exiles arrived they were put to suitable work, usually as suicide bombers (70 per cent of suicide bombers are foreign fighters) or particularly ruthless fighters (foreigners are free from reprisals against their family, and they do not have the same inhibitions that local fighters do), or in menial or back-office tasks. As foreigners, they are completely dependent on whatever group they have joined.

Terrorists such as al-Qaeda are a different ideological current. Their attacks are directed against governments and populations in countries where Muslims are in the minority, and thus where there is no prospect of achieving a Muslim regime—the aim of Muslim revolutionaries and foreign fighters. Al-Qaeda arose from foreign fighters who had arrived in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets but, when that battle was over, reoriented themselves from domestic politics to attacking Western powers.

The switch to global terrorism also meant a change in tactics involving conspiracies and individual attacks on civilian populations. The questionable goal of international terrorism is for the targeted states to withdraw from the lands in question, as was the case with the IRA bombings in Britain. Muslim revolutionaries and their foreign volunteers have an Islamic state as their objective. Even when terror is used as a tactic, it has a rational objective: to deter collaboration with an occupying power, as in Iraq, or, like the terrorism of the Zionist Irgun in Palestine, to achieve ethnic cleansing.

At least 80 per cent of foreign fighters come from Muslim states. They often enjoy the active support of their home communities and have not been the target of overt repression at home. This is not the case with terrorists, who kill people in their own communities just as often as they kill foreigners. There is crossover between the two movements, and the distinction has become somewhat blurred, but in their origin both individually and as movements the foreign fighter is distinct from the terrorist.

American researcher Scott Atran’s work based on the memoirs of American soldiers in the Second World War and interviews with Americans who fought in Vietnam has found that the principal motivations of rank-and-file American soldiers are, first, to survive the war and, second, to look after their immediate comrades. Asked to characterise what ‘democracy’ meant to them, soldiers responded ‘crap’ and ‘a joke’. The same soldiers ascribed what they saw as the selfless bravery of their Vietnamese opponents to the fact that they ‘because they believed in something’ and ‘knew what they were fighting for’.

American military theorists have designed their strategy and tactics on the basis that soldiers act according to their rational interest as individuals, just as they are assumed to act in bourgeois economic theory. The only explanation, then, for enemies whose soldiers fight with selfless courage and willingly sacrifice their lives is that they are ‘brainwashed’, ‘indoctrinated’ by messages received over the internet or by radical preachers at home. This distinction was on show in the performance of the American-trained Iraqi Army, which fled at the sight of its ISIS enemy, while the Kurdish, Shia and even Sunni militias defending their own land and families have proved stalwart against ISIS. Iraqis joined the US-organised army not as an act of patriotism but simply because it was a well-paid job. For some soldiers, though—generally elite career soldiers and not volunteer foreign fighters—there is a dedication to the warriors’ craft that, in combination with comradeship, can motivate extreme sacrifice. In such cases the motivation arises from what Alasdair MacIntyre called the ‘internal good’ inherent in the soldiers’ profession. An established professional army ought to be able to count on its officer class, but if it is to have a rank and file that is prepared to put its life on the line, then something more than army pay and adventure is required. This raises the question of the motivation of foreign fighters and in what way they differ from the rank-and-file soldier of an imperialist army.

Who wants to be a foreign fighter?

The first thing to learn about the sociology of foreign fighters is that there are no demographic predictors for who will become one—not social class, education, religiosity, age or even gender, except that foreign fighters usually volunteer as part of a group of friends and/or follow friends from their home town into service and/or are recruited by friends who have returned home from a conflict zone. This is reflected in that fact that, as documented in Peter Neumann’s Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Brighton and certain parts of London account for most of Britain’s foreign fighters, and almost all of Norway’s sixty recruits came from the same street. So the idea that people are persuaded to become foreign fighters solely through social media is a myth. Overwhelmingly, people are convinced to become foreign fighters by people who were already personal friends before they became foreign fighters. What social media does is assist foreign fighters to maintain contact with home while they are away, and this works both ways. Different demographic groups play different roles when they join up, but (within limits) all are equally likely to volunteer.

Counter-measures on social media promoting democracy and exposing the supposed agents of Islamist indoctrination cannot work. The ‘shock and awe’ wreaked on Baghdad, a modern city in which people live in tower blocks just as they do in New York or London; the detention practices at Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners are kept without recourse to any legal right; the criminal invasion of Iraq; and the continued support for the Zionist occupation are all objective facts. To those Muslims who see brothers and sisters suffering from illegal attacks on Muslim lands, messages promoting democracy and criticising Muslim fighters are pointless; indeed, there have been foreign fighters whose only knowledge of the conflict they went to join was from the same mass media everyone else was receiving.

Why are people willing to sacrifice their lives in a conflict apparently so far from their everyday concerns? Last year Scott Atran conducted face-to-face surveys in a community in Morocco that had provided many foreign fighters, and in Lebanon amongst Shias, Sunnis and Christians. He tested subjects’ attitudes, including their willingness to sacrifice themselves in war and their attitude towards others who do so. His research had the particular merit that he spoke to people who might or might not become foreign fighters and who were acquainted with the practice at first hand.

Atran’s hypothesis is that the coincidence of two factors makes for readiness to become a foreign fighter and/or approve of others in the community who do so. These two factors are, first, ‘identity fusion’ with a larger group whose welfare may be threatened and, second, holding a ‘sacred value’. A sacred value motivates a person’s actions and transcends any material interest, such as king and country, or socialism. A sacred value is something abstract and remote from the close personal ties that commonly motivate the sacrifice of individual material interest. Identity fusion occurs when identity is wholly subsumed by a collectivity, whether a nation, a religious community, a family or a group of close comrades. A subject’s identity is fused with a group when the subject cannot see themselves apart from his/her bonded identity group. The combination of these two factors occurs when the group to which a person’s identity is fused is united by a sacred value—when ‘we are all fighting for the same thing’.

When there is a threat to the sacred value uniting the social group to which the subject’s identity is fused, then the subject would be prepared to die defending the interests of the group, even if the subject were the last person standing. An individual may have a strong personal belief, but so long as that belief is merely personal and not an ideal shared by and constituting a community of others, it cannot motivate extreme sacrifice. Many of us who took up a cause in the 1960s and seventies as part of a mass movement would have been prepared to die for that cause, and many activists in the civil rights and peace movements in the United States did die for their cause. But now that the flood has subsided such self-sacrifice would be meaningless. A transcendent idea is not enough in itself. An individual may identify with a social group, such as employees of BHP, but if that just represents a good job, and not a sacred value, they are generally not prepared to die for it.

Atran’s research showed that a person whose identity is fused with a group bonded by a sacred value will be prepared to die in defence of that sacred cause. The term ‘transcendent’ refers to values that motivate action while transcending material gain but not necessarily the sacrifice of life itself, and identity fusion comes in degrees from slight to total. This opens the possibility of explaining the motivation for social action up to and including the sacrifice of one’s life but not limited to the scenario of ultimate sacrifice. This constitutes an alternative rationale for social action to the ‘rational actor’ theory that has proved so inadequate in understanding social movements and for which self-sacrifice is a contradiction in terms. This unity of transcendent value and identity fusion is what I call a collaborative project.

All ideals within a community are constituted by collaborative projects, but the extent of identity fusion a person has with the project may be very slight or absolute, and the project may belong to the past or may be the chief fact of current social life (as when the country is at war). Likewise, all identity groups are constituted by a transcendent ideal. The collaborative project is therefore a unit of analysis for social formations that captures the identity and motivational structure of the community. It describes not only a social formation as it is but also the pattern of change at work in the community. The collaborative project is a powerful instrument of analysis, but it is also a crucial component of ethical life.

It is normal to be committed to collaborative projects and for at least one of those projects to be unified by a sacred value. Such a project I will call a life-project, as it gives meaning to a person’s life. Vasilyuk’s Psychology of Experiencing outlines that psychological pathology arises, first, through the blockage or destruction of a life-project; second, in a clash between two life-projects; third, in a crisis arising from the failure of a life-project; or, fourth, in the lack of any life-project, which is normal for a child but pathological for an adult.

A substantial proportion of Australians who count as psychologically normal are in the infantile condition of lacking a life-project. From this standpoint, the actions of a foreign fighter may seem inexplicable, if not insane. But if we accept that commitment to a life-project is psychologically normal and healthy, all that requires explanation is how a person comes to commit themselves to a life-project that receives such adverse representation in our mass media, and how that life-project might unfold when they arrive in the conflict zone and when they later return home, if indeed they ever do.

It should already be clear that any person who identifies themselves as a Muslim will have received an ample flow of information to demonstrate that Ummah, the Muslim world, is under attack and in danger. And you don’t have to be a Muslim to have seen the genocidal attacks in Palestine, Lebanon, Bosnia, Gaza, Mindanao, Rakhine and Uyghur and oppressive secular or sectarian governments in Egypt, Syria and Libya, for example. But while many non-Muslims recognise the oppression and injustice that Muslim people have suffered over the past sixty years, it is generally only Muslims who identify with this suffering. For them these attacks are a direct challenge to their life-project.

Foreign fighters travelling to a conflict zone are generally motivated by altruism. The first foreign fighters to go to Syria were motivated to defend their Muslim brothers and sisters, whose peaceful protest had been met with violence by the Assad regime. In time, this moved on to the construction of an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, irrespective of the wishes of the people who lived there. This is typical of the development of a project that is at first focused on a particular injustice: over time, it becomes universal, possibly embracing utopian visions of how social justice can be permanently secured.

To be clear, this is not primarily a question of the tenets of the Islamic religion. Neither the Palestinians (who invented suicide bombing in the 1970s) nor the Tamil Tigers (who until their final suppression in 2009 were also prolific suicide bombers) were motivated by religious doctrine: their sacred value was the land of their ancestors. No element of religiosity is necessarily inherent in commitment to a life-project.

The flow of foreign fighters to conflict zones in the Muslim world began in the mid-1980s in response to calls by Abdallah Azzam and others. The foreign fighters in Afghanistan were known locally as ‘jihad tourists’, because they stayed for a short time and their death rate was only 2 to 6 per cent. By way of comparison, the death rate in Syria and Iraq is as high as 10 per cent. It has only been since the US invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring that foreign fighting has blossomed. Eighty per cent of foreign fighters are citizens of Muslim countries who sometimes have the tacit consent of their governments. The foreign fighters who pose the sharpest challenges are those 4000 or so who, in defiance of law and social norms, have left their homes in Europe or other Western countries where Muslims are immigrants to fight with ISIS or other Islamist forces. These fighters have proliferated in recent times as international travel and international phone calls have become very cheap and social media have made communication with friends and family at home easy even from the battlefronts.

Governments have a responsibility to prevent their citizens from travelling to cause havoc in other countries, but their main concern is not what their citizens do overseas but what they do when they come back. There are several possible outcomes when someone becomes a foreign fighter: one is to die in battle, and the death rate is high for foreign fighters these days; a second is to settle in the country where they have gone to fight; a third is to become a career fighter, moving from one conflict to another. In all these cases the foreign fighter never returns home. The few who do return are usually known to security authorities. Those returning from a holy war typically fall into one of three categories: the dangerous, the disturbed and the disillusioned. According to Thomas Hegghammer, the disillusioned constitute 90 per cent of returnees, and go on to lead a normal life without further involvement in violence. Such people are the most likely to be successful in dissuading others from terrorist activity. Those who return traumatised by their experiences need help, not imprisonment. Fewer than 10 per cent of returning foreign fighters want to bring the jihad home with them, but records show that they are no more effective than those without combat experience since terrorism demands a different skill set than conventional warfare.

The condition most likely to disillusion foreign fighters with jihad and to dissuade others from joining is the reality of bitter sectarian warfare between Islamic factions. This can shatter the myth of Ummah. Foreign fighters are as likely to find themselves fighting other Islamists as they are repressive governments, and 50 per cent of foreign fighters who die in battle do so at the hands of other jihadis. Foreign fighters often discover that they are unwelcome when they arrive; not only are they assigned menial and suicidal tasks but also they are often treated with particular hostility by the local people. Those coming from the West may lack the local language and some may feel very vulnerable.

Far from being alienated from the society in which they live, foreign fighters are frequently well-educated, well-paid and well-respected professionals. Such well-integrated people cannot be described as ‘alienated’. Peter Neumann says that foreign fighters are frequently people ‘who lacked a strong sense of meaning in their own lives in the West’. The most well-integrated person may find their life meaningless.

And we should not be surprised by the inhuman brutality of foreign fighters’ actions. Life-projects give meaning to our lives and can therefore facilitate acts of great self-sacrifice and virtue. But they also facilitate acts of breathtaking inhumanity. We have seen in recent years how the leaders of our Christian churches have thought it appropriate to move priests who abuse children from parish to parish to avoid them being exposed, protecting the Church, which they took to be above the law.

Commitment to a life-project, be that a church, a political career, a capitalist firm or the army, brings with it an entire ethos, a moral code and a theory of the world that may be quite at odds with Agnes Heller’s ‘loose ethos’ that pervades public life. That loose ethos cannot give meaning to life, however well it supports a liberal, tolerant, multicultural, bourgeois society. Our children are more likely to commit suicide if we raise them to be contented shoppers than if we raise them to be passionate idealists. In the latter case they are more likely to do something worthwhile with their lives, but it is always a risk. As Lev Vygotsky said: ‘People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls’.


There is a number of viable responses to the rise of foreign fighters, not including withdrawing their passports after they have left, or imprisoning them when they return. Foreign fighters should be assisted to return home and find another, more productive project. In the international arena, governments should take responsibility for preventing the kinds of gross injustices that have inflamed the passions of foreign fighters. And in the domestic arena, we need political leaders who have a vision and a life-project worthy of a country where most citizens no longer have to struggle daily for the bare necessities of physical existence—political leaders who have a genuine commitment to social justice and are capable of inspiring others.

Political leaders need to stop stoking fear and selfishness. Instead of celebrating military adventures, our leaders need to celebrate the numerous altruistic projects that are open to young Australians who wish to give their lives to something worth living for.

Andy Blunden is secretary of the Marxists Internet Archive and managing editor of Mind, Culture and Activity. He recently presented a series of seminars on activity theory for the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy.