Check out my new ‘Policy Watch’ for the Washington Institute: "Syria: The Epicenter of Future Jihad"

For jihadists, the Syrian war recalls Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s for various reasons. Perhaps most notably, in both conflicts groups traveled from other battlefields to fight and train for future jihad upon returning home. This comparison truly signals Syria’s emergence as the epicenter of the global jihadist movement, even if more attention has rightly been given in recent weeks to Iraq. Just as events in Afghanistan spawned many later insurgencies and terrorist attacks, many future threats will now likely emanate from or have a connection back to Syria.


During the latter years of the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s and, later, the fight against the Afghan puppet communist regime and the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, individuals from jihadist national groups and, in some cases, the groups themselves traveled to Afghanistan to set up camp, train, and acquire new skills. Most often, these groups used the Afghan safe haven to escape harassment within their home countries. The groups also used Afghanistan as a planning site for insurgencies and terrorist attacks at home, with some such endeavors receiving seed money from al-Qaeda’s Usama bin Laden. Unlike the national jihadist groups, al-Qaeda focused on providing training for foreign-fighter insurgencies in central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Al-Qaeda was also involved in planning terrorist attacks against Western targets, interests, or the states themselves.
Beyond the known cases of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, national jihadist groups that graduated from Afghanistan include the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, Algerian Armed Islamic Group, and Egyptian al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah. All were involved in multiyear insurgencies in the early- to mid-1990s that killed many innocents. Other low-level insurgencies or terrorist attacks played out in Tunisia with the Tunisian Combat Group, in Morocco with the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group, in Uzbekistan with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), in China with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, in Indonesia with Jemaah Islamiyah, and in Yemen with the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army. Whereas many of these groups evoke the past, Syria is producing its own new generation of national jihadist groups, in addition to the global leaders, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — now the Islamic State (IS) — and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).
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