The Global Spread of Iraq's Jihadist Movement

4 MINS READSep 20, 2005 | 22:53 GMT
French police said Sept. 19 they had detained six men under suspicion of recruiting volunteers for combat against coalition forces in Iraq. The presence of a jihadist recruiting cell in France should come as no surprise — Paris has already acknowledged its problem with militant networks. This arrest is likely an indication of the jihadist movement's globalization — a phenomenon previously witnessed during the Mujahideen's battle against the Russians in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s. French authorities say that the suspects, who had been under surveillance for some time, operated in the Paris suburb of Seine-St. Denis, and that law enforcement broke up the cell as it was about to pass from the planning stage to the active stage — meaning recruits would have been sent to Iraq. French intelligence officials believe there has been a small but steady movement of Islamist militants from France to Iraq since spring 2004. Since then, French authorities have identified 20 to 30 individuals originally from France who transited into Iraq from Saudi Arabia or Syria to take part in the insurgency against the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition forces. Of those, the French believe that seven have since been killed in combat — three during suicide-bombing attacks. The men detained in Seine-St. Denis are believed to be linked to a similar group of recruiters that was broken up in Paris at the beginning of 2005, indicating that there is an established network of recruiters operating in France, and that it is capable of surviving and operating if one cell is compromised. Since the insurgency began, foreign militants from all over the Muslim world have made their way to Iraq. In most cases, these fighters have come from Middle Eastern or North African countries, with few coming from Europe. At first glance, the new recruitment effort in France might seem to indicate that the jihadists in Iraq are having trouble finding willing militants closer to their theater of combat. More likely, however, the jihadist movement is spreading globally. The world has witnessed this before, when Muslims from around the world went to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Included in this group were "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, who inspired the 1993 World Trade Center attack, al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Since the Jordanian-born leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi announced he was joining forces with bin Laden's al Qaeda network, the global jihadist movement has focused on Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, where U.S. forces also are engaged in counterinsurgency operations against Islamist militants. There are several reasons for the emphasis on Iraq over Afghanistan. First, Iraq is more valuable than Afghanistan geopolitically — and economically. Not only is the idea of controlling its oil resources attractive to al-Zarqawi and company, but its strategic location in the Middle East — bordering six other Islamic countries — would make it an ideal launching pad for further al Qaeda operations. Al-Zarqawi and his al Qaeda bosses, it should be noted, also have discussed using Iraq as a springboard into Europe — suggesting this French recruitment effort is not, or is not meant to be, a one-way operation. Also, Iraq is an Arab country whereas Afghanistan's many ethnic groups speak a variety of languages, none of them Arabic. Because al Qaeda is a Sunni Arab network, it would have an easier time operating in Iraq. Finally, bin Laden might not be as welcome in Afghanistan as he once was. Reports suggest that the Taliban blame al Qaeda for causing the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that ultimately led to the Islamist regime's loss of power and forced it into a guerrilla war. The discovery of another jihadist recruiting cell in the heart of Europe indicates that the jihadist movement extends far beyond the Middle East and that the jihadists are capable of operating robust networks in Western Europe. In addition to recruitment cells, other kinds of cells likely are operating in France and elsewhere in Europe.

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