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In Nigeria, Somalia, and Afghanistan: what is a foreign fighter?

Many foreign fighters in Somalia are actually members of the Somali diaspora who have been recruited to fight in their cultural homeland.

As yet another suicide blast strikes yet another church in northern Nigeria, immigration officials have announced that they are cracking down on the flow of foreigners into northern Nigeria who may be adding to the growing numbers of the shadowy Islamist militia Boko Haram.

Nigerian immigration officials say they have expelled nearly 11,000 foreigners in the past six months alone, the vast majority of them from Chad and Niger.

With the death toll at 1,000 and rising from Boko Haram’s attacks, Nigerian immigration spokesman Joachim Olumba told Agence France-Presse that the repatriation of foreigners “has been intensified in the past six months following the Boko Haram insurgency. We have an obligation to rid the country of undesirable elements.”

While few believe that all of those 11,000 deportees were, in fact, fighters for or even supporters of Boko Haram — whose name means “Western education is a sin” — terrorism experts say it is clear from the growing sophistication of Boko Haram’s fighting techniques that the Nigerian group has reached out to foreign jihadists and received funding, training, and arms. And just as Pakistani, Arab, and Chechen fighters changed the techniques and mission of the Afghan jihad in the 1980s and 1990s, foreign fighters may be having a profound effect on the mission and techniques of the Islamist movements in Somalia, Nigeria, and the semi-arid north African region known as the Sahel.

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“It is clear that Boko Haram, after the crackdown in 2009, did reach out to Al Shabab and to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “Boko Haram members did receive training in Mali last summer, according to the United Nations. Two groups of Boko Haram members received training in Somalia four months ago. Seven members of Boko Haram were arrested in Niger, and they had references to known AQIM members.”

But while Islamists may be reaching out to each other for support, Mr. Pham says, that does not necessarily mean that Africa has become as much a jihadi magnet as Afghanistan was in the Russian period. In fact, many of the so-called “foreign elements” being arrested and expelled in Nigeria are often people of common ancestry with northern Nigerians, separated by colonial borders.

“The colonial borders didn’t respect the actual demographic makeup of the region,” says Pham. The Kanuri ethnic group, found in Boko Haram’s heartland of Borno State, are also found in Niger and Chad. The House of Fulani, an even larger Sahelian ethnic group, can be found from the banks of Lake Chad in the east to the Atlantic coast of Senegal. In other words, the very concept of “foreign fighters” in northern Nigeria is a lot harder to define than it may seem.

Even in Somalia, where Feb. 24 airstrikes reportedly killed four Al Shabab fighters (including three foreigners), the number of foreign fighters on the ground is relatively small. Among those foreign fighters, many are thought to be ethnic Somalis of European or American nationality.

Even so, those foreigners who join Al Shabab often have disproportionate power, according to a report by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. Omar Hammami, an American from Alabama, is Shabab’s chief propagandist. Abu Musa Mombasa, a Pakistani, is head of training. Sheikh Muhammad Abu Faid, a Saudi citizen, is Shabab’s chief financier. 

But there are foreigners who are less foreign than others. While the Swedish newspaper DM has reported recently that as many as 30 Swedish nationals appear to have joined Al Shabab, some of these fighters, as well as many of the Americans who have joined Al Shabab are actually members of the Somali diaspora who have been recruited to fight in their cultural homeland. Typical, perhaps is Shirwa Ahmed, the 26-year old man who carried out a suicide blast that killed 30 people in Hargeisa, the capital of the autonomous region of Somaliland. Mr. Ahmed was a naturalized US citizen and resident of Minneapolis.

Yet in the year following the Arab uprisings of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, there are signs that the number of foreign fighters are actually dropping in distant jihads. In Afghanistan, security experts say that foreign fighters appear to have moved on to new fights, particularly in the northern African region where many of these fighters had come from in the first place.

“For a long time, Arabs had to look to Afghanistan as a place with a potential to overthrow an established regime,” says Pham. Now, “they can just stay home, and those who are disposed to do so can support the jihad monetarily.”

So is the entire notion of “foreign fighters” nonsense? Hardly, says Pham.

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Recruitment of foreign fighters “lends greater legitimacy to a movement; it’s not simply a local phenomenon,” says Pham. Bringing in foreign fighters also allows for a “cross fertilization of ideas. The Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (car bomb) was utterly unknown in Nigeria until a year ago, and now it’s virtually ubiquitous. The suicide martyrdom video was unknown in AQIM circles and now it’s ubiquitous. Foreign fighters carry with them new ideas, as well as ideology and narrative.”