Dr. Avraham Sela: State, Society and Transnational Islamic Volunteer Fighters in Comparative Perspective: Palestine 1948 and Afghanistan (1980-92)

Dr. Sela

By Kristin M. Pettersen, Reporter

On March 19th, The Center for Security Studies hosted Dr. Avraham Sela for a talk entitled, “State, Society and Transnational Islamic Volunteer Fighters in Comparative Perspective: Palestine 1948 and Afghanistan (1980-92).” Dr. Sela addressed the paradoxical role of the direct and indirect support Arab states gave to jihadist transnational volunteers during these two time periods. Dr. Robert Tomes, an adjunct professor of the Security Studies Program and former pupil of Dr. Sela, moderated the discussion.

Dr. Sela is currently a Visiting Professor with the Department of Government at Georgetown University and the chair of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. During the 16 years before his academic career, Dr. Sela served as an analyst and intelligence officer for Arab affairs with the Israel Defense Forces. He specializes in Middle East politics with an emphasis on both historical and contemporary inter-Arab and Arab-Israeli relations.

Dr. Sela addressed what he sees as the main deficit in the current academic discussion – the active role of states in supporting extremist, jihadist groups, via recruitment and management of international volunteers. He described the buildup to today’s foreign fighter conundrums, namely groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS, by first discussing his area of expertise – Israel and Palestine in 1948 and Afghanistan in 1980 through 1992. In 1948 alone, roughly five to seven thousand foreigners volunteered to fight for either side – Palestine or Israel – and for Afghanistan the numbers were even greater.

In 1948, the Palestinians needed to find another way to develop and supplement their forces. With the help of the Arab League and nations such as Egypt, they drew in roughly 5,000 international volunteers. The Arab League took command of the volunteers and other states gave weapons and helped to finance the movement directly.

Other states competing with ideologically combative or jihadist groups within their borders were happy to relieve themselves from such pressure, at least for a while, and allowed volunteers to travel abroad. In this way states “helped” them to leave and fight. But, by 1992-93, these states found themselves under pressure from national and international security organizations to end their complacency and arrest and try such fighters. For this reason, many decided not to go home, but take part in other civil wars – Yugoslavia, Chechnya, etc. – and became a core element in building some of the extremist groups we see today.

Usually the western world and its literature, Dr. Sela digressed, take the state as a given and do not question what that it is actually made of or what is included in the societal system, sub-nationally. He noted the, “state is in the process of constant competition.” Meaning the state itself is only one of multiple actors competing for status, legitimacy, and control in a society. It conducts different strategies to obtain these ends, to drive conversation and power versus being dragged by it. As such, a state can be hostile or sometimes cooperate with different social movements, such as jihadists. However, the state needs to balance this competition with compliance of international law and norms while also appeasing the local sentiment.

Relating this theory back to contextual examples, Dr. Sela observed that ISIS could not have grown into what it is today without the help and complacency of governments such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. As an additional example, Dr. Sela again discussed Afghanistan in 1983. During that time, Abdullah Azzam, the spiritual father of jihad, shifted the concept of jihad back to its ancient meaning – the duty of Muslims to fight against invaders. Publishing a fatwa against the Soviet “invaders,” Azzam traveled and lectured, inspiring many to respond to his call and become foreign fighters for the Mujahedeen movement. Dr. Sela noted that Azzam was the “true engine behind this project.” Although this was not total, direct support from a government, the fatwa was signed by eleven other Islamic rulers, many of whom were working directly for sates and their agencies. This gave the fatwa and the movement as a whole much more power and legitimacy in the eyes of the Islamic community.

Dr. Sela closed the lecture portion of the luncheon by looking at ways forward for the international community in dealing with such movements, and did so by re-addressing the topic of motives. He noted that the collective altruism, the sense of being a member of a larger community, is what drives foreign fighters. In order to effectively combat these movements we cannot minimize this ideology. Dr. Sela concluded, “if you call them terrorist you’ve missed the point,” they don’t call themselves terrorists and when we can understand that we will be able to deal with the problem better.

Members of the audience asked questions after the lecture, to include those surrounding the historical and current efficacy of such groups of foreign fighters in international conflicts. Dr. Sela commented that he did not think Palestinian foreign fighters made that big of an impact, and that Afghani Mujahedeen were generally confused by foreign fighters, many times asking why they even came. Although he did not feel current trends were his area of expertise, Dr. Sela did say he felt there was not yet enough data to make an accurate conclusion either way.

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