"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Foreign Fighters

I just spent a couple of days at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Foreign Fighters Conference.  I was lucky enough to be on a panel with Chris Boucek and Barak Salmoni, both of whom blow me away with their knowledge and insight.   It's a real kick to get to do things like that.  The whole conference was fantastic, with excellent panels on Somalia, the Maghreb (a region that almost never gets talked about) and Af/Pak, as well as a free-wheeling and even contentious discussion of recent trends in the foreign fighter phenomenon.  The FPRI will have the whole thing on their site soon enough, and maybe we can get more into the latter discussion then (I don't want to summarize).  One of the things I got out of it was the lack of need for a comprehensive model when discussing these things, even though a model is sexy and elegant and has the veneer of summation. Everything is local and context-specific, and any unified theory will have more exception than rule.

One thing that was brought up in our Yemen panel, both by Chris and Barak (but not by your scribe) was the strange division between Yemen and Somalia.  This is something I have talked about, but not terribly well.  Those two countries are very close and have a lot of ties.  Political shorthand often obfuscates reality.  We see Yemen as a Middle East country and Somalia as an African one, but that distorts geographic facts.  Barak proposed calling the area the Northeast/Horn of Africa Continuum (or something along those lines- I didn't write it down), which would help to focus our thoughts, even if it is tougher on the tongue.   Chris elaborated on that, pointing out how  in academia, politics and especially in the military these are in separate branches, even though they have a vital relationship. 

My own contribution was about how the local context of Yemen could affect foreign fighters who are rushing there full of adventure and C4.  I think they will be a problem, but I am also pretty convinced that unless al-Wuhayshi can keep a strict control over the fighters, they will be an uncomfortable graft on the population.  AQAP has done an excellent job so far of cultivating tribal relationships, and this is a delicate balance.  I think that a glut of Pakistanis and Egyptians and even annoying Americans who got dumped and decided that was cause for jihad could potentially turn the population against them.  Who the fuck likes new converts? 

I also want to thank Jihadology's and AJG buddy Aaron Zelin, as well as reckless hobo Greg Johnsen for watching the webcast and sending in questions, though I don't think I answered either.


  1. I think that the problem you're having coming up with a geographical term is that you're trying to name it on the landforms, rather than the body of water that Yemen and Somalia ring. We archaeologists have long since come to view the lands bordering the Indian Ocean as an interaction sphere, not unlike the Mediterranean world, for which we have various shorthand and generally understood names. Perhaps w/ respect to CT in Yemen and Somalia, you might want to consider an "Arabian Sea" or "Gulf of Aden" zone.

  2. Paul- that is a good point. I think actually that AEI calls it the "Gulf of Aden" zone. We'll go with that, then.

    I also like the Indian Ocean interaction sphere- we're always too damned concerned with political shorthand and not historical realities. I'm confused about one thing, though- how do archeologists dig in an ocean?

  3. Are you worried about going too far with this Yemen/Somalia stuff. After all, the Arabian Peninsula holds a special place in AQ rhetoric, there are significant language and historical differences and just because there are tribes in both place doesn't mean they are alike.

    Anyone for how Somalis are treated in Yemen?