The United States has promised ‘intense’ support for the Iraqi government as it tries to halt the formidable advance of Islamist militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). At the same time, major concerns have been raised in Britain about the increasing frequency with which Muslims are travelling from the UK to fight for ‘jihadist’ causes and the potential ramifications their unmonitored return might have for national security.
British Muslims have trained, fought and been killed in a number of countries over the past few years, particularly Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. Radicalised by hate-spewing preachers at home, they travel abroad for terrorist training camps before either fighting the enemies of radical Islam or returning to the UK with destructive intent.
There is an historical precedent for men, and to a lesser extent women, travelling abroad to fight for a political or religious cause. One need only look at the medieval Crusades to see that this is not a modern phenomenon. Perhaps a more comparable and recent example, however, is the Spanish Civil War.
Between 1936 and 1939, some 35,000 volunteers from across Europe, including many British, fought beside forces of the Second Spanish Republic as part of International Brigades opposed to General Franco’s Nationalist troops.
These men were not forced to fight abroad but felt a compulsion, driven by political and ideological reasons, to risk their lives in a foreign conflict. The atrocities committed by ISIL in their march through Iraq, including acts perpetrated by foreign fighters, has shocked many. Yet the Spanish Civil War was no less brutal with torture, rape and mass executions an horrific commonality. Although it has been argued that the majority of these atrocities were committed by Franco’s men, the Republicans too enacted their own barbarities such was the hatred between the two sides. (see Preston P, The Spanish Holocaust, 2012).
Whilst there are some similarities, therefore, between the nature of foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War and the Middle East today there is also one major difference. The men that returned from Spain were not intent on destroying the existing political, religious and social fabric of their country, as the jihadists are now.
Fighters from the International Brigades may have returned to their countries intent on challenging the existing ruling order but not using the same terror tactics advocated by the Islamic extremists.
The International Brigades fought to uphold a democratically-elected government. Though it may be too far to label their cause ‘just’, it certainly had more legitimacy than that of the Islamic extremists (or even the Crusaders) who seek to destabilize the status quo.
More worryingly, the ability of these fighters to return to their host countries, filled with the desire to replicate the bloodshed seen daily across the Middle East, is alarming. Such a reality dents the notions that the troubles of the Middle East are none of the West’s concern. Such a lackadaisical attitude could prove fatal.