The New International Brigades

Marco d'Eramo

No one really dwells on the question of why so many young men from Europe, Canada, Australia, even China, are going to fight in Syria and Iraq with the so-called Islamic State (Isis), or with other Islamist militias. The New York Times recently published a map showing which countries the foreign volunteers come from. The numbers are slippery and often contradictory, but the foreign presence in Syria and Iraq is reckoned at around 17,000 fighters. The biggest contingents are from Chechnya and the North Caucasus (around 9000) and Turkey (1000). There are also 400 from Kosovo. But 1900 come from Western Europe (700 from France, 340 from Britain, 60 from Ireland), 100 from the US, and between 50 and 100 from Australia.

The prevailing view is that these volunteers are marginalised fanatics: in other words, they’re ‘crazy’. Madness has been used to explain everyone from Caligula to Hitler, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein and any other leader or dictator who has been either defeated or marked for defeat. But it is an explanation that explains nothing, and which rather indicates that we are incapable of explaining the phenomenon. We need to be extremely careful with the way we define other people: no one defines himself as a ‘terrorist’ (just as no one defines himself as a ‘populist’). During the Second World War, the Germans called the maquisards ‘terrorists’, but after the Allied victory no one called them that any more. The French called the FLN in Algeria ‘terrorists’, but after independence no one used the term, simply because the FLN had won. No one called Begin or Ho Chi Min a ‘terrorist’, because they too imposed a victor’s narrative.

The conclusions drawn in An Economic Analysis of the Financial Records of al-Qaida in Iraq, prepared by the Rand Corporation in 2010, apply to Isis too, the institute says. First, financial gain is not the principal motive driving people to join Islamist militias: a fighter earns a lot less than the regional average, while his chances of dying are a lot higher. Second, the terrorists have higher than expected levels of education and wealth, ‘which weakens theories explaining individual participation in militancy as being due to financial deprivation, mental instability or poor education’: the volunteers, according to the Rand Corporation, are not marginalised, crazy or poor.

The new international brigades are a phenomenon that needs to be taken seriously, and raises a serious question. The first modern ‘foreign volunteers’ were those who in the early 1800s went to fight and die for the independence of Christian Greece from the Islamic Ottoman Empire, including Santorre di Santarosa (who died on Sphacteria in 1825) and Byron (who died at Missolonghi in 1824). Garibaldi was known as the ‘hero of two worlds’ because he fought in Brasil, Uruguay, Italy and France (in 1870-71, against the Prussians). They all embodied the words of Emile Barrault, a follower of Saint-Simon who told Garibaldi in 1833 that ‘a man who, making himself cosmopolitan, adopts humanity as his fatherland and offers his sword and his blood to all peoples who struggle against tyranny, is more than a soldier; he is a hero.’

The tradition was revived in the 20th century by the International Brigades – anarchist, republican, communist – in the Spanish Civil War, but after the Second World War it came to an end. No European volunteers went to fight in Vietnam or Apartheid South Africa.

It resumed in the 1990s with the war in Bosnia and then in Afghanistan, and now the enlistment with Isis which is getting so much attention. But there is an enormous difference in the motivation of these new international volunteers. It is no longer national liberation or class solidarity, but a new religious irredentism that wants to free itself from the yoke of the infidels. Isis’s European volunteers could adopt Barrault’s slogan if they replaced ‘humanity’ with ‘Wahabbi Islam’.

The question is, how has it come about that young Europeans are no longer prepared to sacrifice themselves for humanitarian, patriotic or socialist reasons, but are for religious ones? What have we done to them to bring them to this point? What’s infuriating about the dominant discourse on Islamic fundamentalism, especially in Europe, is that it glides over structural causes and social alienation, and reduces everything to the implausible and useless category of ‘insanity and fanaticism’.

That Isis are far from insane is demonstrated by the fact that, with two public beheadings, this motley crew managed to get itself recognised as the main enemy of the world’s biggest superpower.

 A German version of this piece was published by 'Die Tageszeitung'.


  • 9 October 2014 at 6:07pm
    rupert moloch says:
    Comparison to the International Brigades is a horrible analogy; most democratic states of the day were hardly sympathetic to the Spanish Republic, and just as keen to prevent their citizens serving in a foreign conflict. "Premature anti-fascists", and so on.

  • 9 October 2014 at 6:48pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Marco d’Eramo’s piece is riddled with flaws and inconsistencies, some more serious than others, and he himself glides over a vast domain of discourse about Islamic fundamentalism.

    First, on the inconsistencies. His third paragraph dismisses the argument that Western recruits to the ISIS or al-Qaida movements are not a population suffering from economic or educational deprivation (society’s marginal people or losers). Then in his seventh paragraph he states that those attracted to the cause of Islamic fundamentalism, at least in the West, are participating due to social and “structural causes”. This is simply a self-contradiction. Poverty and poor education are (perhaps) the results of structural causes, but he’s already dismissed them as motivators; they may also be the byproducts of a sub-culture.
    Along the same lines he points out that recruits are attracted by the message of Wahabbi irredentism (which he limns, obliquely, as anti-humane) and yet that they are neither insane nor fanatics; but, of course he has just stated that their motivation is a particular school of fanatical fundamentalism. Self-contradiction number two. Drop the insane, that’s fine, stick with religious fanatics, that’s accurate (don’t use the phrase “fundamentalist beliefs” as a mask for fanaticism).

    Second, there are many minor mischaracterizations of past actors and the historical record. Begin and Ho-chi-Minh were in point of fact called terrorists at times in their careers. And the fate of the sometimes self-warring factions of the International Brigades, noted above, is hardly an inducement to "sign up for a cause" Small oversights, but sloppy ones.

    The crux of the matter, entirely overlooked: The West (in this case Europe) tore itself apart in insanely destructive religious wars for almost two centuries, the generally accepted end of this period being 1648. Of course particular forms of religious persecution (and anti-Semitism) remained prevalent in specific countries for much longer. Anti-Semitism still remains, and as recently as the 45-year reign of the USSR in central and eastern Europe religious persecution was a fact of life, but only one of many negative aspects of the Party-State apparatus.

    That being the case, most people in the West will become extremely resentful when and if strains of Islamic fundamentalism (in which there are no separations between religion, the state, and society) exist in the west, courtesy of immigrants or their offspring. If the fundamentalists wish to be viewed with less hostility and alarm, then they have to “keep it in the mosque” (just as fundamentalist Christians are well-advised to “keep it in the church”). You can call such an attitude racism or ethnocentrism, but you can also call it sensible wariness about religious fanaticism and its spillover into society.

    You can also understand the motivation of “now it’s our turn to screw with” you as payback for a long and dismal period of colonial rule (remembering that much of this was through an Islamic state, the Ottoman Empire – and that the establishment of Islam beyond the Saudi peninsula was “by the sword”, i.e., colonial rule). However, understanding the reasons behind the revenge motivation is no reason to honor the motivation.

    Millions of Muslims have fled their native countries, due to the economic and political problems of those countries – they don’t flee to all-Muslim nations (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia) because, frankly, those countries are as unattractive to them as their own former homes. Most of those who move into the West are fine, acceptable as citizens (shocking news to the tender-hearted, but some people are unacceptable as citizens). But, the desire to understand the motives of fundamentalists (which might have practical and even military uses) in order to somehow accommodate them in societies which they basically detest for religious and cultural reasons is a wasted effort. The “dominant discourse” should be as realistic as possible. While this would include a great deal of Western self-criticism of our past and present actions, it should definitely NOT include even a shred of tolerance for turning religious fanaticism into political acts. The West should be backing off its extreme and ill-advised involvements in the Islamic world as gingerly and steadily as possible, and, at the same time holding the line against fundamentalist-based politics in its own societies.

    And, finally, this: “The question is, how has it come about that young Europeans are no longer prepared to sacrifice themselves for humanitarian, patriotic or socialist reasons, but are for religious ones? What have we done to them to bring them to this point?” A rhetorical question, but one that needs and answer. How about two and half centuries of ideological warfare that got killed scores of millions, and devastated territories and economies and got Europe nowhere – neither to the promised lands of homogeneous national purity or the socialist utopia? What an “insane” question, void of all reference to Europe’s recent history. Wowa!

  • 10 October 2014 at 6:55am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Are there any reliable sources that would help us to understand the motivations of these activists? There must be some information on the backgrounds and beliefs of the 9/11 group, some of whom lived quietly in Hamburg while they made their plans. Unobtrusive, quiet, law-abiding... but we know now that they were radicals with fundamental views. I could spend all morning scrolling through links but I'd be grateful if somebody could point at a few reliable sources. (How reliable is Rand by the way?)

    • 11 October 2014 at 5:24pm
      Pfried says: @ Geoff Roberts
      See Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

    • 15 November 2014 at 8:47pm
      ander says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I'm wondering if analyzing Dubya's fundamentalist radicalism wouldn't be a bit of a guide.