Book Review - Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad
About the author of Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad
Daniel Byman is a member of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, where he also is a researcher in counter-terrorism and Middle East Security, as well as a research director at the center. He was also a member of the 9/11 Commission. In addition to his latest book, Byman is the author of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Global Jihad Movement: What Everyone Needs to Know, and The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad, among other titles on topics of international security and the Middle East.
Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad is divided into 13 chapters. Each chapter covers the most important wars in the modern history of global Jihad, which have attracted large amounts of foreigners eager to fight a “holy war” against “infidel occupiers”. The chapters begin with the biography of famous jihadists that left their home countries to fight in foreign wars. Thereby, the book gets us into the lives of men like the legendary Ibn al-Khattab in Chechnya; like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who terrorized the US-led Coalition that occupied Iraq after the 2003 war; and al-Zarqawi’s copycat, “Jihadi John”, the Islamic State executioner in Syria. Byman also provides tables and graphics to represent the figures of fighters who travel to foreign battlefields and remain or are killed there and those who return home.
Byman writes in a simple tone, and the book is as accessible to a college undergraduate as it is to an experienced analyst at the Pentagon. His work takes a deep look at jihadist narratives, allowing us to see some moments of the conflicts through their eyes. This helps us understand the motivations of the foreign fighter.
One of the book’s finer points is its illustration of the inter-connectivity of the conflicts it discusses. A jihadi who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan would, for example, recruit some of his comrades to later fight in Bosnia with him in the 1990s. These fighters then dispersed across the globe to various other conflicts or to their home countries after fighting in the Balkans. Some returned to Afghanistan, some fought in Chechnya, some went on to carry out attacks in Europe, while others faced the US as enemy combatants in Iraq. After, some veterans from those conflicts took their up weapons once more, this time to fight the Assad regime under the banner of the Islamic State’s self-declared Caliphate. Byman’s book also describes the intergenerational chain of recruitment among foreign fighters, where veteran jihadis returned from previous conflicts enlisted young men to fight in contemporary wars. Byman offers as an example the Saudi veterans from Afghanistan, who recruited volunteers in their home country to fight in Iraq using their previous connections.
Perhaps the best feature of Byman’s latest title is the ease with which he explains conflicts through the frame of Jihad. This book belongs on the reading list of those interested in the foreign fighter phenomenon, as well as those who wish to study the history of Salafi Jihadism. As an introduction to either of those topics, Byman’s Road Warriors is an excellent place to start.
The amount of the book devoted to seminal conflicts is again a great asset to those new to or familiar with these topics, as it provides abundant information on each without “getting into the weeds”. However, this does come at the cost of a thick description of other conflicts that are as important as those Byman covers. By matter of necessity, the information on those conflicts he does discuss is condensed. Again, an excellent place to start.
One cannot understand the Salafi Jihadi movement without grasping the foreign fighter phenomenon, and how these fighters sometimes make life harder for the same people they claim to represent and defend. Road Warriors is a concise yet complete book, making it one of the better primers for both of these two research topics.