Stacks Image 670

Thesis title

Forged in the Crucible of Defensive Jihad: Arab Foreign Fighters and their Trajectory to Involvement in Islamist Terrorism

Supervisor: Dr Peter Lehr

Thesis Summary

This thesis challenges the conventional wisdom that tends to conflate Arab foreign fighters with Islamist terrorists, and ‘martyrdom operations’ with ‘suicide attacks.’ Overlaps notwithstanding, it aims to draw distinctions between Arab foreign fighters engaged in defensive jihad defending co-religionists against a military foe, and Islamist terrorists engaged in terrorism that indiscriminately targets civilians and non-combatants. Critically, while disaggregating the two transnational cohorts, this thesis also illuminates the nexus between them. It draws on a thesis dataset of 3,010 Arab foreign fighters compiled using biographies, martyrdom eulogies, and postings on ‘jihadi’ websites, in both English and Arabic. This dataset is then used to support three case studies involving the defensive jihads in 1980s Afghanistan, Iraq (post 2003), and Syria (post 2011). It leverages a theoretical framework based on the concept of radicalisation and the language of political Islam, whilst concurrently drawing on theories from psychology and historical military examples of combat, germane to defensive jihad and Islamist terrorism.

The thesis concludes that Arab foreign fighters involved in defensive jihad employ martyrdom operations against military targets, through tactical necessity. Conversely, Islamist terrorists employ suicide attacks against civilians and non-combatants, through ideological necessity. The trajectory between the two transnational mobilisations appears to be broadly underpinned by situational factors encountered whilst being involved in defensive jihad: the physical experience of battle in a largely unregulated war zone; being subjected to ideological indoctrination; being exposed to charismatic authority and obedience to it; and finally the overarching presence of the Lucifer Effect - how good men can turn evil over time. This suggests that subsequent involvement in Islamist terrorism by some Arab foreign fighters is primarily forged in the crucible of defensive jihad. Such findings should result in the crafting of more individualised de-radicalisation and rehabilitation programmes for returning foreign fighters, in both the West and the Arab world.


Roger P Warren, Ideological Motivations of Arab Foreign Fighters as Insurgents and Terrorists: From 1980s Afghanistan to the Syrian Insurgency. In S.N. Romaniuk, & S.T. Webb (Eds.) Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Modern War. London: CRC Press, 2015).

Roger P Warren, The journey from jihad to Islamist terrorism. The Conversation.
March 23, 2016.


Interests include Modern Standard Arabic, Arab foreign fighters, Islamist ideology, radicalisation, Islamic fundamentalism, martyrdom, and suicide terrorism.