The Afghan-Pakistan jihad is attracting fewer foreign fighters following the death of Osama bin Laden, the growing threat posed by US drones, and lack of funds, Western security officials say.
While no precise figure is available, it would appear that the number of would-be jihadists from abroad has been drying up, according to one security official who declined to be named.
However, more Pakistanis are willing to take up the fight and make up the numbers, he said.
“Over the past six months, young Frenchmen there have nearly all left Pakistan. There were 20 to 30 of them, who had either converted [to Islam] or had links to the Maghreb; today there are hardly any left,” he said.
“Other European countries whose nationals used to go to Pakistan to join the jihad have drawn the same conclusion — a drastic reduction over recent months,” the security official added.
The Arab Spring revolts also acted as a magnet, with a number of jihadists moving to Libya to join the fight to remove former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi from power, he said.
“Fighting in Afghanistan is also less attractive because of the idea that the Afghan Taliban want to concentrate more on home fighting and that world jihad is less and less their cup of tea,” he added.
For Frank Cilluffo, who co-authored Foreign Fighters for the Homeland Security Policy Institute in the US, “first and foremost, military actions, including the use of drones, has made the environment less hospitable to foreign fighters traveling to the region, by disrupting al-Qaeda’s [and associated entities’] training camps and pipelines.”
Direct and indirect accounts by jihadists also speak of disarray within al-Qaeda in northwestern Pakistan where activists avoid coming together for fear of -being attacked and whose weapons training now takes place indoors because of aerial and satellite surveillance.
In a report entitled Militant Pipeline describing the links between the northwestern Pakistani frontier and the West, researcher Paul Cruickshank quotes one Ustadh Ahmad Faruq, described as a Pakistan-based al-Qaeda spokesman who recently acknowledged his network’s difficulties.
“The freedom we enjoyed in a number of regions has been lost. We are losing people and lack resources. Our land is being squeezed and drones fly over us,” he reportedly said in an audio cassette.
“It is difficult to have reliable figures,” on the number of foreign fighters, said Cruickshank, who is a fellow at New York University’s Center on Law and Security.
“I think the drone strikes have been a major issue for the militants, the death of bin Laden is going to be a very big challenge as well. He was so important for a lot of these militants — he was the al-Qaeda brand,” Cruickshank said.
“By going over there they were joining his cause. The fact that he has been removed from the scene is likely to be a great recruiting challenge for al-Qaeda,” he said.
“But the conflict is still going on in Afghanistan and in the radical circles it is still viewed as a very legitimate jihad. So it is likely that the number of volunteers is going to be diminished, but as long as there are US soldiers to fight, I don’t think it’s going to dry up entirely,” he added.
Hafiz Hanif, a 17-year-old Afghan who trained in northwest Pakistan, recently told Newsweek magazine that the number of foreign fighters there was dwindling.