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Can the Mujahidin Teach Us About ISIS?


History never repeats; but it rhymes, and it often echoes. Robert Kaplan’s 1990 book Soldiers of God chronicled his experience reporting on the mujahidin (multiple spellings exist; I’ll be using Kaplan’s preferred spelling). These native Afghan militias resisted the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and ultimately repelled it. Kaplan’s book was republished following September 11, 2001 with the subtitle “With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. Kaplan’s examination of their brand of Islam, how it motivated their actions and their end goals, remains topical in the current climate of terrorism motivated by a violent brand of Islam. What can Kaplan’s study of the mujahidin teach us about ISIS?

The 9/11 attacks threw a spotlight on Afghanistan and the ruling Taliban regime that provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden. Before 9/11, the Taliban and Afghanistan itself received scant attention; it took terror attacks on the American homeland to bring them fully into America’s strategic sights. Similarly, Kaplan argues, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the carnage it caused was a “forgotten” war. Soviet failures there represented, in Kaplan’s view, “’premonitions” that the Cold War was in its final phase. The mujahidin, therefore—in a manner only clear in retrospect—were a bridge between America’s Cold War-era national security framework and the beginning of the age of global terrorism.

After the Soviet retreat and eventual collapse, however, America forgot Afghanistan again, to its own great loss. Kaplan’s description of the mujahidin includes elements ascribed to ISIS currently—namely an adherence to fundamentalist Islam and an adjacent willingness to fight and die on its behalf. From that point of commonality stem many differences in mujahidin ideology, tactics, and goals that make a comparison with ISIS worthwhile and instructive.


Kaplan observed mujahidin who were motivated by a fundamentalist Islam characteristic of ISIS. Where ISIS cultivates a communal religious fervor, the mujahidin were more individualistic. In Iran and much of the Arab world, Kaplan noted, prayer is often a mass activity with the “reciting of the worlds, syllable by heated syllable, begetting a collective hysteria reminiscent of the Nuremburg rallies. The cries of Allahu akbar carried a shrill, medieval, bloodcurdling ring.” These political overtones to prayer did not exist among the mujahidin to the same degree. They were defending their homeland from invaders; they were not at war against a entire foreign culture. “Afghanistan had never been industrialized, let alone colonized or penetrated much by outsiders,” Kaplan writes, and as a result “…the Afghans had never been seduced by the West and so had no reason to violently reject it.” Prayer itself was a solitary activity, not a group one.


Kaplan describes the mujahidin responding to Soviet campaigns that were wars of attrition; centered on skirmishes rather than traditional battles, and involving civilians fully. Soviet forces targeted civilians. Kaplan describes the protracted Soviet “carpet bombing” of Kandahar, and writes that Soviet mines killed approximately thirty Afghans per day throughout the conflict. Afghan forces strategized in kind. While previous conflicts from World War II to Vietnam had involved high civilian casualties, ISIS’ ability to capture large swaths of urban territory against state forces is an inversion of the mujahidin’s defensive successes against the Soviets. There are no battlefields in ISIS campaigns, and the Afghan people’s full participation in fighting the Soviets—as mujahidin fighters or as victims—foreshadowed the ISIS campaigns of the past several years.


Kaplan’s picture of the mujahidin differs from the portrait painted by the recent long-form New York Times story (“Fractured Lands”) of the long-term unemployment and political disaffection among Arab youth that provided fertile conditions for ISIS to thrive. Where ISIS both recruited in urban territory and took that territory militarily, Kaplan describes the mujahidin as “in many respects a bunch of ornery backwoodsmen, whose religious and tribal creed seemed to flow naturally from the austere living conditions of the high desert—unlike the more abstract and ideological brand of Islam of the Taliban”. Unlike ISIS, the mujahidin did aspire to create a new form of government; they were defending a way of life. Their aim was to obstruct a superpower from conquering their country long enough that it gave up trying to do so. Unlike the mujahidin, ISIS not only has to hold territory in the long term, it has to govern.

One of the benefits of looking back to history for historic parallels to current events is seeing the role that factors such as cultural distinctions, geography and demography play in world events. Islam is not a monolith. The groups that would manipulate it for violent ends are not either. Developing a security strategy against terrorism often invites an inappropriate “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

The terms “militant Islam” and “radical Islam” have been rightly criticized for unfairly staining the name of a peaceful religion with the actions of its violent fringe. Both terms could be applied to ISIS and the mujahidin—very different groups that were (in ISIS’ case, that are) not monoliths in themselves. Kaplan produced a qualitative study of the mujahidin that parallels the value of “Fractured Lands” in the depth of its detail. As an antidote to broad-brush, one-size-fits-all thinking, such studies are invaluable.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.