Foreign Fighters: A Security Threat at Home?

by Jacqueline Page

The number of foreigners joining the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Syria has reached record levels. This startling reality is raising concerns among Western officials who worry about what this trend means for security at home. The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), a leading London-based think tank, estimates that 20,730 foreign fighters have passed through the Syrian and Iraqi theater in just the last three years, surpassing the number to have joined the Afghan mujahedeen’s decade-long struggle against the Soviet Union.

Particularly worrisome to American and European officials is the revelation that over 4,000 of their own citizens have joined the conflict, with more on the way each month. Now policymakers must decide how to handle those who return.

Of course, not all returning foreign fighters will pose an immediate threat to the national security of their home nations. Many will return having left their militant days behind them. Many, for a variety of reasons, will not return at all. Others, however, will return harboring intent to launch an attack in their home countries. As an international assembly of policymakers and practitioners gather at the White House’s Summit on Countering Violent Extremism this week, a central question surely will be how to handle these fighters upon their return. Weak responses risk missing a potential homeland attack, while heavy-handed responses that fail to reintegrate returnees may only fuel radicalization.

Trained and battle-hardened, some of the fighters returning from the Middle East undoubtedly pose a threat to their home nations. The head of Britain’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Charles Farr, cited the issue as the “‘biggest challenge to UK security services since 9/11.” Adding to concerns is the understanding that the majority of foreign fighters end up joining the ranks of extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State (IS) or al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. The strong, clear messaging from these extremist groups appeals to foreigners who may still be struggling to flesh out their own intentions and justifications for joining the fight. As Peter Neumann, director of the ICSR, points out, the open recruitment efforts by these groups welcome fighters from the West despite their qualifications: “If you come from the West, don’t speak Arabic, you’re not a particularly good fighter and don’t have a particular skill, IS will probably still accept you.” Membership and subsequent acculturation in groups like IS can introduce or foment an openness to domestic extremist activity.

Others experts, however, maintain that most of the fighters’ motivations for joining the conflict in Syria and Iraq do not translate to waging terror at home. Many fighters join the conflict with noble intentions: to fight injustice, defend innocent Muslim civilians, and protest the Assad regime. Others go in search of a sense of belonging, status, or adventure. However, a fighter’s motivations for joining a conflict, staying involved, leaving, and actions thereafter are not always the same. Intentions can change. Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group, rightly observes that, “It is not possible to spend time with ideologically motivated fighters, sharing with them the range of wartime experience, from utter tedium to the most intense excitement, without picking up some of their ideas.” Western nations must therefore be prepared to deal with returning fighters whose motives have evolved while in theater.

A quantitative study conducted by Thomas Hegghammer, one of the world’s leading experts on foreign fighters and director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, found that, “Veteran foreign fighters [from the United States, Canada, West Europe and Australia] are more likely than nonveterans to view domestic operations as legitimate” and estimates that one in nine “returned for an attack in the West.” This means that, given current estimates, Western nations could be contending with over 400 well-trained individuals with intimate connections to global terror networks plotting attacks on their soil.

It is also important to note that domestic attacks plotted by returning fighters are significantly more effective. Hegghammer finds the likelihood of such attacks being seen through to execution increases by a factor of 1.5, and these attacks are twice as likely to result in fatalities. He is not alone. ICSR’s Neumann also notes that the involvement of foreign fighters – who benefit from relevant training and a robust “professional” network – increases both the lethality and viability of terrorist plots.

Though not all foreign fighters will return to launch an attack, some will. And the passports that many of these fighters hold provide them ease of travel—no visa required—anywhere in Europe or the United States. As Barrett notes, “Advances in technology, communications, travel, and tactics (from a decade of fighting in the region) mean that even a very small percentage of returning foreign fighters could have a major impact on their homelands.”

Counterterrorism and law enforcement officials face a huge challenge. They must indentify and monitor those who intend to launch attacks without implicating those who have left their violent intentions behind them on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Too broad an approach risks radicalizing individuals who previously had no malicious intentions. Too reserved an approach risks the lives of innocent civilians. A dialed, measured approach will be the key to any successful strategy moving forward.

About the Author

Jacqueline Page is a second-year Masters candidate at The Fletcher School where she is focusing on issues related to national security and counterterrorism. Jacqueline has worked at research institutes covering security issues in Washington, D.C., Italy, and Israel. She is the author of "The “Home Game” - Countering Violent Extremism within NATO" and "Jihadi Arena Report: Somalia - Development of Radical Islamism and Current Implications."

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