April 2, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Global Threat?
There have been foreign fighters involved in wars since the earliest times, whether as simple mercenaries, soldiers of fortune seeking the pay-off of victory, drifters, adventurers, people fleeing their own society—or the law—or those motivated by many other factors, including ideology. The ability to fight has long proved to be a highly transferable skill.
But the flow of foreign fighters to Syria—both those for and against the sitting regime—has certain elements that are new:
First, civil wars have generally not attracted large numbers of fighters from elsewhere, and yet in Syria estimates of foreign combatants exceed 10,000. Second, the rate at which new fighters have flocked to Syria is faster than that recorded for any previous conflict in modern times. Third, nationals or residents of well over 50 countries have joined the fight. Fourth, the great majority, especially on the rebel side, has had no previous experience of fighting. Fifth, there is a stronger ideological slant to the motivation for fighting. Sixth, many new fighters have been attracted by appeals to join the conflict from friends or contacts who are already there, usually through social media.
One of the consequences of the large influx of foreigners to Syria has been that the conflict has become more intense and more destructive. The foreign fighters have no emotional attachment to the country, its people, its culture, its traditions or its heritage, and therefore care little if their actions destroy them. This has increased the scale of the humanitarian crisis and made a political solution less feasible, perpetuating the conflict and magnifying its negative results for both the country and the region.
But there are other possible consequences beyond those for Syria. Many countries are concerned that foreign fighters, particularly on the rebel side, have been attracted to extremist groups, and when (and if) they leave Syria, they will cause problems elsewhere. Fighters from Chechnya represent the most salient example. If just two radicalized individuals can cause the mayhem of the Boston Marathon attack, or leave a soldier dead on the streets of London, then several thousand people could present a global security threat that would last for many years. Moreover, in jihad battlefronts like Syria, the Qaeda narrative of death and destruction has consistently demonstrated its enduring and toxic potency as the only way to effect change.
However, as real as this threat may be, it is important to put it into perspective. It is true that the leaders of some extremist groups in Syria have an ideological position closely aligned with that of al-Qaeda core, but the focus of their messaging so far is very deliberately on the evils of the Syrian regime and the need to build an Islamic state to replace it. Though there has been violent—and portentous—spillover into some of Syria’s neighbors, there has been little overt talk of launching attacks against other countries.
This lack of talk may not signify an absence of intention, but it does mean that those joining the groups are more likely to be people who want to fight in Syria than people who want to attack at home. Syria certainly provides ample opportunity for the recruitment and training of terrorists from among the many foreigners, including some women, who are there, but so far, despite the US Director of National Intelligence noting the possibility, a plot against the West that originated in Syria has not yet surfaced.
Unfortunately, however, it may only be a matter of time. Already extremist groups in Syria have established branches in Lebanon, though largely as a way to attack Hizballah, which has sent many hundreds of fighters to help the Assad regime. Indeed, most of the foreign fighters on the Sunni side of the sectarian divide are with Jabhat al-Nusra (the Qaeda affiliate in Syria) or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS; the group al-Qaeda core rejected). Nusra has claimed credit for attacks in Lebanon and ISIS has threatened violence in Saudi Arabia. In January, Turkish authorities arrested an extensive network of people who were supporting extremist groups in Syria. In February, the French found a returnee from Syria with a cache of bombs, though he had been on the margins of a terrorist group before going there. In Spain, Belgium, and elsewhere, also this year, authorities have made arrests following the discovery of recruitment pipelines. Furthermore, several senior al-Qaeda figures have relocated to Syria, possibly seeing it as a drone-free base for recovery and rebuilding after years of attrition on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Coupled with the sectarian undercurrent of the civil war, the trend is moving away from a local conflict towards something more international, and away from individuals deciding to go on their own accord to international networks seeking them out.
Nonetheless, in dealing with those who return—though many seem to have little intention of doing so—it is important that the authorities do not treat them all as hardened terrorists. Certainly, the experience of fighting in Syria may have had a dehumanizing effect, some returnees will have absorbed the radical views of others around them, and some may even have joined networks that plan some future action in the West. But if previous examples hold true, the majority will fit back into their old lives and see their Syrian experience as very far removed from the routines of home.
The problem for the authorities is how to distinguish, on the individual level, between these low-threat returnees and those who are determined to bring the battle home. Three key factors are important in making this assessment: why a fighter went to Syria; what happened to him while there, and why he decided to go home.
Motivation for going to Syria appears to differ according to each individual, but broadly falls into one of three categories: thrill seekers attracted by the adventure of jihad; individuals who seek a sense of purpose and belonging; and people outraged by the sectarian violence of the conflict. None of these motivations is necessarily a precursor to terrorism, though they often signify a vulnerability to the terrorist narrative. Thus, what happens to an individual while in Syria is an important factor in his—and reporting now shows some level of her—development.
On arrival in Syria, many foreign fighters join extremist groups as they tend to be better organized, more able to absorb those who do not speak Arabic, and are generally among the most active in fighting. An extremist group has a tendency to develop more fanatical views than the individuals would have if left on their own, and this is no doubt true in Syria. But the levels of understanding the bigger picture in these groups—whether political or social—appears extremely limited. The great majority appear to get caught up in what is happening around them and do not think of their battle as part of a larger campaign. In any case, they stay in Syria, unless on occasional trips home to take a break and brag of their exploits to their friends.
But some do return for good, and create concern for the authorities of their home country. However, the reasons for return may have more to do with disillusionment than radicalization. The Syrian conflict is as brutal and traumatizing as any war. The unpredictable violence, the dehumanizing of opponents, indiscriminate selection of victims, shifting alliances, total anarchy, and the constant presence of death, disease, and dirt will likely leave most participants with a degree of trauma. This may lead to instability and unpredictable behavior, but it does not reinforce the Qaeda narrative that Muslims are under attack from non-Muslims. In itself, therefore, fighting in Syria may not lead a person to commit terrorist acts elsewhere.
Nonetheless, these returnees may remain vulnerable to recruitment and will need help to reintegrate into society back home. Given the limited resources available to cover the increasing number of returnees, the best way for the authorities to keep an eye on them and help their readjustment will be through their local communities. The work that many police forces have been doing over the last years to strengthen community relations will pay a handsome dividend.
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