June 3, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Growing Threat

The Soufan Group released a research paper today on foreign fighters in Syria. Key findings include:

• The number of foreign fighters is high, 12,000 and counting, and the spread of countries they come from covers much of the globe

• Two recent events involving foreign fighters show the radicalizing influence of the war

• With the support to bolster Syria’s more secular rebel forces at times inconsistent and tepid, the lack of an alternative has accelerated a natural gravitation towards extremist elements

• It will be hard to know which returnees pose a threat, and harder still to deal with them

• Given that the number of foreign fighters already exceeds those that went to Afghanistan, government resources will be severely strained to monitor all returnees and will have to rely on the help of local communities.

Today, The Soufan Group issued a research paper on the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Syria and suggested possible policy responses. The paper comes at a time when security services and law enforcement agencies around the world are expressing increasing concern at the prospect of these fighters returning home—or moving on elsewhere—radicalized by their exposure to the extremist views of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or other al-Qaeda related groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. But it is not only that extremist groups tend to be more inclusive, better organized, trained, and funded, they are also more ideologically oriented and thus attractive to motivated foreign fighters.

There are already over 12,000 foreigners who have gone to fight in Syria, from at least 81 countries, so the problem is not a hypothetical one. What is more, they continue to arrive, in spite of multinational efforts to prevent or dissuade them from going.

If proof is needed that the war in Syria has had a radicalizing effect on the approximately 3,000 fighters from Western countries who have joined the fight, two recent incidents are apt examples. On May 25, an apparently normal 22-year old American from Florida who had gone to Syria and joined Jabhat al-Nusra blew himself up in an attack against regime forces in Northern Syria. It is not known how many people he killed, but the picture of him happily embracing a cat, posted on social media sites by his Jabhat al-Nusra comrades soon after the attack, is a chilling reminder of what has been seen so many times before—that it is not easy and probably not possible to detect in advance a potential suicide bomber. Just the day before, a reported former ISIS member shot and killed three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, and seriously wounded another. Even if not sponsored by ISIS, this attack bore all the hallmarks of a terrorist crime, deliberately aimed at people who were likely to be Jewish or sympathetic to Israel, and therefore perfectly in line with the threats made by ISIS in recent months to attack outside the Levant.

There have been other examples of young men from Western countries blowing themselves up in Syria, including fighters who had traveled there from Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. And two alleged terrorist plots with apparent connections to Syria have been discovered in Europe this year. Police in Algeria, Belgium, France, Malaysia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Turkey all report having disrupted networks set up to ferry fighters to Syria since the beginning of 2014; and presumably, if left undisturbed, these same networks could have ferried them back.  

Many foreign fighters have already returned home, some for a break, some because they have become disillusioned, and some because they feel they have done what they set out to do. But it is difficult to determine who falls into which category, and in any case, all of them will have been affected by their experience. The returnees may not know themselves how easy or difficult they will find it to settle back down into their home communities.

It will be exponentially challenging for the authorities to keep tabs on all the returnees from Syria, and it will obviously become more difficult to do so as more return. Already in several countries the security services are overwhelmed and have to focus on the returnees who appear to present the greatest threat. This usually means concentrating on the returning fighters who have come to prior attention; but the great majority of foreign fighters appear to have no record either of extremist nor criminal activity, and even those that do, like Mehdi Nemmouche who attacked the Jewish Museum in Brussels, can all too easily fall between the cracks. In his case, he spent five years in prison and was believed to have become radicalized there.

The problems presented by foreign fighters in Syria will likely be significantly bigger than those that arose from the Afghan war. Unlike in the 1980s, the young men going to Syria since 2011 know all about al-Qaeda-related extremism. Most of them are between 15 and 25, so terrorism has been a dominant feature in the news throughout the greater part of their lives. They know what exposure to extremist views can bring.

Already, in three years, more foreigners have gone to fight in Syria than went to Afghanistan in the entire period of unrest between the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979 to the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001. This suggests the need for a deep rethink of policy responses. The underlying assumption must be that not all those who go to Syria to take part in the war will return as terrorists, but it is only with the help of their families and communities that countries will be able to sort out those who will from those who won’t. The crucial questions to ask will be: Why did he go? What did he do? And why did he come back? Based on the answers, insofar as they are available, the authorities will have to prioritize the deployment of their limited resources. Governments will have no choice but to seek assistance from the friends and families of the lower priority returnees to promote and monitor their reintegration. It will not be easy.



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