September 25, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Foreign Fighters Threat in Focus at the United Nations

• Terrorism is back at the top of the UN agenda, and is dominating talk at the 69th UN General Assembly, currently underway in New York

• Of major concern are the 15,000 foreigners from over 80 countries that have gone to join the fight in Syria, and now in Iraq

• The threat posed by returning foreign fighters is still uncertain, but action is necessary

• The Security Council finds it easier to design hard measures than soft, but recognizes the need for both.


President Obama spoke twice at the United Nations yesterday about the so-called Islamic State (IS), once in his morning address to the General Assembly and once in the afternoon when he chaired a special session of the Security Council devoted solely to the issue of ‘Foreign Terrorist Fighters. Following two nights of airstrikes against IS, the two speeches confirmed how focused the Obama Administration has become on what is happening in Syria and Iraq.

Foreign policy issues are often a statesman’s refuge from domestic politics, and generally much influenced by them. This is particularly true when a threat abroad looks to be affecting the homeland. The President has gained in stature both at home and internationally by building a military alliance of over 40 states to confront the threat from Iraq and Syria. He has also built a political alliance of over 100 states to co-sponsor the US-drafted Security Council resolution adopted yesterday, which criminalizes the travel of foreign terrorist fighters. But the actual threat to the US posed by IS—which the UN Secretary General rightly pointed out at the Security Council meeting, is neither Islamic nor a State—is at present more theoretical than real. Even the newly-minted bogeyman, an al-Qaeda central cell tagged as the Khurasan Group, which aims to turn foreign fighters into domestic terrorists, has not yet progressed beyond the initial stages of attack planning.

Nonetheless, it is clearly important that all countries should do what they can to dissuade their nationals from going to Syria and/or Iraq to fight with groups that support the objectives of al-Qaeda. Even if their exposure to war and to the violent extremist views of their comrades-in-arms does not turn them into terrorists, it will certainly make it harder for them to revert to normal behavior on their return home. And return they will, whatever they may think at the time of departure. IS propaganda, ubiquitous and available to anyone with a Wi-Fi connection, is slick, exciting, and alluring to a vulnerable audience of those who seek a greater sense of purpose, belonging, or identity. Many foreign fighters are in their late teens or early twenties, and they may decide to return home almost as quickly as they decided to leave. The reality is unlikely to be as much fun or as fulfilling as advertised, even for those who already hold extremist views; as testified by three fighters who returned to France earlier this week after six months with IS—and a few weeks in a Turkish gaol.

The Security Council resolution notes the importance of undermining the narrative of violent extremism, and the returning Frenchmen are the kind of people most able to do this. As ex-fighters with direct experience of IS, they have the credibility to describe it in its reality. They can explain how far short it falls of the ideals it professes to promote. They can convincingly describe how unpopular it is with the people who live under its rule. They know the audience most vulnerable to the terrorist appeal, and the media through which it gets and promotes its ideas. They have the vocabulary and the syntax necessary to deliver an effective counter narrative.

The focus of the resolution is more on preventing people from traveling abroad to fight than on dissuading them from doing so; however, preventing someone from doing something often strengthens its appeal. Therefore the long-term benefit of the resolution will be felt most strongly if the emphasis shifts to those parts that encourage countering violent extremism more generally, such as through counter narrative, based on a clear understanding of the appeal of terrorism.

The resolution notes the role being played in this regard by the UN and perhaps the most important initiative currently being taken by the UN, which was alluded to in the remarks made by the Secretary General: a multi-state survey of returning foreign fighters designed to discover why they went to Syria, what happened to them while there, and their reasons for coming home. The evidence collected will provide a firm base from which countries can design policies of dissuasion to supplement the legal measures of prevention they are obliged to take as a result of the resolution. It will also help governments quantify the threat that these returnees are likely to pose. Returnees who genuinely believe that they made a mistake by going will have the opportunity to help others avoid doing the same.

All too often the reaction to a terrorist threat is a reflection of domestic political pressures rather than based on dispassionate analysis of the known facts. But that is the whole point of terrorism: to threaten the public with sufficient credibility that the government is forced to adopt a policy that may then serve the terrorist cause. Suppressive measures tend to do this, unless accompanied by softer measures based on an understanding of where the terrorists get their support. The new Security Council resolution offers the opportunity to do both.



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