April 15, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Radicalization & Foreign Fighters One Year After Boston

• A year after the Boston Marathon bombings, which stemmed in part from radicalization in Dagestan and Chechnya, persistent conflicts that attract fighters from across the globe present a growing danger to global stability

• Battlefronts once thought of as foreign conflicts fought in far away lands—or, “over there”—now inspire thousands to travel and fight and others to stay and radicalize, adding another urgency to resolving these conflicts

• With the nationals of as many as 70 countries fighting in Syria, the chances of other Tsarnaevs coming home with radical views that may tip into violence are clearly mounting; local conflicts are increasingly global, especially as they become more accessible online

• The anniversary of that tragic event comes after the publication of the US intelligence community inspectors general report on the attack. One question stands out: did the Russians share everything they could? And if not, why not?

• The threat posed by foreign fighters to global security is too great to allow global politics to get in the way of effective intelligence exchange.

  One year ago today, two brothers originally from Chechnya detonated two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding over 260. The elder brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, traveled to the long-troubled Dagestan region of Russia between January and July 2012, allegedly as part of his violent radicalization. The five-day manhunt after the bombing was one of the largest in US history.

In the year since the bombing, thousands of people from an estimated 70 countries have traveled to long-troubled Syria to fight as part of their violent radicalization, primarily, against the Assad regime. Among them, according to a late 2013 report from the Russian Federal Security Service, are a growing number of fighters from Dagestan and Chechnya. The impact of even a small percentage of these fighters returning to their respective 70 countries with the intent to continue fighting is unknown, but given the impact that just one had in Boston, it is reasonable to assess the impact will be extremely hard to counter.

The combination of persistent conflict and war in Syria, Chechnya, Dagestan, Nigeria, Iraq, and Somalia, and the globalized spread of communications, travel, and tactics is the end of “over there.” There is no such thing as a local conflict, not when conflicts can inspire, enrage, and indoctrinate people to extend the battlefield across the globe.

Added to the very real threat that 11,000 foreign fighters present to Syria and to their home countries if or when they return are the countless unknowns who experience the fighting and carnage through social media, blogs, and online images. The term self-radicalization is somewhat misleading, as it gives the impression of a person becoming radicalized in a vacuum. Quite the opposite, as most “self-radicalized” individuals engage in a large online community in which messages of violence and hate find fertile ground. Indeed, self-radicalized Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s computer contained violence-laden speeches from the late extremist proselytizer Anwar al-Awlaqi. And Dzhokhar Tsarnaev  allegedly told investigators that his brother’s feelings over the US-led conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan played a significant radicalizing role—two countries Tamerlan had no connection to outside of his online community.

One of the leading insurgent groups, aligned with al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, is Jaysh al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, led by native Chechen Abu Omar al-Shishani. His group is made up primarily of experienced fighters from Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. These men traveled from the Caucasus region, the very region that Tamerlan traveled to as part of his path to violent extremism. Once there, he would have encountered men such as these, adding another link in the chain of conflict that wars such as Syria (and Afghanistan before it) forge through years of fighting.

In the year since the two Tsarnaev brothers caused so much grief to so many people, conflicts such as Syria and regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya continue as a vortex drawing in countless more Tsarnaevs, both directly as foreign fighters and virtually as hometown threats. The abundance of land border crossings into Syria and the lack of a controlling army makes Syria more problematic than the foreign fighter pipeline into Iraq. And the absence of meaningful progress in ending the Syrian war (and the other persistent “local” conflicts) means there is no near-term end to this long-term problem.

The first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing comes hard on the heels of the publication of the report by the inspectors general for the US federal law enforcement and intelligence communities on the handling and sharing of intelligence before the attack. The verdict: things might have been done better, but the system works. A question remains, however: did the Russians share everything they could? And if not, why not?

The threat posed by foreign fighters to global security is too great to allow politics to get in the way of effective intelligence exchange. The exceptional partnerships in counterterrorism built up between intelligence services in all areas of the world since 9/11 mark an achievement that the international community should seek to preserve—and develop still further. With an estimated 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria, including several hundred from Russia, no government can afford to risk seeing this international exchange decline. There are plenty of potential Tsarnaevs who may return from local conflicts determined to export their fight.


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