Mitigating the Foreign Fighter Terror Threat

Mitigating the Foreign Fighter Terror Threat

Militant extremists returning from Syria and Iraq must be rehabilitated and reintegrated

There are myriad reasons why individuals are drawn to become foreign fighters and willing to travel abroad to participate in violent combat often thousands of miles from their homelands.

No one knows the precise number of individuals who have chosen this path to fight in the Syrian and Iraqi conflict. Estimates place the number above 20,700, surpassing the number of foreign fighters who joined the Afghan mujahedeen’s 10-year fight against the former Soviet Union.

Security experts, however, agree that many of these foreign fighters will eventually return to their homelands, and the danger posed by such returning foreign fighters is real.

A member of the Iraqi security forces arrests a suspected Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant in Jurf al-Sakhar in March 2014. [REUTERS]

A member of the Iraqi security forces arrests a suspected Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant in Jurf al-Sakhar in March 2014. [REUTERS]

Tallies released in January 2015 by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) and the Soufan Group show recruits from more than 80 countries — including more than 11,000 from the Middle East, 4,000 from Western European countries and 250 from Australia, 100 from both China and the United States, 60 from Indonesia as well as small numbers from New Zealand, Japan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and the Philippines. As the wars continue, the flow of returning fighters to the Indo Asia Pacific will likely increase and with them the potential threat.

“Veteran foreign fighters are more likely than nonveterans to view domestic operations as legitimate,” according to Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. In a study of 945 foreign fighters between 1990 and 2010, he estimated that 1 in 9 “returned for an attack” on their homeland. He published his findings in American Political Science Review journal in February 2013.

Moreover, domestic attacks planned by returning fighters are usually more effective. Hegghammer’s study found such plots by foreign fighters were 1.5 times more likely to be executed and twice as likely to cause fatalities. Other studies have shown that the involvement of foreign fighters in a domestic attack also increases the lethality and viability of the terrorist plot, according to ICSR Director Peter Neumann.

Already, some 30 jihadis have returned home to Australia after being foreign fighters, The Herald Sun newspaper reported in February 2015. “The number of foreign fighters is increasing, the number of known sympathizers and supporters of extremists is increasing, and the number of potential terrorists, including many who live in our midst, is rising as well,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a February 2015 address.

Nations, militaries and security services, however, have capabilities and tools to mitigate such threats to the Indo Asia Pacific, as well as elsewhere. Experts recommend identifying opportunities to encourage potentially dangerous individuals to opt for nonviolent routes and employing such actions as arrests, visa denials, preventive detentions and other forms of disruption when necessary.

Approaches include increasing community engagement to dissuade would-be fighters from going to Iraq or Syria in the first place, disrupting travel routes, strengthening border control and improving deradicalization programs to reform returning fighters, according to a Brookings Institution policy paper released in November 2014 titled, “Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq.”

Governments across the region are also strengthening broader counterterrorism efforts on many fronts. Australia, for one, will appoint a national counterterrorism coordinator and develop new national counterterrorism and counter violent extremism strategies, in cooperation with its states and territories, to better coordinate efforts to counteract such threats as homegrown actors and radicalization, Prime Minister Abbott announced in February 2015.

Stopping terror’s reach

Even if the number of returning foreign fighters may have  been somewhat overblown, the phenomenon  poses broad security risks, experts say. “The overwhelming majority of foreign fighters will not return home to commit terrorist attacks,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow and counterterrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told The Japan Times newspaper in February 2015. “But some of them will. The real risk is that as the number of foreign fighters increases, the talent pool from which terrorist organizations can draw deepens. This increases the chance that terrorist groups will find highly skilled, intelligent and committed fighters who can be repurposed for plots in their home countries.”

Members of the Spanish Civil Guard carry evidence at the Spanish National Court in Madrid that was seized in the arrest of 10 people in April 2015 in Barcelona and Tarragona. They were accused of trying to travel to Syria and Iraq and are suspected of links to the Islamic State group. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Members of the Spanish Civil Guard carry evidence at the Spanish National Court in Madrid that was seized in the arrest of 10 people in April 2015 in Barcelona and Tarragona. They were accused of trying to travel to Syria and Iraq and are suspected of links to the Islamic State group. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Indo Asia Pacific has already seen some signs of influence by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in other insidious ways. A small explosion of a homemade bomb in a Jakarta, Indonesia, shopping mall in late February 2015 fueled fears that ISIS’ influence is penetrating the region.

Terrorism experts, including members of Indonesia’s National Police and Sidney Jones of the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict, contend that the bomb, which employed chlorine gas along with batteries and paint tins and wires, may have been an example of local extremists adopting the tactics of ISIS as evidenced by its chlorine signature, according to media reports. The bomb, which was left in a public restroom, failed to detonate properly and didn’t cause any injuries. ISIS has used chlorine gas in its attacks in the Middle East, a tactic not previously used by radicals in Indonesia.

Generally, “there are two main concerns for Indonesia,” Jones told The New York Times newspaper in January 2014. “One is the return of foreign fighters and what that could mean to providing leadership to the very weak and incompetent jihadi movement here. Second, the process of raising funds for Syria could strengthen the resource base of groups in Indonesia, such as Jemaah Islamiyah [JI],” the Southeast Asian terror group linked to al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for the Bali bombings in 2002. A resurgence of JI could have long-term consequences, she said.

Disillusioned recruits

Many foreign fighters will never return for various reasons. For a start, the reality that foreign fighters face in country is often grim. ISIS typically uses foreign recruits to conduct suicide bombings, first-wave attacks and so-called martyrdom operations, according to a Brookings Institution study released in January 2015 by Daniel Byman, research director of the Center for Middle East Policy, and Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe. Plenty of the recruits die in suicide attacks or firefights with opposing forces. Neumann of ICSR estimates that 5 to 10 percent of foreign fighters die soon after arriving in theater.

Gen. Ali al-Wazir of the Iraqi Army told The Japan Times that in skirmishes in Diyalla province against ISIS, “We often see the foreign fighters in the first wave of attacks, and then the Arab fighters will come in after an area is cleared.” Other experts speculate that putting foreign fighters on the front lines is part of ISIS’ longer-term strategy to “remain and expand.”

Still, other would-be foreign fighters are arrested or disrupted by intelligence services and law enforcement because foreign fighters are readily traceable in many cases, the Brookings study authors found. Those who aren’t arrested in transit or killed may continue fighting in the conflict zone. Significant numbers of foreign fighters, however, soon become disillusioned and return home to resume a nonviolent life.

To mitigate threats outside the war zone, Ziad Akl, senior researcher at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Voice of America in March 2015 that security experts should also focus on how ISIS is actually fighting. “The potential threat of these foreign fighters coming back and committing similar acts where they are originally from, or in their native land, seems to me something that depends on the strategy of the organization itself,” he said. “Exactly how the group operates can vary from country to country.”

Addressing returnees

Counterterrorism and law enforcement and other security officials face many large challenges in managing the flow of foreign fighters back home. First, they must triage returnees, identifying and monitoring the ones in need of attention and those intent to launch attacks. Then they must reintegrate those who have left their extremist ways behind them, as Brookings summarizes in its November 2014 policy paper.

Nations should enable an open and honest dialogue with returnees, explained Jacob Bundsgaard, mayor of Aarhus, Denmark, and a leader in the city’s jihadist rehabilitation program. He spoke at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy forum in February 2015. “If there is reason to believe a person has committed a crime, authorities must be clear that they will do everything in their power to prosecute. Yet, if an individual has not committed a crime or it cannot be proven, they should do everything possible to reintegrate the person.”

Individual countries should assess the threats posed by returning foreign fighters on a case-by-case basis, agreed Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union counterterrorism coordinator, who also spoke at the forum. “While very few are likely to commit a terrorist attack, many may be disillusioned and affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.” Generally, authorities need to address how to reconnect isolated returnees to family, friends and society and how to deprogram their extremist ideologies, he said. Promoting counternarratives can be effective in helping move would-be terrorists toward nonviolence, experts agree. Family and community members can help put returned fighters on a different path.


Not every returning fighter or terrorist dropout can be reintegrated into society, but some can,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. “Even among those who can be prosecuted and convicted, the vast majority will eventually be released,” Levitt said. “One key lesson is that rehabilitation and reintegration programs must have some type of connectivity to law enforcement and intelligence to decrease the risk of trying to reintegrate uncompromising individuals who are intent on doing harm. Such risk assessments are necessary not only at the intake stage, but later as well to account for the possibility that a person could re-radicalize or become further radicalized, such as appears to have occurred with the Kouachi brothers [the Islamist terrorist brothers behind the Charlie Hebdo magazine massacre] in France.”

Incarcerating at-risk returnees can also backfire. In prison, for example, foreign fighters can be exposed to radicalizing elements and hard-line jihadist ideologues who push them to join terror networks.

Just as there is no single pathway, no single factor, no common socio-economic or religious background to predict who will become radicalized or a foreign fighter in the first place, there is no single way to rehabilitate violent extremists. “Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile,” John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, told The Atlantic magazine in March 2015. Researchers, however, have been successful in understanding individual pathways, which could provide insights for rehabilitation, experts say.

Vigilant measures 

Cooperation among security services will be key for helping to ensure success of rehabilitation and reintegration programs and to suppress would-be attacks locally and regionally, experts agree. Sharing intelligence from foreign fighter communications, open-source monitoring and information among agencies in particular can be critical for revealing transnational networks, according to the authors of the Brookings report.