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Governments Fear Return and Intentions of Radicalized Citizens Fighting Abroad

Governments Fear Return and Intentions of Radicalized Citizens Fighting Abroad

The ruins of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul’s Old Town

The ruins of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul’s Old Town. (Photo: Peter Biro/European Unionn)

Increasing numbers of Westerners flocking to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have fueled fears that extremist groups are grooming a new generation of jihadis who may at some point turn their sights on their home countries. Several thousand fighters from Europe and other Western countries are believed among the 11,000 to 15,000 foreign nationals estimated to be involved in conflicts in Syria and Iraq. A number of attacks in 2014 have raised concerns that the battlefields of Syria are functioning as finishing schools for would-be terrorists with European, North American, or Australian passports. Among them: the May attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels by a French national who was a veteran of the Syrian conflict, the beheading of two U.S. journalists by an ISIS militant thought to be British, and the mass beheadings of 18 Syrians and a U.S. aid worker by a number of jihadists, including possibly several Europeans.

The Blowback Threat

Issue No. 6 of Top Ten of 2014

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While this radicalization of Western youth has drawn significant attention from the media and policymakers, the scale of the risk is a matter of debate. Though accurate numbers are difficult to come by, most foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are thought to originate in the Middle East and North Africa, not the West—a fact often distorted by headlines focusing on “Jihadi John” and the small numbers of Westerners known to have headed to the war-torn region. The likelihood that fighters with European or North American passports will return home to perpetrate violence is also unclear. The “blowback rate” has thus far been low compared to the Afghanistan war, for example, where foreign fighters joining the Taliban were co-opted by al Qaeda, in part because the bulk of ISIS resources have been invested in local operations. While ISIS and other jihadist groups recruiting foreign fighters spout anti-Western rhetoric, there is little evidence to suggest they have established a global operations program designed to perpetrate attacks in the West in the manner of al Qaeda, according to terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer. Indeed, experts suggest that foreign fighters are more valuable to ISIS in suicide missions in the region, with attacks in the West a low priority.

On the other hand, the list of foiled terrorist attempts perpetrated by veterans of the Syrian conflict is growing. At least ten violent plots involving returnees from Syria have taken place in Europe in the last year, according to an Australian terrorism research blog, The Murphy Raid. And since citizenship of a Western country often brings some visa-free travel benefits—for instance, the U.S. Visa Waiver Program allows citizens of certain European countries and other U.S. allies to enter the United States without a visa—this risk is not easily contained. If ISIS chose to use Westerners to launch attacks in the West, the jihadist organization would have a significant weapon on its hands. To address this risk, the United States has imposed stricter screening measures on millions on travelers from visa-waiver countries, requiring them to disclose if they have previously used an alias or hold passports from multiple countries before they can board U.S.-bound flights.

The emergence of ISIS and other jihadist groups has been held up by some experts as a new era in the speed and fluidity of extremist recruitment. The latest wave of extremist groups is thought to be especially adept at using social media to target Westerners (with professionally produced videos and other social media in English, for example). The meteoric rise of ISIS and its success in recruiting foreign volunteers has put the international community on the back foot. Furthermore, adherents need not travel to foreign conflicts to perpetrate violence at home, raising fears of “lone wolf” attacks. Canada was shaken by two separate attacks on soldiers in late October by individuals characterized by officials as radicalized Muslim converts. Authorities were monitoring Martin Couture-Rouleau—who killed a Canadian Forces member with his car in Quebec—seizing his passport when he tried to travel to Syria in July, but lacking evidence to arrest and charge him.

Policy Responses

Governments and international organizations scrambled to respond in 2014. The UN Security Council in September unanimously approved a resolution requiring UN Member States to adopt new laws and regulations to stem the flow of fighters, and has blacklisted a number of foreign extremist fighters for supporting ISIS and other terror groups. Some countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have created and used new legislation to cancel and seize passports or ID cards, revoke citizenship, or criminalize travel (either by making it a crime to leave or attempt to leave for the purpose of fighting abroad, or making certain regions “no go” areas).

Many of these measures have attracted criticism from civil liberties advocates. New laws to strip the citizenship of foreign fighters prove the most controversial. The rationale for such laws, under consideration by a number of governments from Belgium to Norway, is to prevent jihadists from returning to perpetrate violence or incite others to do so. But little is known about the impact of such policies. Critics charge that singling out a group for a deprivation of rights, indeed for the “meta right” of citizenship, may itself feed extremist narratives about Muslim persecution by Western governments. Significant legal and moral questions have also been asked about the design of such programs. Removing the citizenship of dual nationals alone, as in Canada, has been described as creating two-tier citizenship by making it conditional only for some groups, namely naturalized citizens and second-generation immigrants. In the United Kingdom, extended powers to remove citizenship can be used even if they will render people stateless, which may fall foul of international law.

Behind the headlines, some governments worked in 2014 with communities to support family members of foreign fighters and prevent further radicalization. In Germany, the city of Bremen has set up a counseling center for family members of foreign fighters. And as numbers of foreign fighters rise, the question of what to do with returnees is pressing. In some countries, such as France, the capacity of security services to monitor all known returnees has come under strain. Instead of criminalizing involvement with extremist groups, some countries—such as Saudi Arabia—have tried to attract their nationals home by offering amnesty. In Aarhus, Denmark, which has produced the highest number of foreign fighters per capita, returning jihadists can receive psychological counseling and support finding housing, employment, and education.

A Careful Balance

Foreign fighters are hardly a new phenomenon, seen throughout history from the Crusades to the French Foreign Legion, and in modern conflicts from the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s to Afghanistan in the 1980s and Iraq in the 2000s. With increasing global interconnectedness and jihadist organizations using the Internet to exhibit ever more sophisticated recruiting techniques, it has become even easier for foreigners to join extremist causes and armed groups overseas. Some perceive foreign fighters as violating the obligations of citizenship by expressing solidarity for a rival country or group, leaving governments in a quandary of how to treat their nationals upon return.

As countries work in 2015 and beyond to find answers to complex radicalization and reintegration issues, they will need to carefully balance new security legislation with individual freedoms.


MPI Research




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