Syria, Western Foreign Fighters and Counterterrorism

This week the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) confirmed that a Canadian did in fact die during the In-Amenas attack in Algeria in January, although it refused to expand on whether the individual was a victim of the attack or part of the terrorist group that conducted the armed assault on the facility. Confirmation of a Canadian link to the Bulgarian bus bombing in 2012, conducted by Hezbollah according to the Government of Bulgaria, has also raised the spectre of Canadians fighting abroad and carrying out acts of terrorism. Last year the Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service testified that between 45 to 60 Canadians are believed to have traveled abroad to support terrorism. It is probably only a matter of time before reports of Canadians active in Syria’s civil war emerge.

Syria, according to the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, is now the ‘top destination for jihadists anywhere in the world’ and that is beginning to have an effect on terrorism threat assessments. On March 13 The Netherlands raised its threat assessment on terrorism to ‘substantial’ from the previous ‘limited’ and reported that ‘[c]lose to a hundred individuals have recently left the Netherlands for various countries in Africa and the Middle East, especially Syria.’ Similarly, last week Der Spiegel ran a report on a German language video encouraging others to come to Syria to wage jihad: ‘You can fly from Germany to Syria…You can come here to wage jihad.’ Other reports in the European media suggest that extremists from across Europe are making their way to Syria.

The foreign fighter problem has many angles to it, both domestically and internationally. The challenge for Canada is beyond the simple notion of Canadians leaving to conduct terrorism, which is one problem. Like other democracies Canada has to be concerned about a second problem; the prospect of individuals with combat experience returning home in due course and the risks that such individuals will target Canada or radicalize others to violence. In addition, Canada’s Syrian and Lebanese communities are diverse: they are likely to contain individuals supportive of the existing regime of President Bashar Assad, individuals sympathetic to Hezbollah – which is being sucked into the Syrian conflict on behalf of the Assad regime and its Iranian sponsor – individuals opposed to the regime, and individuals with sympathy for the violent jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN). This diversity thus poses a third problem for Canada: the risk of communal violence if the conflict continues along its bloody path as many expect. A fourth aspect of the problem is those who are not actively engaged in violence but willing to facilitate it through financial contributions, procurement of materials, and propaganda as the Der Spiegel story illustrates.

All the above are practical problems. An equally challenging problem revolves around perception. As Max Rodenbeck observed last September, foreign fighters in Syria are predominantly ‘young men who mostly see themselves as part of a Spanish Civil War–style international brigade rather than as terrorist ninjas’. A recent review of British foreign fighter connections to Syria reinforced the volunteer aspect of a foreigner conducting something akin to a tour of duty in Syria. Perceptions do matter, and the legitimacy of foreign fighters in Syria is likely reinforced when Western governments support non-state armed groups that conduct violence against the Syrian Government, its institutions, and civilians aligned with the Government. One does not have to be a supporter of Assad’s violent, oppressive dictatorship to detect the whiff of what Eqbal Ahmad referred to as ‘terrorism: theirs and ours’ and what more commonly is boiled down to as one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Semantic gymnastics aside, it also raises acute tensions in policy: supporting some non-state violent groups in Syria while deeming other non-state violent groups opposed to Assad such as Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist organizations may be permissible and have a solid (and wholly justifiable) rationale in Ottawa, London, Paris and Washington. However, if we pretend it will not become further grist for the double-standards argument that feeds directly into the narrative of al-Qaeda and its ilk we are fooling ourselves.

The complexities of the Syrian conflict are such that the temptation is to hope that until concrete evidence emerges of a link between Canadians and violence in Syria the threat can be ignored. Even then, if the violence is in Syria, it would be easy to surmise that that the threat of blowback from the conflict is minimal, though history demonstrates otherwise. An equally dangerous temptation is to blow the potential threat out of all proportion and assume that Canadians will be involved, that all Canadians involved will have become radicalised to violence, and that upon return to Canada these individuals will be hardened terrorists eager to strike at Canada itself. Both assumptions are incorrect.

Each theatre where foreign fighters operate is distinct in some respects: Afghanistan was different to Iraq, Somalia different to Mali, and Syria is different to Bosnia. That said, understanding the local, national, regional, and international aspects of any insurgency and the impact it has on related terrorist campaigns is crucial to effective counterterrorism efforts, as Jason Burke’s excellent The 9/11 Wars amply demonstrates.

As a result, understanding the motives and operations of foreign fighters is becoming increasingly important in counterterrorism environments, perhaps as important as determining the processes of radicalization to violence among homegrown terrorists. Unlike radicalization, where a body of empirical literature has developed, the literature on foreign fighters is still emerging. Some work, including Hegghammer’s recent assessment of the issue, is instructive: Hegghammer takes a conservative estimate of the problem and argues that foreign fighters out number homegrown domestic terrorists by four to one given the data on approximately 900 foreign fighters and just under 260 homegrown terrorists that originated in the US, UK, Australia, and Canada between 1990 and 2010. While the ratio falls to three to one if the period 2000 to 2010 is assessed in isolation, it also suggests that few foreign fighters come ‘home to roost’ and conduct attacks against their home country. However, those that do return and conduct terrorism pose significant dangers: they are more effective and more likely to be involved in attacks that succeed. Moreover, foreign fighters that return home have a cachet and can serve recruiting, propaganda and other functions that simultaneously influence homegrown terrorism and serve the objectives of groups abroad.

The civil war in Syria is likely to become much worse before a resolution to the conflict emerges. It is also likely to involve a wide array of foreign fighters from Western democracies. Despite all the problems Syria’s violent and bloody civil war poses, we would be wise to begin thinking about foreign fighters in that conflict and what happens to them after their ‘tour of duty’ in Syria and the risks that will emerge once the conflict is resolved and they return home.

Jez Littlewood

Director, Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies (CCISS), Assistant Professor

3 thoughts on “Syria, Western Foreign Fighters and Counterterrorism

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