Foreign Fighters: what to read to grasp the key issues

By Jez Littlewood

Back in March 2013 I wrote Syria, Western Foreign Fighters and Counterterrorismand concluded that ‘we would be wise to begin thinking about foreign fighters…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.’ Since then the issue of foreign fighters has forced its way to the top of the intelligence and security agenda of many Western democracies, Canada included.

In the UK ‘more than half of MI5’s anti-terror investigations involve Britons who have traveled to Syria’ according to a March 14 piece in the Financial Times. Australia is rumoured to have over 150 individuals active in the Syrian conflict. And in mid-June Calgary Police Chief indicated that up to 30 individuals from the city are believed to be abroad and that number was likely ‘at the small end of the continuum’; if that is correct, then presumably figures provided in testimony in February 2014 by the Director of CSIS need an upward revision: ‘CSIS is aware of over 130 Canadians who are abroad in support of extremist activities, including approximately 30 in Syria alone.’

A few posts and updates on the Foreign Fighter issue are planned over the summer as I rework some research from the last year into an article, but first I’ll address a question I have been asked by different people of late: what should I read on this issue?

I’ll assume no prior knowledge and that you are interested in but not an expert on the subject and caveat that with an acknowledgment that I am no expert on the topic either. I’ll also note that this is a very fluid issue, but here goes.

If you can only read one thing: The Soufan Group report of June 2, 2014 Foreign Fighters in Syriais an excellent primer and overview of the issue and the problems it poses for Western democracies. An easy read but packed with detail and succinct in its analysis in 30 pages.

Good sources: Aaron Zelin, Thomas Hegghammer, and Shiraz Maher offer consistently good commentary and insight. Zelin works at the Washington Institute and his recent works include briefs on foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria and measures to counter the threat posed by returnees. Maher is Senior Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) in the UK (based at King’s College London within the Department of War Studies). ICSR has been writing on foreign fighters for a couple of years and has a comprehensive dataset on a number of those present in Syria and elsewhere. A quick link to recent work and a video done in conjunction with The Guardian is here: some of the most popular reports ICSR staff (including Zelin and Maher) have authored on the subject can be found here. Hegghammer is one of the leading academics on the subject. Early last year he published Should I Stay or Should I Go?in APSR (American Political Science Review) and in 2011 The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fightersin the journal International Security. Both journals are ranked in the top-10 most influential journals within Political Science and International Relations. Within the US the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog (a good source of policy relevant research in its own right) has used Hegghammer and Zelin in recent months including whether or not Foreign Fighters are a hindrance or a help; elsewhere, you’ll find Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs covering this issue, and The Economisthas some good articles on the subject.I’ll also give a nod to my preferred newspaper The Financial Times – though readers should note a subscription is required to access most material – and three articles: ‘Jihadists not targeting West but risk is real says analysts’ (June 23); ‘Western focus turns to homegrown jihadis as terrorism threat grows’ (June 6); and a March 28 weekend article focused on the UK entitled ‘Jihad by social media’ which, inter alia, noted a couple of thwarted attacks by returnees.

Historical and Contemporary background: David Malet’s Foreign Fighters Transnational Identity in Civil Conflictswas published by Oxford University Press last year (2013). It covers historical cases: the Texas War of Independence, the Spanish Civil War, the Israeli War of Independence and Afghanistan. The journal Orbishad a number of articles on this topic in 2011 (volume 55, number 2) and the Foreign Policy Research Institute(from where Orbis is edited) has a couple of good open access reports: from 2010 and 2011 are reports that cover similar ground to the Orbis edition (including authors). One from 2009 on disrupting the flow of foreign fighters is still worth reading. The Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University published a very good report in 2010 on Trends, Trajectories and Conflict Zones; bear in mind the rapidity and fluidity of this issue – so 2010 seems a long time ago (pre-Arab Spring) – but this report is a good contemporary background piece and has some interesting snippets on Canada within it. Over in Europe Edwin Bakker and colleagues at theInternational Centre for Counterterrorism in The Hague have produced a number of good reports including one on returnees (published mid-June) for which the graphic on possible outcomes (page 10) is useful and a December 2013 report on Governance and Legal Challenges identifies the range of policies in place to counter the phenomenon. Likewise, Lorenzo Vidino authored a report for the Centre for Security Studies within ETH Zurich entitled Foreign Fighters: An Overview of Responses in Eleven Countries (March, 2014). Chatham House held a workshop in April where Richard Barrett (author of the Soufan Group report), Shiraz Maher, and Raffaello Pantucci (Royal United Services Institute) spoke on the threat posed at home and abroad for which the transcript is available. Magnus Ranstorp authored a report on prevention of violent extremism in third countries for which the 30 page Executive Summary is freely available. Ranstorp is at the Swedish National Defence College. The ICCT also has links to a Radicalization Awareness Network (RAN) brief on good practices for engagement with foreign fighters covering prevention through to reintegration. The Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) summary of a February 2014 workshop on Foreign Terrorist Fighters is complemented by the summary of the May 2014 workshop on this subject held in Morocco.

Country-specific case studies have been published in a variety of outlets, but the CTC Sentinel has covered Australia, Sweden, Spain, the UK, Finland, Western Balkans, Saudi Arabia, and the Netherlands over the last couple of years. The latest edition (June 30, 2014) also includes A Glimpse into the Minds of Four Foreign Fighters in Syria. Back in 2007 the CTC also published a report on foreign fighters in Iraq based on the Sinjar records. I’ll cover Canadian specific issues in a later post, but as a precursor, Sam Mullins’ 2013 article in Terrorism and Political Violence entitled ‘”Global Jihad”: the Canadian Experience’ (volume 25, issue 5) is a good place to begin research.

Finally a few good websites that cover terrorism and counterterrorism issues and where the foreign fighter problem is now a regular feature in posts: SITE intelligence group requires subscription, but has some free articles; The Quilliam Foundation has some free resources and Jane’s remains a good source of information; The Long War Journalis a good source of updated information and Jihadology offers primary source material (mostly in Arabic); Clint Watts’ work on Selected Wisdom also includes some early foreign fighter data, though the more recent work on smarter counterterrorismis also worth looking at for an explanation of the fracturing of al Qaeda-inspired groups and affiliates. And the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) has some useful information on countering extremism.

None of this refers to official documents or government sources, which I’ll attempt to cover later. However, with over 500 pages of reading (excluding Malet’s book) on this issue identified, those interested in the topic should find a sufficient amount of information to whet their appetite and many of the authors, institutes, and links above, not to mention the references and sources within these reports and articles, serve as a jumping off point for more detailed research.

Comments, corrections and additional information can be sent to me at since I am happy to receive updates myself as I work through my article on this topic over the remainder of the summer.

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