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.’

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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.

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