blind: five factors influencing the foreign fighter impact

Torn all apart/All in the name of democracy/He’s hurt/He’s dying/Claimed he was a terrorist/Claimed to avert a catastrophe…And they’re blind, blind

The title, “Blind” alludes to a partial understanding of the Syrian foreign fighter effect and questions that could be asked. The “they” in the song lyrics refers to goodness knows who and most certainly to no-one in particular in the post that follows and Talking Heads were a great band.

The steady flow of reporting on foreign fighters in Syria and the eventual threat they may pose to their states of origin shows little sign of abating. In amongst the press reporting are some nuanced pieces but articles generally allude to a future threat where individuals hardened and radicalized by battlefield experience or trained in devious terrorist tactics will return to wreak havoc. The narrative, repeated in the press, is given the large scale of this mobilisation, there is likely to be more domestic terrorist activity – more people is equal to more plots. While this could well be correct, there are perhaps five variables or broad sets of questions that would need to be answered in some form or other to determine with more precision the impact of foreign fighters from Syria. These questions or research areas are all inter-related. Some of these areas have seen more research work than others.

The first factor is how do foreign fighter perceive themselves, how do they see and operationalise their engagement in conflicts and beyond; related to that how do states see foreign fighters and how do they choose to respond? Is foreign fighting a form of terrorism or is it something different or are these types of behaviour on a continuum? Can someone be a foreign fighter and a terrorist at the same time? If this activity is on a continuum, is it possible to block the transition from one form of violence to the other? Research tends to suggest that foreign fighting by Sunni Muslims has a higher level of legitimacy and is closer to orthodox norms related to the use of violence than domestic terrorist attacks however, research also suggests, at least in the West, that foreign fighters make more effective terrorists. There is limited research outside of the West on the impact of foreign fighters on domestic political violence.

How foreign fighters perceive themselves and how states understand foreign fighters is related to a second factor, the “frames”; the narratives through which foreign fighters are mobilised to participate in a conflict. The foreign fighter narrative has been relatively consistent; a community under threat requiring aid. In the context of Syria, the frame has loosened or altered to some extent as the conflict while against a repressive actor, it is also directed at the Shia community and the conflict has seen Shia foreign fighters enter the conflict. The mobilising frame in the context of Syria has been rapidly and widely diffused outside of traditional constituencies facilitated in part by social media. Broadly, Afghanistan saw the use of printed magazines; Bosnia, video cassettes; Iraq, websites. In Syria, there is the 2.0 web – Facebook, Twitter, Ask.fm and Instagram aka “jihadagram” (reference to the platform by a French news source). The role of social media in the Syria mobilization has yet to be adequately analysed but research on social media and offline mobilization in other contexts could hold elements of relevance. A possible result of this wider and looser diffusion of the narrative is less control, and potential for individual interpretations. Will the loosening of the narrative lead to individual foreign fighters or groups of foreign fighters being more likely decide for themselves about the use of violence outside of Syria?

Another way to examine or think about the future of foreign fighters in Syria is to compare the Syrian conflict to previous mobilisations; which factors are similar, which are different, and which of these factors were more influential than others. A starting point is the structure of the conflict, who is fighting who and why; a civil war versus invasion i.e. Bosnia versus Iraq or Afghanistan. Is it a rural insurgency or an urban campaign? How much territory is controlled or under the influence of the foreign fighters? Another related area is the role and influence of outside support? Is there state or non-state support on both sides or only one side? Are the foreign fighters actually fighting and if so how and under what kind of command structures? In Bosnia they were in a unit nominally under Bosnian military control, in Afghanistan, they were  affiliated with the different Afghan commanders, in Iraq they had their own group. In terms of fighting, in Bosnia it was conventional unit engagements, whereas in Iraq there were large numbers of suicide attacks carried out by foreign fighters. To take the example of Iraq, and to compare it to Syria – the US targeted foreign fighters as part of their efforts to degrade AQI. This led to many foreign fighters being killed or arrested prior to travel etc. AQI deployed a sustained suicide bombing campaign as part of its strategy in Iraq, many foreign fighters died participating in these attacks, reducing the number of eventual returnees. Despite US criticism of Syria at the time, there were efforts by the Syrians to control the flow of foreign fighters and the border – this could be compared to Turkey which until very recently does not seem to have been as active in trying to limit the flows of in-coming foreign fighters.

On the issue of travel into Iraq, the difficulty of getting into the country and the level of control exercised by AQI over those wanting to join meant that once the fighters were in country it was comparatively more difficult to exit. Syria is a relatively more hospitable environment than Iraq. While the US did not have absolute control in Iraq it had the ability to deploy anywhere, unlike in Syria where the Syrian army’s ability to execute operations against foreign fighters in certain areas appears limited. There is a safe-haven and unlike the Af-Pak border area, the Syrians do not have the capacity to mount and sustain a drone campaign against foreign fighters. Interestingly, there is press reporting that a number of Bosnian fighters have brought their wives and small children. What does this suggest about the conflict zone and the nature of the conflict as well as the future intent of the foreign fighters.The case of Syria shares some similarities and differences with prior mobilisations, but is clearly developing into something of a case apart – a large mobilisation during a  sectarian civil war.

Yet another question is, what happened to foreign fighters at the end of the conflict? Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, some returned to their countries of origin and participated in political violence, for example, the Algerians – and other nationalities stayed in the region, for example, the Egyptians as they were unable to return to Egypt. Others looked for conflicts where they could provide support – Bosnia or Tadjikistan. In Bosnia, under the Dayton agreement, they were supposed to leave but as has become clear over the years, some foreign fighters remained in Bosnia – what was the impact of this in Bosnia? These questions are being looked at by number of individuals. Thomas Hegghammer has examined this in relation to the West. His research indicates that most foreign fighters do not involve themselves in domestic terrorist activity but when they do, the plots are more likely to be successful and are more lethal. More recently, he has commented specifically on the possible impact of Syria.

In relation to Syria, conclusions are being drawn from the numbers of foreign fighters present in Syria; the mobilization is large, there are more nationalities present in greater numbers than before and the mobilization has been quick if compared to Iraq or Somalia i.e. very significant foreign fighter contingents have organized and deployed in the past 18 months to 2 years with an acceleration over the past 6 months. The rationale is that greater numbers of foreign fighters will lead to more attacks and an increased security threat.

The large volume of publicly date, while of varying levels of reliability – Zelin’s estimates being well documented and transparent in the collection methodology compared to estimates from Pentapolis which give no indication of methodology or even the existence of the agency –  could be used to move beyond estimates of the sizes of the various foreign fighter contingents. The numbers and data could be looked at in different ways or combined, for example, to develop understanding based on “disruption rate”; arrests, deaths, expulsions, versus returnees: this could help to better comprehend the numbers.  An example, in December 2013, the number of Moroccan foreign fighters was estimated at about 900, earlier in the summer of 2013 the figure was at about 200. This figure can be compared to the 600 for Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya, 130 for Iraq according to a report from Elaph in June 2008 (available via BBC Monitoring) and 21 for Mali; a total of about 750 persons for all prior conflicts since the 1980s. The Iraq-era data indicates that the Moroccan authorities disrupted 30 groups or networks seeking to organise travel to Iraq, of which 13 were successful in sending foreign fighters to Iraq; a 43% success rate. For approximately 50% of those who traveled there is data available on what happened to them – 27.3% died, 21.8% had their travel disrupted through expulsions from Syria, arrest and/or imprisonment, and 5.3% returned from Iraq to Morocco. A recent article suggests that 50 have already returned to Morocco, giving a return rate of 5.5% based on available numbers – again similar in percentage terms to Iraq but the absolute numbers are much larger. Careful monitoring of the Moroccan contingent in Syria could allow for a more accurate comparison to determine, if the figures for Syria are the remain similar or in what ways they vary.

In the case of France, Marc Trévidic estimates that between 1991 and 2011, 175 French residents travelled to fight or train in Afghanistan, Chechyna, Somalia and Iraq. He states that 30 traveled to Iraq and 15 traveled to Afghanistan in the past 5 years. The returnee rate for French nationals traveling to Iraq was about 13%. Iraq saw relatively high levels of disruption approximately, 46% percent of French and Belgians trying to enter Iraq were unsuccessful and towards the end of the first two years of the conflict, it became increasingly difficult to enter Iraq; of approximately 8 identified travellers only 1 French national entered post-December 2005. In January 2014, the French authorities estimated between 500 to 600 the number of French residents linked to Syria having traveled to, having the intention to travel or having returned from Syria. 70 have returned, 18 are believed dead and 1 is in custody in Syria, the return rate is also between 11 to 14% – similar to Iraq but absolute numbers are higher. Based on numbers circulating for other European countries, for Denmark, the Syria mobilisation has a 8.75% death rate and a return rate of 50%; for the Netherlands, it is a 7% death rate and return rate of 30%. These two countries have return rates which are much higher than the average of 1 in 9 calculated by Hegghammer for foreign fighter mobilisations prior to Syria from the West – the impact of the sheer volume of returnees in terms of country of origin resources could be problematic but it would also be important to understand how many returnees actually fought and if so for how long? Is there a foreign fighter tourism element to the Syria mobilization, with individuals traveling to look as opposed to fight? Are the high levels of returnees linked to a fighting season in the summer, and downtime in the winter? While the mobilization is large there are numerous elements that are not clearly understood to date.

A fifth factor, is to focus on country of origin capacity to respond to the foreign fighter issue and to see what prior experience they have in dealing with this type of issue as well as what current and future capacity they might have available or be willing to make available; both factors are important, as capacity without the willingness to deploy it is effectively equal to no capacity. Not all countries view the issue the same way and even if they do perceive it as a threat they may not have the necessary tools or experience. Examples of countries deploying a variety of measures include Australia which has issued a warning that fighting in Syria is a prosecutable offence, has arrested a facilitator and is also removing passports of a large number of individuals upon the recommendation of ASIO. In Europe, some countries are arresting and prosecuting foreign fighters and their facilitation networks, for example Belgium, France and to a more limited extent the Netherlands. Other countries seem to be monitoring returnees – Norway and Denmark. A related issue, is the length of time required to mitigate foreign fighter activity – in some cases, up to a decade can pass between the initial foreign fighter activity and a transition into political violence in their state of origin or in some cases the transition may occur in a third country. This suggests that there is a need for multilateral initiatives and not only in the EU but between areas like the EU and North Africa where there are strong links between communities of activists or between Turkey and countries of origin of foreign fighters.

The future activity of foreign fighters depends on answers to these questions

  1. How foreign fighters perceive themselves and their role, will they limit activity to Syria or extend their willingness to use violence outside of the combat zone?
  2. Has the foreign fighter frame changed to allow violence outside of the combat zone and has its wide diffusion made it possible for some foreign fighters to rationalise the use of violence in their states of origin?
  3. How do we interpret the numbers of persons traveling, is it enough to state that because there are larger than ever numbers the likelihood of violence in countries of origin increases? Beyond just  the volume of numbers, it is perhaps important to look at numbers of those killed, numbers returning and numbers of frustrated or disrupted foreign fighters.
  4. How is Syria similar to or different from other conflicts and their outcomes; is Syria more like Iraq or Bosnia or Afghanistan? How did these conflicts end and what was the post-conflict role of foreign fighters? In Iraq the limited number of foreign fighter linked post-conflict plots may be due to the small number of fighters that returned. The US pursuing a kinetic campaign in Iraq combined with an intelligence / law enforcement approach in countries of origin mitigated to some extent post-conflict foreign fighter activity. In Syria, there is no aggressive counter-foreign fighter campaign in-country.
  5. What is the capacity and willingness of countries of origin to deal with the foreign fighters? Here the answer depends on a range of factors – the past experience of the country, the way in which it chooses to look at the problem and then chooses to address it – intelligence monitoring, judicial trials, administrative sanctions, no action. Another factor is the ability of countries to sustain this activity over a number of years.

There is not one future for foreign fighters in Syria, but rather multiple outcomes depending on the country concerned, the responses it chooses, as well as the choices the foreign fighters will themselves make.