There are two issues related to the current popular discourse about foreign fighters; one element is the amount of attention and speculation about the threat linked to foreign fighter planning out of conflict zone terrorist acts or their participation in terrorist acts once they have returned to their country of origin, whether immediately or later. The concern is well-founded but has tended to obscure other possible elements of the impact of foreign fighting. The second issue, is as, Phillip Smyth, who writes at Hizballah Cavalcade, long lamented, the overwhelming focus on Sunni foreign fighters to the detriment of other foreign fighter groups in the Syria and Iraq conflict(s). This focus is derived, perhaps, in part from the security threat associated with the Sunni foreign fighters, who have traveled in large numbers to Syria and Iraq, and in a manner more visible to those in the West.
Claudia Dantschke, in her talk, at the MOSECON lunch on Sunni foreign fighters made some passing comments about the Hizbollah and Kurdish scenes in Germany, alluding to radicalisation in those communities. An Associated Press article on September 16, looked at mobilisation within Europe’s Kurdish communities to travel back to Iraq to fight. One individual is quoted as stating, “he joined Kurds from Norway, Switzerland and Britain for a crash-course on politics followed by weapons training.” Questions by the journalists to various government agencies across Europe seemed to suggest some unclarity about whether these individuals would be prosecuted upon return. It would be naive to think that because the Kurds or the Shia are fighting ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daech etc, that there will be no longer term consequences or second or third order impacts. For those who remember, it was not so long ago that European police services were investigating PKK training camps across Europe, used to train and indoctrinate young Kurds in the diaspora, for eventual roles in the armed wing of the PKK.
The debate and research about foreign fighting needs to extend beyond the Sunni foreign fighter paradigm and look at the possible consequences of, not one, but three groups of foreign fighters. The consequences on the battlefield as well as the impact of four returnee communities – Shia, Sunni, Kurds, and Christians – on their states of origin. It is probable that not all of these groups will have an interest in carrying out terrorist attacks in the countries of origin. Are groups of radicalised former fighters, perhaps, more likely to engage in sectarian violence or contribute to exacerbating already existing inter-community and intra-community tensions or igniting new ones? There is a (emerging?) radicalisation dynamic between the Muslim community and white extremist elements. Following the recent arrests in Australia threats were made against the Muslim community by the ‘Australian Defence League’. Social harmony and cohesion are unlikely to be enhanced by ignoring mobilisation among other communities to fight in Syria and Iraq.
More research on consequences apart from the terrorist-related ones are necessary to better understand foreign fighting as it is practiced and impacts on communities other than the Sunni jihadists. In sum, foreign fighting by members of whatever community in wars and conflicts overseas might be undesirable as it is unlikely to contribute to tolerance between communities and acceptance of diversity and difference.