stuck in the middle: why disrupting foreign fighter mobilisations is difficult

Tryin’ to make some sense of it all/But I can see it makes no sense at all/…Clowns to the left of me/Joker’s to the right/Here I am stuck in the middle with you

There is an old adage that “two is company but three’s a crowd” and so it is with intelligence cooperation and foreign fighter mobilizations. The combination of state of origin, transit state and a destination state makes cooperation to disrupt mobilizations difficult for three reasons – firstly, a divergence of threat perception between the states, particularly the transit state and the states of origin and the destination state; secondly, the preference for bi-lateral cooperation but the necessity for multi-lateral cooperation, and thirdly, development of trust to underpin cooperation is often absent at the beginning of a mobilisation between the states concerned.

What states choose to do in relation to foreign fighter mobilizations – do they remain passive or do they act – can influence the course of a mobilization? At what point in the eventual process do they choose to act and how and with what levers of state power do they act – intelligence, law enforcement, or military means – what is the impact of each of these tools? What is effective and what is not effective? Finally, within what type of contingent circumstances is the state acting? Do they constrain the state in what it is able to do? There is a need to be conscious that each mobilization occurs within a context, and not all of these contexts are the same. The first Afghanistan mobilization was the not the same – geographically or geopolitically – as the mobilization in Bosnia which differed to those in Somalia or later Iraq and more recently Syria.

Foreign fighter mobilizations are contested events, states do not allow them to occur without trying intervene. Accounts of the conflict in Iraq I (2003-2010) referred to concerted efforts to degrade the ability of facilitators to operate. The Iraq I conflict pointed to another factor shaping the ability of states to deter the activity of facilitators, acquiring cooperation from other states. This is a recurrent theme in American statements about the role of Syria in allowing foreign fighters to transit and more recently the inaction of Turkey against foreign fighters traveling to Syria. There is no academic literature on state responses to foreign fighters. The existing material is comprised of accounts of the conflicts, books by retired military figures, or a growing policy literature from think tanks, governments and international organisations. Recent documents contain recommendations to governments to limit facilitation activities. These point to the necessity of cooperation and the challenges in organising cooperation between states.

The intelligence studies literature deals with counter-terrorism and intelligence cooperation. It suggests that states cooperate based on perceived utility, that multilateral cooperation is difficult, and that the best cooperation occurs when personal ties of trust exist between members of the intelligence services.

Scholars have pointed to the importance of intelligence in countering terrorism; the same is necessary in deterring or disrupting foreign fighter mobilizations, specifically against the facilitation mechanism, as well as the necessity for international cooperation against terrorism. English has suggested that there are six key elements to successfully responding to terrorism and to eventually bringing a terrorist campaign to an end, he emphasizes that intelligence is the most vital element. Reveron states “Intelligence is the first line of defence against terrorism. It can guide law-enforcement activities, focus covert action, and define the scope of U.S. military operations.” Wilkinson argues that intelligence is necessary to thwart terrorism and to mitigate its effects. He also recognises that the transnational dimension of terrorism requires international cooperation. However, Lander has stated, “international intelligence co-operation is something of an oxymoron.” How is it possible to reconcile this apparent contradiction and explain why states share intelligence? Lander argues that states cooperate based on utility; similarly Clough suggests that cooperation occurs when “benefits outweigh risks” and is driven by perceived threats. This is complicated by states having divergent analytical frameworks when examining threats that may prevent a convergence of interest.

The cooperation problem is a central issue in foreign fighter mobilizations. A foreign fighter will typically mobilize from their country of origin, travel through one or more transit locations before arriving in the destination country. State responses – whether soft or hard – to foreign fighter mobilizations require coordination and cooperation. Transit states are frequently identified as playing a key role in limiting access to the conflict zone. A recurring issue with the transit states is that they often perceive the foreign fighter influx differently to the destination state or the state of origin. The US recently commented that, “Not all of that [flow] is preventable, but a lot of it is preventable — if we’ve got better cooperation, better coordination, better intelligence, if we are monitoring what’s happening at the Turkish-Syria border more effectively…”Historically, it has proven difficult to achieve coordinated responses to foreign fighter mobilizations across origin, transit and destination states. This is due to the issue of threat perception and convergence of interests between countries.

Transit states are important because the position they take in either allowing or denying transit to the combat zone affects foreign fighter flows. Both Syria and Turkey have played the role of transit states, Syria during the foreign fighter mobilization to Iraq from 2003 and Turkey from 2012 with the current mobilization for Syria. Their have been criticisms of the role of both countries for not denying access to transiting foreign fighters, both states maintained and have maintained that they are doing what they can but that they are not being adequately supported by states of origin or the destination state. In reality, both countries either allowed or turned a blind eye to foreign fighter flows; Syria because it perceived that the US military engaged in Iraq was less likely to invade Syria, while Turkey because it is opposed to the Assad regime and fears that fighting ISIS would aid the regime, and that it would also further empower the Kurdish groups. Another example is Croatia which allowed foreign fighters to transit into Bosnia-Herzegovina using Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as cover, a former foreign fighter alleged that the foreign fighters also moved weapons into Bosnia-Herzegovina on the condition that they provided the same amount of arms and munitions to the Croats.

There is frequently a cooperation problem between states of origin and/or destination states seeking to limit flows of foreign fighters with the key transit states that have diverging interests. Transit states because of their proximity to the conflict may have interests in the outcome of the conflict that mean they are unwillingly to significantly counter foreign fighter flows. Transit state unwillingness to provide sustained long-term cooperation can be overcome if the destination state has the capacity to detect, degrade and interdict cross-border smuggling operations bringing in foreign fighters. During the Iraq conflict, the US  and Iraqi security forces expended significant resources to limit the ability of foreign fighters to cross the border from Syria. These efforts did not completely halt foreign fighter flows but they did increase the difficulty of entering Iraq and combined with country of origin efforts led to a decline in the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq. In, at least one known case, the US conducted a cross-border operation to kill or capture, an individual assessed to be a key Syria-based foreign fighter facilitator. In other cases, for example Afghanistan or Somalia, due to the nature of the conflict, the destination state, had limited resources to deploy against in-coming foreign fighter flows and was unable to stem the flow through its own efforts. In a limited number of instances, elements within the destination state may, at least initially, actively welcome foreign fighters, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan for periods.

Cooperation is fundamentally about two issues – who cooperates and what is shared – Clough refers to this as the agencies involved and the granularity of the product. Sims states intelligence is about barter and develops a number of ways of thinking about cooperation. Simple cooperation involves two services exchanging material on one agreed target. Complex liaison is where intelligence is exchanged to acquire other types of benefits, political, military or economic from the provision of intelligence. She states that relationships maybe symmetric, where both parties perceive the exchange to be of equal benefit or asymmetric, where one party benefits from the exchange more than the other.There are risks to engaging in asymmetric relationships over a long period of time. Finally, Sims finds that there are also adversarial relationships where two services cooperate despite that fact that their intelligence interests do not converge.

The literature suggests that there is a preference for bi-lateral over multilateral cooperation. Wilkinson writes that bilateral cooperation is most effective and that personal trust is extremely important due to the sensitive nature of the material being exchanged. This is because states are able to better control and manage the risks associated with intelligence exchange, source loss, or penetration by the other service. However, “While the majority of meaningful intelligence exchange remains bilateral, multilateral co-operation in areas such as training and field operations is also growing.”

There are a number of restraints on cooperation, Lefebvre identifies five, diverging threat perceptions, difference in distribution of power, Human rights, Legal issues, and intelligence being used for unintended purposes. Aldrich and Rees make a similar point in evaluating cooperation between the United States and the European Union, they assess that cooperation is impacted by differing counter-terrorism cultures, the US being more militarised and the EU more, “regulatory”, using judicial and law enforcement measures. This has led to disagreements about the use of electronic surveillance, the timeliness of judicial cooperation and European reluctance to share intelligence with the US for fear of it being used in a manner not compatible with EU laws, i.e. renditions or drone strikes and finally a fear of leaks of sensitive material to newspapers in the US. Reverson states that intelligence cooperation can create problems between the intelligence services and other parts of the government, for example, US counterterrorist cooperation with Uzbekistan at the same the US State Department was criticising the country for human rights abuses. Intelligence cooperation occurs within a wider political context which imposes constraints on who services can cooperate with and to what degree cooperation is allowed to occur.

States may choose strategies that conflict or privilege approaches that are difficult to coordinate. For example, in destination state, the military may have the lead, in a transit state, it is the intelligence agencies and in the state of origin police or the judiciary. Concerns about treatment of prisoners or how intelligence is obtained also limit the ability of entities to work together. There are mechanisms for similar types of entities to cooperate, i.e. military to military or between intelligence services or police to police cooperation but it is rare that the transnational coordination can occur between different types of entities.

The problems of cooperation are not only related to liaison between states but also to the relationships between agencies inside a state. Fagerstein points to differences between how external and internal services perceive themselves and each other, “in the world of foreign policy, intelligence is seen more as a way of selling your view on the world and thus influence the policies of other states. In the world of internal security, intelligence is seen more in terms of power, a commodity that can be traded but should always be kept close at hands.” Betts makes the argument that intelligence organisations face not only “outside enemies” but also “innocent enemies,” that “threaten intelligence unintentionally.” He writes that “Among them are individual intelligence professionals alleged to have fallen down on the job… and the politicians and lawyers who deliberately try to constrain intelligence operations that conflict with other values…none of these is an enemy in the normal sense…do not wilfully damage American interests.” And more importantly “inherent enemies” are described by Betts as “[these] enemies are a collection of mental limitations, dilemmas, contradictory imperatives, paradoxical interactions, and trade-offs amongst objectives in the intelligence process that often block proper assessment and judgment and make it difficult to fix one source of failure without creating another.” This assessment is similar to Fagerstein’s account of bureaucratic resistance to change among counter-terrorist actors in the European Union, both states and European institutions. These accounts suggest that the ability of states to cooperate is not only about perceived utility in the face of a threat, formal or informal intelligence cooperation structures and personal trust but also about the capacity of the organisations involved to overcome both “innocent” and “inherent” enemies when seeking to cooperate.

This internal disconnect between entities responsible for counterterrorism at home and abroad also contributes to cooperation issues. Common to both external liaison and internal cooperation is the tension of how to deal with terrorist structures, for example, through arrest or kinetic activities or keeping individual in play to gather further information. Not all services have the same tolerance for risk. Actions by the United States are alleged to have pushed the United Kingdom to act against the ‘liquid bomb’ plot in 2006. The UK were waiting to collect further evidence but the US are alleged to shut-down the investigation by providing information to Pakistan that led to an arrest there, the UK were then obliged to arrest the group in the UK before they learned of the action in Pakistan. The US was concerned that the group in the UK would act despite surveillance and monitoring. This comes back to the difficulty of having an analytical framework of the threat that converges between states. Even with these difficulties, it is still possible for bi-lateral and even multilateral cooperation to occur for example, the Paris-based Alliance Base multi-lateral counter-terrorism centre that was involved in operations against al-Qaeda, it included members from The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and the United States. Alliance Base continued to function despite the very public dispute between the US and France over the Iraq-invasion.

Post 9/11, there was a consensus that counter-terrorism cooperation was necessary and urgent, part of this consensus may have been due to US insistence and threats about the results of non-cooperation. However, states rarely cooperate over long periods of time and with equal intensity because interests shift due to changes in circumstances. Syria is a case in point; post 9/11, there appears to have been Syrian/US cooperation on counter-terrorism, for example the infamous Arar rendition. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the growth of the Sunni insurgency, this cooperation appears to have either ended or changed with the US frequently charging the Syrian authorities of not working to disrupt foreign fighter flows through Syria into Iraq. The Syria case is of interest for another reason; cooperation on an issue may not be forthcoming with one state but another state can obtain cooperation on the same issue. For example, while the US was not able to obtain what it saw as adequate cooperation on foreign fighters, the Syrians did cooperate throughout the insurgency with the French, regularly expelling French nationals back to France. The Syrian authorities assessed the utility of cooperation with France and the US differently.

There is not one simple measure that allows for the degree of cooperation to be easily evaluated. It is possible to assess cooperation related to foreign fighters using indicators that are suggestive of cooperation. These include participation in multilateral forums like Interpol meetings or United Nations bodies, the presence of liaison officers in a country, the communication of information, for example Turkey has publicly stated it has a list of 13 800 persons provided by other stares that are banned from entry and Interpol has a database of 4000 foreign fighters. Others include actions for example extradition or expulsion of foreign fighters by transit states, government statements about cooperation by other states, for example US criticism of Syria during the Iraqi insurgency between 2003 and 2010. These indicators are suggestive of types of cooperation, including whether it is occasional or regular, formal or informal and whether it is limited to intelligence exchanges or also includes operational elements for example arrests by law enforcement or military operations.

States cooperate based on a combination of perceived threat, utility and interests, cooperation is hindered when these diverge, and this is often the case during foreign fighter mobilizations. Problems within the cooperation process – what information to share, and the level of granularity and whether to share it bilaterally or multilaterally – impact on the ability of states to disrupt or deter foreign fighting.