stop making sense: do CT practices enable foreign fighter mobilizations

Psycho Killer/Qu’est-ce que c’est/fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa far better/Run run run run run run run away/Psycho Killer

What if instead of disrupting and degrading the ability of would-be foreign fighters to participate in conflicts abroad, the counter-terrorist practice and routines of states actually enabled, in the short-run, foreign fighter mobilizations? Is it possible that state responses to mitigate the risk of violence on their territory actually creates space for volunteers to travel? This somewhat counter-intuitive finding is suggested from a examination of how mechanisms in the foreign fighter mobilization process interact, particularly, the state response mechanism and the facilitation mechanism.

Facilitation is used in foreign fighter mobilizations by would-be travellers to bridge the relational deficit between their existing social network and the social network of the insurgent organisation in the country to which they are seeking access. Facilitation also acts as a signalling platform by insurgent entities to weed-out would be spies and attempts by states to infiltrate recruitment networks and the insurgent group.

State responses are the practices and routines – administrative, intelligence, law enforcement, judicial, military and diplomatic initiatives – used to deal with the risks emerging from a foreign fighter mobilization, particularly those related domestic security.

By definition mechanisms in a process interact. The interaction between facilitation and state responses creates a paradox – in order to know who the facilitator is and how they operate, the agents of state need to engage the mechanism either via a proxy – a human source, for example, an agent or an asset – or through observing the mechanism via physical surveillance or technical collection (telephone billings, intercepts etc.). This interaction or engagement with the mechanism means that for the state to acquire knowledge of future activities and intentions, it allows facilitation and facilitators to carry out their role of providing information and resources to would-be foreign travellers.

Even where the state wants to disrupt and arrest the facilitators, the requirements of the judicial system, mean that evidence must be collected to ‘prove’ that activities prohibited by law have occurred. The process of collecting this evidence is time-consuming and while it occurs the facilitation mechanism continues to function.

In short, for state responses to operate, they need to engage the facilitation mechanism and in doing so, whether to acquire information in the future , i.e. the benefits of observing the mechanism are assessed to outweigh the risks of allowing its continued functioning, Or even when a decision is made to remove the facilitator, the time needed to do this means that in the short-run they continue to function.

In observing the practice related to foreign travellers by a number of countries it appears that their routines may enable, at least in the short-run, the travel of foreign fighters. As early as 1995, the French authorities had identified the foreign fighter or traveller issues as a threat, “The return to our territory of individuals motivated by religious fanaticism and trained in violent action has the effect, by the aura given to them from their military experience, to unite around them a group who would themselves benefit from this knowledge with the goal of destabilization [France].” The assessment was reiterated in a similar manner in 2004, ”The return to national territory of jihadists, strongly indoctrinated and trained in the handling of arms and explosives, obviously constitutes a grave threat for the national territory.”

In light of the 2012, Merah killings, the increase in incidents in wake of the conflict in Syria leading to the January and November 2015 terrorist attacks, this assessment is unlikely to have been reversed but rather reinforced. The French assessment of the returnee threat is one to the territory of France and thus the mitigating strategy is directed at the protection of French territory from violence, a point made by Yves Bonnet, a former head of the DST.

Marc Trevidic,  a French investigative magistrate formerly responsible for counter-terrorism investigations detailed French strategy prior to the Syria mobilization. French practice with “filieres” [networks] was to monitor the departure and return of individuals, to build a case against the individual leading to a long prison sentence. Trevidic stated the period after the return of an individual as particularly important to building a case. Extensive and extended periods of monitoring permitted authorities to build a case based on ‘plotting’ by the returnees. Over time the French judicial evaluation evolved and he  writes that letting travelers leave came to be seen as a risk given that they were likely more dangerous upon return. He notes that France had a sort of moral obligation to what he terms, ‘international public order’ to not let its’ citizens make the situation of allies more difficult or dangerous.

The application of this type of strategy leads to a situation where facilitators and travellers are permitted to operate while information and evidence is collected. The goal is not the prevention of foreign travel or facilitation but stopping attacks on French territory. David Thomson reports that some of the Syria travellers felt that they were ‘allowed’ to leave, while this might be their perception, in reality the French authorities were following an established practice related to foreign travellers. This practice was later called in question when the volume of travellers greatly exceeded prior traveller destinations. A change in French responses to the foreign traveler issue has occurred and in the past year some 200 persons have been banned from leaving France.

This interaction between the mechanisms creates friction that results in ambiguous outcomes or situations.  The case of individual in a recent foreign fighter trial in Belgium is an example. The defense lawyers and a defendant believed that an individual was an asset of the Belgian police and played a role as a facilitator, as much as or more than their client. Leading the journalist to write, “L’ex-indic apparaît dans tant de réunions conspiratrices, de contacts téléphoniques allusifs, de démarches facilitant le départ en Syrie, qu’il devient forcément l’un des maillons principaux d’un réseau.” [Loosely, translated as, “the former informant appears in many of the conspiratorial meetings, elusive telephone contacts, and the activities facilitating the departure to Syria, that he necessarily becomes a main link in the network”]. It is tempting to see only bad faith on the part of the state in not prosecuting the individual, but this example points to complicated and messy outcomes of state attempts to engage the facilitation mechanism.

Another example is, in March 2015, the Turkish authorities arrested an individual they assert had been working as an asset for the Canadian authorities. While, the press is unlikely to have had the full details of this case, it is nonetheless further evidence of the, at times, confusing consequences of the engagement of state responses and facilitation mechanisms.

“A police search in Turkey found documents showing money transfers to his account from 10 people residing in the United Kingdom, with the highest amount shown as $2,418. Images of passports belonging to 16 people, including the three British girls, were found on [the] computer. Others, estimated to be potential recruits for DAESH, include Norwegian, Australian, Tunisian, Somali, Belgian, South African and Nigerian nationals…[he] claimed he was not familiar with those who sent him money from the U.K. and he insisted that he only acted as a middleman for the transfer of money to DAESH. “I was transferring money to Raqqa [in Syria]. My mission was to learn details about contacts of [DAESH] members and relay this information to my liaison at Canada’s Embassy in Jordan…”

This example, again, shows that for information to be collected, state engagement with the facilitation mechanism enables its functioning. In this case, it is unclear, if the goal of running the asset was to acquire information about Canadian nationals traveling to Syria – three females were stopped as they sought to access Syria – and thus the Canadians were not interested in disrupting activity linked to other nationalities or if this information was then used in intelligence exchanges to leverage the acquisition of information of interest to the Canadians.

To mitigate the risk of domestic attacks and acquire information on future intent, states, temporarily enable foreign fighter travel by not immediately disrupting facilitation. While this may have been efficient when foreign fighter numbers were relatively low – 10s of persons per year – the benefits of this approach appear to be fewer when numbers reach 10s of persons per week traveling. This is not a normative judgment of the way in which states deal with foreign fighters but rather an observation of how threat perception and state strategies to deal with the identified threat influence, indirectly, mechanisms and processes related to foreign fighters. This impact can be to the benefit of the facilitation mechanism in the short-run, by permitting it to function and to the detriment of other states as foreign fighters arrive to participate in conflicts.