The Danger of Foreign Fighters in Syria

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The Syrian conflict holds severe long term threats for the United States and its allies. While the most dangerous of these threats may not reveal themselves for years, the fruits of the conflict are already evident in the growth of organizations such as the Islamic State. As foreign fighters from across the world gain combat experience and build personal relationships in Syria, they expand a global network of terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. These individuals will greatly increase the capability of terrorist organizations to conduct operations in countries around the world, especially as they return home.

Islamic State fighters. Image from RT.

Islamic State fighters. Image from RT.

In three years alone, the Syrian conflict has attracted around 15,000 individuals from 81 countries. This already surpasses the estimated 10,000 foreign fighters that travelled to Afghanistan over the entire ten year period of the Soviet occupation. With no signs of abating, the Syrian conflict will continue for years, and the number of individuals traveling there to participate in the fighting will grow significantly. Extremist groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate Jabhat an-Nusra are some of the most popular groups for foreigners to join because of the success they enjoy on the battlefield. They are better organized and more capable than many of the secular rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army. Because of the popularity of extremist groups among foreign fighters, the number of individuals exposed to radical ideologies is increasing.

Some experts opine that a gentle approach to these returning individuals will assuage their radicalization and make them less likely to assist terrorist networks or recruit for them. They say that programs should be set in place to assist these individuals integrating back into society. While positive social policies that provide outreach to Muslim communities should be implemented, it is not realistic to expect that such policies will deter all returning individuals from participating in terrorist activities. The situation grows even more complex as the number of foreign fighters increases, and countries’ intelligence agencies find it more difficult to track of all of the individuals. Immediate threats may make themselves obvious by their rhetoric and what they post on social media after they return home. But other fighters may succeed in a return to normalcy. Even so, these individuals can still pose a dangerous threat because of the personal relationships that they built while in Syria.

Terrorist networks can activate these relationships years later for favors. These favors could include gathering intelligence on individuals, buildings, or tourist sites to be targeted in future attacks. The individual would be able to collect the required information while maintaining a low profile because of their citizenship and knowledge of the country. They could also offer other important services that terrorist networks need to conduct operations, such as offering their home as a safe house, gathering required material, or connecting terrorists with other in-country individuals that have the required knowledge or skills needed to assist an operation. It is the growing number of such individuals that poses a threat to a country’s security, and will create greater operational capability for terrorist operations in the future.

The number of foreign fighters in Syria varies significantly from country to country. The United States estimates that over seventy of its citizens are participating in the Syrian civil war, while the United Kingdom and France report 400 and 700, respectively. These conservative figures are from early 2014, and the exact number of fighters has likely increased since then. However, it is Middle Eastern countries that will experience the largest backlash, since some of them report numbers in the thousands, such as Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Social media has played an essential role in the recruitment of foreign fighters, allowing terrorist networks to recruit without having to enter the target nation. Instead, they only have to report their successes on the internet in creative and exciting ways. Carefully orchestrated media campaigns and publications, such as the Islamic States magazine Dabiq, specifically target Westerners.

A page from the Islamic State’s English magazine Dabiq. Image from The Clarion Project.

A page from the Islamic State’s English magazine Dabiq. Image from The Clarion Project.

Recruitment will continue to be strongest among local populations in Syria, where the future livelihood of countless men and young men is less secure due to the civil war. These individuals can be motivated for religious reasons, but also for monetary gain to support their families. The Islamic State has enough funds to pay its fighters $1,000 a month, which in some countries in the region is considered middle class income or higher. Thousands of young men that are no longer going to school will become increasingly susceptible to radicalization, especially in areas that are under control of extremist groups where propaganda is rampant.The longer the Syrian crisis continues, the more precarious the situation will become. The combination of an established regional power base and a broadening global network of foreign fighters will enable terrorist groups to conduct more attacks abroad. These attacks could take place in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Middle East and North Africa, or Russia. The sheer number of countries with fighters in Syria has truly made this conflict an issue of global concern.

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