Assessing the Threat of Foreign Fighters Returning Home


By Abdulla Wasti
Contributing Writer
1 February, 2019

The Islamic State is down, but it is not out.

In 2017, we witnessed the temporary collapse of the Islamic State as it was driven out of key strongholds in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. Yet despite the setbacks in terms of territorial control, there remains little doubt that the group and the ideology it espouses will remain relevant, as long as the conditions that facilitated its growth persist around the globe.

The issue of foreign fighters returning from conflicts in the Middle East, most notably Iraq and Syria, dominates security studies academia and policy circles. With a record number of foreign recruits hailing from the West, there is an understandable concern with regards to a possible “blowback” effect, as these seasoned fighters may return to their homelands. However, before reviewing policy options to tackle the issue of returnees, it is crucial to place this threat into perspective, specifically in the context of the United States.

Thomas Hegghammer’s often cited study on returning foreign fighter caused much alarm, as it suggested that 11 percent of all returned fighters would engage in domestic terrorism. Yet, the numbers so far suggest that only a fraction of foreign fighters return to their home country. Moreover, very few of those returning to Europe or the United States have been involved in plotting terrorist attacks after their return.

In a later study, Hegghammer revised his figure, stating that only one in 360 returnees has posed a threat. In the United States, so far only one returnee has been caught by the FBI as he was plotting to carry out an attack on a U.S. military base.

Another aspect that Hegghammer’s initial study touched upon was the “veteran effect,” which suggests that returning fighters who do get involved in terrorism increase the chances of the attack being successful and more lethal.

However, even this assumption has been challenged recently, as other studies have indicated that the returned fighters have not had as devastating an effect, as was expected in plots of domestic terrorism.

Another study conducted by Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro, both Fellows at the Brookings Institution, points out that returned fighters involved in domestic attacks did not use sophisticated methods, which were expected of them as a result of their field training and experience.

In light of recent developments and statistical data, the threat of returning fighters is less pronounced in the United States as compared to Europe.

A report by the George Washington University looking into the threat of returning American fighters found that the number of foreign jihadists from Europe ranges between 5,000 to 6,000, whereas figures in the United States range around 250 to 300.

Unlike Europe, there are not large, alienated immigrant diasporas in the United States to provide returnees with a space to stay under the radar and in which to find accomplices. In fact, there seems to be consensus amongst academics that those individuals who were unable to travel abroad to fight are more likely to partake in domestic terrorism. Therefore, countering the very processes that convince these individuals to join the Islamic State should be of paramount concern.

Despite the setbacks faced by the Islamic State, it has no dearth of conflict points around the world to exploit in order to maintain the relevance of its message. Thus, as the conflict in Syria winds down, ISIS can export its message of jihad to other conflict zones around the world.

The more long-term and pressing challenge is to counter the propaganda that groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda employ to reach out to individuals in the West.

The rhetoric these groups employ is devoid of nuance and aims to further an “us vs. them” worldview, where the Muslim world is pitted against the West. Hence, it is imperative to regulate our actions and discourse in a manner which minimizes the opportunities for such groups to employ such messaging.

Denmark in particular has adopted a more nuanced approach and has attempted to depoliticize extremism and radicalization, even though the two are often linked with the risk of terrorism, a category which is intrinsically political. To quote a 2015 report from the Danish Institute for International Studies, “a strong omnipresent public discourse that links extremism to Islam or Muslims may spill over and lead to initiatives being perceived as doing the same.”

The Trump administration however, has been lacking in this regard over the past year. Since taking office, President Trump has been sharpening his rhetoric about terrorism. The intricacies of this battle are complex, as they involve military, linguistic, cultural, social media, and counter-propaganda skills.

The current U.S. administration has shown little regard for the fact that American Muslims and Muslim-majority countries are key allies in the fight against extremists. Counter-terrorism experts say that Muslims who are convinced that Islam is under attack are prone to joining these violent groups.

While the federal courts have watered down Trump’s travel ban against Muslim-majority countries, the images and stories of Muslim families being torn apart have circulated worldwide. Regardless of the accuracy of such accounts, such tales serve as ammunition for groups such as ISIS. As soon as the travel ban was announced, Islamists filled pro-ISIS social media platforms with declarations that the prediction of the West turning against its Muslim citizens was coming true.

The “threat” of returning fighters has been overstated, at least in the context of the United States. Of greater concern should be regulation of discourse which might contribute to the alienation of minority communities in the United States. There is a need to have a more nuanced debate about the drivers of domestic extremism, not just in policy circles, but also in more public platforms of discourse. Messaging is a core part of this battle, and the essentializing rhetoric deployed so far in regards to understanding extremism serves as ammunition for those who benefit from portraying this battle as one between “good and evil.”

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Abdulla Wasti is an M.A. candidate in Security Policy Studies specializing in Transnational Security with a regional focus on the Middle East at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. After completing his undergraduate degree at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Political Science, he worked for three years in Pakistan with policy think tanks and a human rights NGO.

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