Jan. 12, 2015 by Darius
Today I attended a panel discussion entitled “Be Afraid. Be a Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters.” Dr. Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution and Georgetown University gave an excellent presentation on the potential of terrorist attacks emanating from Westerners who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, while Jeremy Shapiro, currently at Brookings and formerly of the State Department, discussed the policy implications of the foreign fighter phenomenon. Today, I’ll share Byman’s insights, while tomorrow’s post will be dedicated to Shapiro’s comments.
Byman identified five stages of the foreign fighter phenomenon: (1) the radicalization of future foreign fighters as the conflict rages; (2) the foreign fighter traveling to the warzone; (3) the fighter training, fighting, and becoming indoctrinated with extremist ideology in the warzone; (4) the foreign fighter returning to his country of origin; (5) the fighter recruiting others to follow in his footsteps and carrying out terror attacks.
According to Byman, the danger of foreign fighter terrorism is real: according to data from past conflicts, approximately one out of every nine foreign fighters become involved with international terrorism. Attacks involving foreign fighters are also greater in lethality than attacks without foreign fighters. More importantly, more foreign fighters have gone to fight in Syria than all previous conflicts combined.
However, Byman pointed out that there are numerous mitigating factors for the threat posed by foreign fighters. First of all, many foreign fighters die in the warzones. Statistics for the Syrian war aren’t known, but foreign fighter death rates in past conflicts have varied wildly, from only 5% in Afghanistan to 90% in Chechnya. Given that there has been an American suicide bomber in Syria, at least some of the foreign fighters are dying in Syria and therefore not returning. Second, the deaths of foreign fighters in Syria can actually mean that fewer attacks are carried out in the home country: some foreign fighters were already radicalized and would have carried out attacks in their home country anyway if they hadn’t gone to Syria and died fighting there. Third, some foreign fighters survive but choose to never return to their home countries. Fourth, many foreign fighters grow disillusioned rather than radicalized and return home with no intention of carrying out attacks. Finally, foreign fighters are receiving training to become guerrillas rather than terrorists.
Byman said that unlike al-Qaeda Afghanistan, before 9/11, which is regarded as the traditional example of the foreign fighter phenomenon, groups in Syria are focused on the fight in Syria itself, rather than on taking the fight back to the West.
Byman also highlighted the role of Western security services in stopping terrorism. He said that stopping former foreign fighters is actually easier than identifying homegrown terrorists because the very act of becoming a foreign fighter identifies an individual to security services. Additionally, foreign fighters are easier still to monitor because they are often very open and proud of their actions on social media.
Byman concluded by acknowledging that terrorism, like crime, has become a part of the modern landscape and that there will be some attacks carried out by returning foreign fighters. However, he did not believe that the Syrian conflict would create any special danger or that such attacks represent an existential threat to the West. He wondered aloud why Americans seem prepared to accept semi-regular school shootings as part of the price paid to live in American society but expect zero terrorist attacks, even though terrorism is a much more complex and difficult issue to tackle.
Tomorrow, I’ll share Jeremy Shapiro’s remarks.