Thinking Aloud: “Be Afraid. Be a Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters,” Part II

Jan. 13, 2015 by Darius

[Yesterday 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, and Jeremy Shapiro, currently at Brookings and formerly of the State Department, discussed the policy implications of the foreign fighter phenomenon.  Yesterday, I shared Byman’s insights; today’s post will be dedicated to Shapiro’s comments.]

Shapiro began by discussing policy recommendations to stop foreign fighters at each of the five stages outlined by Dan Byman (see

In the first phase, in which individuals decide to go fight in Syria, the policy is simple: convince them not to.  Shapiro said that many foreign fighters do not leave radicalized and instead genuinely want to help people in the conflict zone.  Shapiro felt that local communities can and should take the lead on this phase of prevention.  He acknowledged that stopping foreign fighters at this stage via government intervention is usually unsuccessful because governments are unconvincing as religious authorities.  According to Shapiro, the most success governments have enjoyed in dissuading would-be foreign fighters has been by focusing on the infighting and Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Syria.

To prevent foreign fighters during the second phase, travel to the war zone, governments must disrupt transit routes.  In practice, this means getting the Turkish government to crack down on transit since the overwhelming majority of foreign fighters enter Syria via Turkey.  Shapiro said the working relationship between Turkey and Western countries on this issue has improved of late but is far from perfect.  However, Shapiro also pointed out that it is difficult to disrupt networks because no such networks exist: because so much recruiting is now done online, rather than through in-person contacts, many foreign fighters do not even know which extremist group they are traveling to Syria to join.

There is little that can be done by Western governments during the third stage, in which foreign fighters are actually fighting in Syria or Iraq.  However, Shapiro did mention the possibility of attempting to insinuate that foreign fighters are either spies or corrupt, making jihadist groups wary of trusting them or accepting them.

Shapiro felt that managing the fourth stage, in which foreign fighters return to their country of origin, is the most important, yet also something governments are not doing well with.  According to Shapiro, the information is there: by and large, security services know when a foreign fighter is returning.  However, security services must use a process of triage to separate out the serious radicals bent on terrorism, those who can be guided away from radicalism with some effort, and those who are completely uninterested in carrying out attacks.  Shapiro said that a great many returning foreign fighters have some form of PTSD and that offering some form of counseling can be very helpful.  Engaging in judicial proceedings against returned foreign fighters, though, has proven very unhelpful.  In fact, jail may be an even more effective tool for radicalization than going to Syria.  Politically, though, it is much easier for Western countries to arrest foreign fighters than to attempt to reintegrate them.  Additionally, the penalty for failing to triage correctly—an attack of some sort—is very costly, both for the societies and, politically, for the government and security services that failed to stop the attack.  Shapiro quoted a European security official: “It’s how directors get fired.”

Shapiro felt it wasn’t realistic for security services to devote attention to every foreign fighter: the numbers are simply too great.  The Australian security service, for example, estimated that it costs $7 million to provide 24-7 surveillance on one person for a year.  Instead, Shapiro felt the critical ingredient in stopping attacks is cooperation between security services.  In the current EU system, for example, it is often the case that the terrorists, like all EU citizens, travel freely across borders, but intelligence often does not.

Shapiro echoed Byman’s sentiments that some attacks are inevitable.  However, Shapiro reiterated that returning foreign fighters are not an existential threat to Western societies.  He felt the standard of success cannot be perfection in stopping attacks because that would lead to (a) failure and (b) harmful overreaction.

In particular, Shapiro identified three kinds of overreaction.  First, after an attack, we tend to overestimate coordination between foreign fighters, inventing large-scale networks and conspiracies.  Second, governments and societies retroactively blame security services even if they were following best practices on intelligence.  Finally, governments are pushed to enact harsh policies that increase alienation and sow the seeds for future attacks in exchange for short-term reassurances about security.

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