15,000-plus for Fighting: The Return of the Foreign Fighters

Cardiff ISIS

After years of being treated as a niche topic, the rise of the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq has moved the issue of foreign fighters from academic journals and wonky conferences to the front pages of major newspapers. But this has long been a topic of both personal and professional interest to me, beginning when I served alongside an Iraqi infantry battalion in western Ninevah province in 2006-2007. During my deployment in Ninevah, al Qaeda in Iraq exploited the numerous wadis (or dry riverbeds) across the Iraqi-Syrian border as their “ratlines” to move in and out of Iraq and to carry out horrendous acts of sectarian violence and terror. I returned to the United States to run a number of conferences and panels on foreign fighters at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

The scale of the current rush of foreign fighters going to fight in Syria and Iraq, however, is unprecedented, their numbers dwarf those of their predecessors in 1980s Afghanistan and in Iraq of the noughties. An estimated 15,000 men and women from 80 or more countries have gone to fight there. The foreign fighters involved in the Soviet-Afghan and the Iraq War (2003-2011) are greatly celebrated in the jihadist martyrdom canon, but they only reached a small fraction of what the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has attracted. But those conflicts unleashed what Clint Watts has described as the first and second foreign fighter gluts, respectively. The veterans of those conflicts seeded the jihadist movement in places such as Algeria, Egypt, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, and Dagestan, spawning the al Qaeda network and other jihadist organizations. The ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Syria will unleash a third foreign fighter glut that will likely create further regional and global security concerns, and exacerbate existing ones.

While a majority of these fighters come from countries near the conflict zone, the number of fighters from the West is also much higher than in past conflicts, and remains a cause for concern. Estimates of Western foreign fighters range between 2000 and 5000, of which between 100 and 300 are from the United States. The May 24, 2014 murders at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels by the ISIL veteran Mehdi Nemmouche and the disrupted ISIL-linked plot by Australian authorities of individuals wanting to commit “propaganda of the deed” beheadings of unsuspecting victims down under show that there are real concerns about fighters returning from the conflict zone. This is especially true of foreign fighter veterans who hold “golden passports” that allow for visa waiver travel.

Motivations among FFs vary widely. Some are motivated by religion, others by humanitarian concerns, and still others are simply searching for excitement. But not all who return will attempt to conduct attacks. As Mohammed Hafez wrote about veterans of the Afghan jihad, returnees fall into a number of categories: reintegrationists, government assets, facilitators, social revolutionaries, global jihadists, and unidentified terrorists. Still, there remains a high probability that at least some of these foreign fighters will ultimately plan attacks in their countries of origin. According to research conducted by Thomas Hegghammer, roughly 1 in 9 (11 percent) of returning Western foreign fighters historically conduct terrorist acts, and attacks planned by veterans are more likely to be carried out and more lethal when they do. If those numbers hold, that could mean as many as 220 to 550 Western foreign fighter veterans end up plotting terrorist attacks at some point (11-33 of them in the United States). A report from February of this year stated that “U.S. federal counterterrorism authorities are tracking as potential threats a dozen or so ex-rebels trained in Syria who have returned to the United States.”

What can the United States do about this? As Attorney General Eric Holder stated in a speech in Oslo this year:

In the face of a threat so grave, we cannot afford to be passive. Rather, we need the benefit of investigative and prosecutorial tools that allow us to be preemptive in our approach to confronting this problem. If we wait for our nations’ citizens to travel to Syria or Iraq, to become radicalized, and to return home, it may be too late to adequately protect our national security.

U.S. efforts have mainly followed — if not created — many of the best practices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s Rabat Memorandum — a document outlining a series of recommended approaches for countries to deal with combating terrorism through their criminal justice systems. In the Oslo speech, Holder outlined the United States’ then four-pronged strategy to counter violent extremism: (1) Criminalizing the providing of “material support to terrorist organizations,” (2) ensuring the proper law enforcement “investigative tools and techniques that are both effective and protective of individual rights and the rule of law,” (3) cultivating international cooperation, such as using Interpol notices, and (4) public engagement. On the last point, he noted, “We must seek to stop individuals from becoming radicalized in the first place by putting in place strong programs to counter violent extremism in its earliest stages.”

In keeping with the spirit of this final point, General Holder announced the Pilot Projects to Counter Violent Extremism program on September 15, 2014. With this program, the Department of Justice is

…partnering with the White House, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center to launch a new series of pilot programs in cities across the nation. These programs will bring together community representatives, public safety officials, religious leaders, and United States Attorneys to improve local engagement; to counter violent extremism; and — ultimately — to build a broad network of community partnerships to keep our nation safe.

He noted that since 2012, U.S. Attorneys have held or attended 1,700 engagements to raise trust and awareness. In addition, he mentioned that there will be a Countering Violent Extremism Summit at the White House this month.

Reports suggest these pilot projects will begin in Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. As President Obama stated in his address before the UN Security Council Summit on Foreign Terrorist Fighters last week, such community engagement is key because

Often it is local communities — family, friends, neighbors, and faith leaders — that are best able to identify and help disillusioned individuals before they succumb to extremist ideologies and engage in violence. That’s why the United States government is committed to working with communities in America and around the world to build partnerships of trust, respect and cooperation.

But will this be effective in the United States? Civil libertarians have concerns with this program, to be sure. But a more fundamental issue is that the foreign fighter recruitment model in the U.S. may be different than that in Europe or other regions. The European model seems more akin to the foreign fighter cycle model outlined by Watts. The Watts model suggests there is (1) a source country/flashpoint (i.e., how they are radicalized and recruited), (2) safe havens and a transit network (i.e., how they get to the fight), and (3) target locations (i.e., where they fight). In Europe, particular towns and regions serve as the primary feeders for foreign fighters. This practice seems similar to the flashpoint model shown in the Sinjar records, in which foreign fighters going to Iraq tended to come from key cities and towns — likely those where veterans recruited the uninitiated. Foreign fighters from the U.S. may be more self-radicalized by online sources. Mohammed Hamzah Khan, the man arrested at O’Hare Airport on Monday, October 6, 2014, for allegedly trying to travel to Turkey to join ISIL, for instance, seems to have been recruited online. Still, community outreach might be able to spread awareness of potential warning signs among particularly vulnerable communities. The case of Fadi Fadi Dandach, an Orange County man who allegedly wanted to fight for ISIS, shows the importance of tips from family members.

An alternative approach that might prove more effective would include passive programs that are privately run. Two weeks ago in Brussels, while participating on panels dealing with foreign fighters issues and de-radicalization hosted by the European Foundation for Democracy and sponsored by the US Mission to the European Union, for instance, I met Daniel Köhler and Ahmad Mansour who discussed their work with the Hayat Program (hayat is both the Arabic and Turkish word for life) of the Institute for the Study of Radical Movements. (Mansour has some added street credibility in this area as an Israeli Arab living in Germany who was involved with Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas affiliates for five years in his youth before reconsidering his views). The Hayat Program is based on the Exit Germany program, which was started in 2000 and helps to get people out of neo-Nazi groups. The program has shown positive results, but it is still fairly small-scale.

Hayat is a passive program that works with families who: (1) are worried about family members who might be prone to becoming radicalized, (2) have family members who have been radicalized overseas, and (3) have family members who have returned from fighting abroad. The program is both anonymous and free of charge. It works with families to assess whether there is a problem with radicalization, determine driving factors for such radicalization, identify possible de-radicalization or counter-radicalization solutions, provide alternative options for vulnerable individuals, work on societal reintegration, and deal with matters like returnees with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Such counseling may take between three and four years, and some individuals may be irreconcilable, but a benefit of this program is that it might be able to reach and work with individuals who are not even on the radar of the law enforcement or intelligence communities. That in and of itself may make the application of such programs overseas worthwhile, particularly in the West, where the features of self-radicalization mean that family members are much more likely than government authorities to detect important warning signs.


The issue of foreign fighter outflow (i.e. where foreign fighters go after they leave the target locations) is a critical one. The UN Security Council Summit on Foreign Terrorist Fighters shows that the international community appreciates the seriousness of the problem, but there is still much work to be done. This is particularly the case when leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even deny that his country’s territory has been used as a safe haven and transit point. Of course, the proxy war dimensions of the Syrian civil war (i.e., the Sunni states vs. Iran) further complicate matters.

Responding to the outflow issue will rightly be the concern of law enforcement, intelligence, and in some cases, counterterrorism forces. While the number of Western fighters may be small, and the number committed to taking the fight to the West smaller still, there are legitimate concerns that ISIL will plot attacks in the West. (Additionally, threats involving foreign fighters are not exclusively linked to ISIL; al Qaeda may try to get back on the scoreboard with a large attack in the West to reassert itself out from ISIL’s shadow and to attract donors. This is why the U.S. hit al Nusra and Khorosan Group targets in Syria during the initial stage of airstrikes in Syria). The United States and other Western states will need to use all of the tools at their disposal to mitigate the third foreign fighter glut. Bombs, bullets, and bracelets (i.e., handcuffs) will not be enough to cope with the problem. Education and outreach will also be crucial to defuse the hate, confusion, and other driving factors of the vulnerable. If Hegghammer’s 11 percent is an accurate estimation and applicable to the current cohort of foreign fighters, then working to adjust it downward in any way will be good for the public’s safety and peace of mind. Most importantly, finding ways to decrease Hegghammer’s percentage will weaken the third foreign fighter glut that currently threatens to exacerbate regional and international security tensions. Taking a proactive approach at home to stem recruitment — and denying jihadists the safe haven they seek abroad — may prevent an attack.


Michael P. Noonan, a WOTR contributor, is Director of Research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute and an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.