In a new Islamic State video, a bearded fighter speaking fluent, British-accented English describes U.K. prime minister David Cameron as “despicable swine” and calls for terrorist attacks against the West. Calculated to inspire fear in Western audiences, messages like these seem to lend credence to weeks of grave warnings from U.S. government officials about the danger of jihadists traveling between their home countries and distant battlefields.
But the domestic security threat posed by so-called foreign fighters is overblown — while the danger of a panicked overreaction, to Western morale and civil liberties, seems greatly underappreciated, except perhaps by the Islamic State itself. The extremist group’s strategy of getting Western countries to undermine themselves is paying dividends.
Late last month, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution aimed at proscribing the ability of foreign fighters to travel and mobilize. The resolution won approval amid condemnation of the Islamic State, but it’s been designed broadly enough to give member states what is essentially a blank check to stifle dissident movements of all types.
As Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch told Foreign Policy: “[It] strikes me as reactionary and not well thought out. It will be used as an excuse to pass more repressive laws or to enforce… existing problematic laws.” Already, governments in the UK, Canada and Australia have sought to expand their powers and have taken steps to restrict citizenship rights. The passage of this resolution will likely accelerate such measures across the board, and will also likely embolden authoritarian regimes elsewhere to be more forceful in their own separate crackdowns on domestic dissent. (China, trying to stifle separatist Uighurs within its own borders, was a strong supporter of the resolution.) This is the inevitable and perverse effect of threat distortion.
U.S. government officials have been doing their best to inflate the supposed threat posed by traveling fighters affiliated with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
In an interview this summer on Fox News, House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Mike Rogers said, “This is as dangerous as it gets. Why? We have thousands of Westerners and Americans in both the eastern Syria and Iraq who have Western passports.”
Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has said foreign fighters “pose a great threat to the U.S..” Rear Admiral John Kirby, who helps lead media relations at the Pentagon, added that there is in fact “immediacy to the threat that they pose.”
And in his September 10 speech declaring war on ISIS, Barack Obama too raised the spectre of potential terrorist attacks in both the U.S. and Europe by saying that “trained and battle-hardened…fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”
But while foreign fighters who hold Western passports undoubtedly represent a serious challenge for both law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the actual nature of this danger is believed by many analysts to be vastly overblown.
Many are either killed or end up never returning to their countries of origin. A study conducted by Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow at the research arm of the Norwegian military, found that most foreign fighters who do manage to return from conflict settle back into relatively normal lives. On average, roughly one in nine has been interested in engaging in terrorism at home, but even these usually represent individuals who for a variety of reasons are already known to law enforcement and thus can be reliably monitored or detained.
Overheated warnings about a wave of foreign fighters returning home to Western countries are hardly new. In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs, Georgetown professor Daniel Byman and former State Department staffer Jeremy Shapiro argue:
“…the threat presented by foreign fighters has been exaggerated, just as it was during several other conflicts in recent years. Over the last decade, the Iraq war in particular prompted similar warnings about a possible backlash that ultimately failed to materialize…It is important to avoid panic and to recognize that both the United States and the EU have fended off the worst outcomes in the past and will likely continue to do so.”
The U.S. invasion of Iraq, a conflict in which Western nations were actually among the prime belligerents, motivated many young men from around the world to travel abroad and join militant groups in that country. And as early as 2005, publications like The Economist were sounding the alarm about foreign fighters coming home from that war, asking “Europe is supplying fighters for Iraq’s insurgency…will they go lethally home?” Throughout the conflict, American officials and terrorism analysts also repeatedly expressed fears that “foreign fighters who survive the Iraq conflict may return to their home countries to put their terrorist skills to use.” Despite this, a negligible proportion of these individuals ever actually attempted to bring their violence back to their countries of origin.
While the number of foreign fighters in today’s ISIS conflict is indeed far greater than in the prior Iraq war, it’s significant that for the most part Western nations are today still not the primary participants in this war. As Byman and Shapiro have noted, the vast majority of those traveling abroad to fight are not focused on launching into conflict with the West, but rather are motivated by grievances with regional governments.
Finally, threats aside, there actually tends to be great reticence among many foreign fighters to bring violence back home to Western countries where their friends and family reside. As one Somali-American volunteer with Al Shabaab reportedly said, he would never attack the United States because “my mom could be walking down the street”.
Individuals returning home from conflicts in Iraq and Syria should undoubtedly be subject to stringent monitoring and scrutiny from domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies. As an attack by a returning ISIS fighter against a Jewish center in Brussels earlier this year demonstrated, such individuals can pose a significant danger to society and should not be dealt with lightly.
But despite hyperbolic claims to the contrary, “foreign fighters” are hardly a new phenomenon and there is little evidence to suggest that they pose a new or unprecedented danger to their home countries. The heated rhetoric surrounding this issue simply serves to obscure debate and prevent rational policy alternatives from being developed.
Despite what some media and political figures may say, it’s highly improbable that “ISIS is coming”; at least not in any significant form. Individuals such as the British-accented ISIS – despite their bluster – pose little danger which intelligence agencies have not already accounted for. However if he and others can succeed in goading Westerners into a panicked and self-destructive overreaction, they can still cause damage on a level which far exceeds their own capabilities.
Photo: New York Daily News