The Myth of the Returned Foreign Fighter

Foreign fighters present little direct threat to their homelands despite disastrous efforts to combat them, but that doesn’t mean counter-radicalization programs are without value.

As the Islamic State (IS) continues to demonstrate the effectiveness of itsdiverse and pervasive online recruitment and incitement efforts, causing hand-wringing in Washington at the failure of several ill-conceived strategic counter-messaging programs, the conversation has begun to shift towards the issue of foreign terrorist fighter returnees. However, the discourse, which has included calls to strip foreign terrorist fighters of their citizenship as a means of preventing attacks in the homeland upon their return, fails to recognize several mitigating factors, including: the marginal proportion of foreign terrorist fighters who will return, with a subset of those returning specifically with nefarious intentions being even smaller; intelligence collection against known or suspected foreign terrorist fighters is already robust; and rehabilitation programs for returning jihadists have produced notable successes despite the levels of controversy accompanying them.

A popular vein of thinking posits that foreign terrorist fighters will attempt to return home and sow terror, a conception which assumes IS adheres to a similar model as al Qaeda (AQ). AQ forged hardened jihadists in Pakistan and Afghanistan before dispatching them as pawns in bin Laden’s netwar, yet this could not be further from the truth for IS. IS’ stated aims and declaration of a caliphate necessitate holding territory, whereas AQ viewed its disparate affiliates as vehicles for action through which a caliphate could be achieved, though not necessarily any time soon. This major difference manifests itself in IS’ proactive measures to prevent its subjects from leaving the group’s territory, whereas AQ strategist Abu Musab al Suri encouraged militants to travel beyond merely AfPak to engage in jihad.

Therefore, one would expect the number of IS returnees engaging in terrorism in their countries of origin to be low, a hypothesis confirmed by Thomas Hegghammer in a recent article for Perspectives on Terrorism. For all of the alleged thousands of Western foreign terrorist fighters who packed up and headed for the caliphate, only six have returned to plot against their homelands. Instead, a combination of IS’ brutal governance and its recent battlefield setbacks continue to lead to foreign terrorist fighter defections,making domestic calls for measures such as stripping departing foreign fighters of their citizenship incomprehensible.

Dr. Jerrold Post found that individuals join terrorist organizations because they are alienated from their societies, are generally aimless, and find purpose in the group’s cause (whether it be religious, nationalist, or otherwise). Following that logic, stripping a returning jihadist of citizenship would only serve to alienate him further, depriving an individual likely disillusioned with the group’s cause (given Hegghammer’s illustrated low number of IS returnee plots) of an opportunity to attempt normalization and reintegration with society. In fact, such a move may actually be more risky, providing groups with further fodder to deepen the “us versus them” worldview with which militants are indoctrinated, fueling resentment and sowing the seeds for further attacks.

However, rehabilitation programs are not without risk either. Saudi Arabia’s vaunted program turned out to have a disturbingly high recidivism rate, with several of its students graduating and securing coveted placements in…Guantanamo Bay. Yet the United States Institute of Peace suggests that the Saudi approach may have been incomplete, focusing on religious arguments rather than true reintegration. In contrast, Denmark’s Aarhus Model presentsremedies for a full spectrum of radicalizing factors rather than maintaining a singular focus on faith, and, despite controversy, early results appear promising.

Furthermore, robust intelligence collection on foreign terrorist fighters curtails their ability to return home undetected and places severe restriction on their ability to operate should such a return be effected. Hegghammer addressed this fact, stating that a lower execution rate for IS returnee attacks than attacks performed by IS sympathizers may be attributed to the heavy monitoring of suspects returning to the West. These individuals exhibit a much larger footprint for the alerting of security services, often leaving a trail of financial, social media, and physical travel breadcrumbs for intelligence agencies to combine into an accurate list of citizens fighting abroad.

However, the prevalence and effectiveness of IS sympathizer attacks should be concerning. With American intelligence agencies restricted in their ability to shut down IS communications and married to traditional law enforcement sting/entrapment methods to nab only the most inept of sympathizing plotters, foreign terrorist fighter returnees represent a convenient tool with which to conduct future arrests and burnish credentials. However, in the grand scheme of combating the IS threat and countering its narrative, foreign terrorist fighter returnees are a negligible piece of the puzzle and should amount to no more than a thought exercise.

It would be easy to approach this seeming inability to combat online radicalization at home and the low likelihood of an foreign terrorist fighter returnee carrying out an attack with pessimistic pragmatism: Gulf states have a history of encouraging radicals to engage in jihad abroad as a matter of religious duty, yet a more likely explanation is that, once abroad, their contact with like-minded radicals at home (and thus their threat to an autocratic government) is greatly diminished. However, such logic applied by the United States would be foolhardy, especially as Syria continues to act as a terrorist haven of near unprecedented magnitude. While foreign terrorist fighter returnees may pose little threat to the homeland, their vitriol towards their country of origin and knowledge of its culture could provide vital aid to groups plotting attacks in the U.S.

Instead, to decrease the likelihood of both sympathizer attacks and of its residents traveling to bolster jihadi numbers overseas, the United States must shift its focus towards deradicalization: the near-regular FBI sting operations appear to catch only the most inept wannabe terrorists (indeed, the FBI has been accused of nabbing many with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities) or those woefully lacking any sense of OPSEC but have failed to anticipate determined and prepared lone actors, such as the Tsarnaevs or the Chattanooga shooter. Diverting funds from an ineffective approach that veers perilously close to entrapment and instead increasing support for outreach programs to Muslim communities that will seek to foster a sense of their belonging within the United States will prove far more effective: counseling and other off-ramps for at-risk individuals will provide a better chance of success than countless arrests, which have yet to curtail radicalization. There are significant challenges to this approach: there are possible First Amendment restrictions, and the United States’ approach to its Muslim communities in the wake of 9/11 did immeasurable harm. However, a properly run outreach and de-radicalization problem would go a long way towards ensuring this lone actors and foreign terrorist fighter debate does not continue into future generations.

Collin Hunt works as a counterterrorism analyst and is an MA candidate at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His areas of expertise include threat finance, jihadist movements in North Africa, and politics of the Levant. All views are the author’s own.

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