Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: The Arab World’s Foreign Fighter Problem

By Daniel Byman
Sunday, October 19, 2014, 10:00 AM

The Arab world’s foreign fighter problem makes the West’s concerns seem minor. Specific numbers should be treated with suspicion, but the current estimate is that there are roughly 15,000 foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, of which the vast majority are from the Arab world. When these fighters return home, they may further radicalize Arab politics, reorient existing terrorist groups in a more dangerous direction, create new violent organizations, and otherwise make the Middle East’s already bleak prospects even worse.

As my Brookings colleague Jeremy Shapiro and I have argued, the terrorism threat from European and American volunteers fighting in Iraq and Syria is real but manageable. To summarize our arguments, we contend that the Syria and Iraq wars are dangerous because they are pulling in large numbers of Western volunteers who may become more skilled and indoctrinated into anti-Western ideologies. Several mitigating factors, however, lessen the danger: some of the volunteers will die; some will stay in the region as professional jihadists; some will return home disillusioned or with no interest in further violence; some will be tied to terrorist groups focused on the Arab world, not the West; and many of the remaining dangerous ones will be caught by competent security services that are focused on this problem. The foreign volunteers’ propensity to use social media to broadcast every detail of their jihadist lives makes them even more likely to be caught. Better policies, ranging from de-radicalization programs to improved prison monitoring, can further reduce the risk. The likely result is not a complete absence of terrorism, but rather fewer acts than many observers fear.

Jeremy and I may be wrong, but suspend disbelief for now and assume, as our mothers do, that we’ve nailed it. Some of these mitigating factors are present in the Arab world—jihadist volunteers will still die on Syria’s battlefields, and some will come home disillusioned—but most are lacking or are much-reduced. More to the point, these countries begin with much greater societal problems than the U.S. or Europe—problems that returning foreign fighters will likely make much worse.

Let’s begin with the numbers. Several thousand Europeans are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Western governments are fearful because this flow comprises more Western fighters than went to Iraq, Somalia, and other jihads combined. The Arab world should be so lucky. Tiny Tunisia, with about one-sixth of Britain’s population, has sent perhaps 3,000 fighters, and 1,500 have gone from neighboring Morocco. Not surprisingly, Syria’s neighbors Jordan and Lebanon and nearby states like Saudi Arabia are also in deep: over 2,000 for Jordan, around 890 for Lebanon, and roughly 2,500 for Saudi Arabia. There are also thousands of Shi’a foreign fighters, who often travel as members of groups (such as the Lebanese Hizballah), which I’ve written about for Lawfare readers already.

Although some Western jihadists have burned their passports and will never return home, that’s not good news for the region. Individuals traveling to Syria and Iraq may end up fighting in Lebanon, Jordan, or another nearby country, simply shifting the threat. Even more important, the biggest magnet for foreign fighters—the Islamic State—has an ambitious regional agenda. The group for now has not prioritized attacks on the United States or Europe, but it has done or attempted strikes in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Indeed, the group seeks to use the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq as a base and expand further into these countries and into neighboring territory.

Sectarianism is also a potent source of recruitment for the Iraq and Syria conflicts. The Islamic State portrays itself as a champion of devout Sunnis against what it considers Shi’a apostasy and is brutal in its treatment of Muslim minorities generally. Although the Muslim communities in the United States and Europe include both Shi’a and Sunnis, sectarian differences are not a strong source of tension there, as the communities have rallied together as minorities in predominantly Christian (or secular) lands. In contrast, in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, and Lebanon, the sectarian divide has deep roots, and Shi’a in several of these countries face discrimination and often worse. Lebanon is particularly at risk because it has fighters going to both sides of the Iraq and Syria conflicts. Yemen’s sectarian split also worsened recently, as the Shi’a Houthi community stepped up their protracted rebellion and took the capital, Sanaa, plunging the country into to further chaos and violence. Even relatively strong regimes are often reluctant to clamp down on sectarian violence and chauvinism in their countries, preferring to exploit it in their foreign policies to bolster their legitimacy and weaken their foes.

The security services of many Arab states are excellent. Indeed, there is a Darwinian aspect to this: countries that lack strong security services often fall victim to a coup or rebellion. Yet a closer look reveals how uneven this competence is. Jordan and Saudi Arabia have impressive services, but Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and several other states have services that are far less skilled. Several of these countries already have a problem with jihadist violence, and there is little reason to think they have the capacity to closely track the volunteers to Iraq and Syria. Even some of the countries like Egypt that have strong services are more focused on domestic threats like the Muslim Brotherhood than on the potential threat from returning foreign fighters.

The returnees create several overlapping dangers. Unlike in the West, the principal danger is not simply about terrorism and the consequent threat to the lives of innocent civilians. Of course, some returnees may commit acts of terrorism, spreading death and destruction in their home countries. But for Arab states, returnees also pose a much more existential threat to their political stability. Many of these states already face significant problems with political violence, terrorism, and sectarianism and are teetering on the edge of instability. Even in Tunisia, the lone survivor of the Arab Spring, jihadist violence has already threatened successful democratization, with killings of secular politicians creating fears about the role of political Islam in general.

In this context, returnees have the potential in many countries to seed new or reorient existing political or militant groups and threaten overall political stability. Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen all already have a significant political violence problem, and the return of hardened fighters might take that to new a level. In addition, they might push existing groups to embrace the more violent and extreme agenda the Islamic State champions, transforming the nature of the struggle. A particular danger is a spread of sectarianism and attacks on religious minorities. In addition to the carnage of these attacks, they also undermine faith in government and lead other groups to take up arms in self-defense.

From an American point of view, the spread of foreign fighters involves far more than a threat to the U.S. homeland: it implicates broader U.S. interests in the Middle East. Washington should push regional governments to halt recruitment, monitor returnees, share intelligence, and otherwise work to reduce this problem. Although many states will do this to protect their own interests, the sectarian dimension and their other domestic political problems may mean that they will prefer to kick the can down the road rather than act strongly. Given the trajectory of conflict, however, the United States should prepare for the violence in Iraq and Syria to spread to other countries.