Readings: Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro Warn Against Hyping the Threat of Returning Jihadists

By Benjamin Wittes
Wednesday, October 1, 2014, 9:28 PM

My Brookings colleagues Daniel Byman (who is, among other things, Lawfare's Foreign Policy Editor) and Jeremy Shapiro (who is, among other things, a demon with a barbecue and a slab of meat), have a new piece out in Foreign Affairs entitled, "Homeward Bound? Don't Hype the Threat of Returning Jihadists." It's a counter-intuitive take on the threat posed by Americans and Europeans who have gone to fight with ISIS, one that concludes that the threat---while real---is overblown. Very worth reading.

It opens:

On May 24, 2014, a man opened fire inside the Jewish Museum in Brussels, quickly killing three people and fatally wounding a fourth before disappearing into the city’s streets. The alleged perpetrator, a French citizen named Mehdi Nemmouche, who has since been arrested and charged with murder, had spent the previous year fighting with jihadist opposition groups in Syria. His attack appeared to mark the first time that the Syrian civil war had spilled over into the European Union. Many security officials in Europe and the United States fear that this strike foreshadowed a spate of terrorist attacks that the chaos in Syria—and now Iraq—could trigger.

The Syrian conflict has captured the imaginations and inflamed the passions of Muslims around the world, spurring thousands to join the mostly Sunni rebels resisting the Assad regime. The influx of volunteers has bolstered jihadist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State, a militant organization that swept across Syria’s border into Iraq this past summer and proclaimed an Islamic caliphate.

Although most foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq come from the Arab world, a sizable contingent hails from the West’s large Muslim communities; 19 million Muslims live in the EU, and more than two million call the United States home. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, about 2,500 people from those places (as well as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) have traveled to Syria to fight, according to the Soufan Group, a U.S. security consulting firm.

Intelligence officials fear that these volunteers might return from the battlefield as terrorists trained to wage jihad against their home countries. Echoing these worries, Charles Farr, the director of the British Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, described the Syrian war this past summer as “a very profound game changer” for the extremist threat to Europe. Similarly, James Comey, the director of the FBI, warned in May that the repercussions from the conflict might be “an order of magnitude worse” than those that followed the turbulence in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s, which helped spur the formation of 
al Qaeda. And U.S. President Barack Obama was even more explicit during a prime-time speech to the nation on September 10, warning that “thousands of foreigners—including Europeans and some Americans” have joined ISIS militants and that “trained and battle-hardened, these fighters could try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

But 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. In fact, the vast majority of Western Muslims who set out to fight in the Middle East today will not come back as terrorists. Many of them will never go home at all, instead dying in combat or joining new military campaigns elsewhere, or they will return disillusioned and not interested in bringing the violence with them. Even among the rare individuals who do harbor such intentions, most will be less dangerous than they are feared to be because they will attract the attention of authorities before they can strike. It is telling that in the last two years alone, European security officials have disrupted at least five terrorist plots with possible links to Syrian foreign fighters, in locales ranging from Kosovo to the United Kingdom.

Still, the fact that the threat presented by returning Western jihadists will be less apocalyptic than commonly assumed should not lull authorities into complacency. Terrorism is a small-number phenomenon: even a few attackers can unleash horrific violence if they have the training and motivation. Moreover, the extremists’ desire to strike the West could well be on the rise, fueled by the U.S. bombing of ISIS targets that began in August 2014. And because many more volunteers have traveled to Syria and Iraq than to any other conflict zone in the past, many more will ultimately come back.

Nevertheless, the danger posed by returning fighters is both familiar and manageable. Several measures could help further reduce it, including efforts to dissuade would-be volunteers from enlisting in the war to begin with and programs to reintegrate those who do into society when they return. Western intelligence agencies should also do more to disrupt common transit routes and track the militants who use them. And to maintain their vigilance, governments must adequately fund and equip their security services. Together, such measures will help prevent the violence in Syria and Iraq from spilling over into the West.