Published: June 08, 2019
WASHINGTON - After the attacks of September 11, 2001, many experts expected there would be further violence on US soil. There wasn’t.
While foreign fighters may have made a difference in the Middle East and Northern Africa — and have been involved in some of the biggest terrorist attacks — experts in Washington said the movement, with some exceptions, has lost its mettle.
“This is something where foreign policy can and often has made a difference,” said Daniel Byman, senior fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. “In recent years, the news has been quite good.”
The United States and its allies have got better at tracking and deterring fighters, as recruitment has gone down after the failure of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, as people drawn to some romantic notion of war faced the reality of combat and bad accommodations and as local groups have made it clear they don’t want foreign fighters.
However, laws in many countries have not been updated to handle fighters as they return home; fighter cells remain strong in some countries and Turkey likely faces rough days ahead. Brookings Institution President John Allen said that, after record numbers of foreign fighters travelled to Syria, people needed to “gird themselves” for the next stage.
As Byman talked about his new book, “Road Warriors: Foreign Fighters in the Armies of Jihad,” May 10 at Brookings, the reappearance of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in the news. ISIS released a video featuring Baghdadi, appearing for the first time since 2014, emphasising the group’s ability to conduct attacks around the world. It also showed a folder marked “Wilayat Turkey,” which seemed to indicate Turkey could be a target.
“In the short term, it’s quite plausible to me that Turkey is at risk,” Byman said. Turkey has significant networks for jihadists and those networks could potentially be used for attacks.
Those attacks could be precursors to sectarian violence.
Libya remains a potential target as ISIS appears to be attacking Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, leader of the Libyan National Army, as he fights Libya’s UN-backed government’s forces.
Byman said that, while local groups may begin a conflict, foreign fighters often start new organisations or cause old organisations to become more dangerous. They tend to put a new spin on the cause so, rather than fighting for a nationalist cause, such as Afghanistan, suddenly the locals are expected to fight for a particular version of Islam.
The foreign fighters are also more likely to engage in large-scale terrorist attacks, Byman said, adding that key leaders in the September 11, 2001, attacks had fought in foreign wars.
However, he said he’s seeing a shift, especially after ISIS’s defeats in Iraq and Syria.
“ISIS was a winner,” he said. “Today it’s not winning. There’s a kind of endless effort to say that it is.”
If a group isn’t seen as winning, it’s harder to recruit foreign fighters.
Since the attacks in Brussels and Barcelona, many terrorist incidents have been “homegrown” and in the United States there have been “virtually no attacks” since September 11 by foreign fighters, Byman said.
That may be because foreign fighters are easier to track. They can’t simply disappear into another country and when they post potential action on social media, as they often do, they find themselves being arrested, Byman said.
Foreign fighters also discovered they don’t necessarily enjoy living in a developing country with few food options, in too cold or too hot weather, without a bed, with extra bugs and in war zone — often without compensation.
“That’s not something that a relatively pampered young person from the US or Europe can often do,” he said.
Also, locals aren’t as eager to accept them.
“Foreign fighters often make it worse for the local fighters,” Byman said.
A group such as al-Qaeda can bring US bombings, foreign fighters may serve as spies and locals may not like to have their cause appropriated.
“To have a different group of fighters come in and tell them what to do is not something they’re eager to do,” he said. “So they’re starting to put more restrictions on foreign fighters than they ever have before.”
Many foreign fighters have died and others decided they’d had enough and gone home, Byman said.
There’s now a “huge and overwhelming resources shift” with few sleeper cells and international groups and more local groups fighting for local issues.
Still, he said, jihadism has been linked to violence at home as well as around the world and that’s what makes it different.
Syria provides the worst of what could happen: More foreign fighters — tens of thousands — from more places showed up for battle than in any previous conflict. Syria also led to the attacks in Paris in 2015, among others, Byman said.
The problem then becomes how to manage people as they return home. Can their home countries put them in jail? If they do go to jail, will they radicalise others?
Often, laws haven’t caught up to the problem. The US message should be about its strong laws and courts, he said, which means the United States should accept foreign fighters back into the country. Officials should also look at ways for the United States to help countries, such as Belgium, that have limited resources to monitor returnees.
“In my opinion, this is not the time to abandon the US global role,” Byman said.