Until a few months ago, the term “foreign fighters” was foreign to all but practitioners of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. With politicians and the media using the term on a daily basis, many ordinary people are left wondering what it means and why there is so much fuss around the topic.
The foreign fighters label came to prominence in Iraq about 10 years ago when coalition officers believed, incorrectly, that the “Sunni insurgency” in that country was being dominated by fighters from outside. The concept of foreign fighters – individuals who travel to a foreign country to fight for a cause is, however, much older. From the Crusades through to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, young men have been mobilised to fight for an ideological cause in foreign countries. Contemporary foreign fighters have a significant difference from their historical counterparts. For some, the ideological cause they went to fight for abroad continues as a war at home upon their return.
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This difference came following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Western governments encouraged the declaration of a jihad in Afghanistan so that young Muslim men from the Middle East and elsewhere could fight the proxy Cold War between the two superpowers. The USSR’s withdrawal from Afghanistan less than 10 years later left a profound effect on the emerging jihadist ideology. This was the belief, articulated by Osama Bin Laden and others, that with only simple weapons, the “brave jihadist” fighters defeated the world’s greatest superpower. That interpretation of history ignores the role played by US-supplied Stinger missiles, economic and political depression in Russia and the revolt in Eastern Europe against communism. Bin Laden’s propaganda gave credit for the fall of the USSR to the jihadist ideology.
Wrongs of western hegemony
Many young men returning from the “Afghan jihad” believed that they had both the ability and duty to right the wrongs of western hegemony and fight to protect Muslims. It was around this concept that some foreign fighters who had managed to get political asylum in the West began to radicalise and then mobilise young men to engage in violent action. Initially, the focus was on direct attacks on what Bin Laden called the far enemy, the West, but when al-Qaeda’s ability to sustain attacks was curtailed by the “war on terror” after 9/11, the emphasis shifted to action at home.
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However, most serious terrorist attacks in western countries, such as the London 7/7 bombings, were carried out by individuals who were almost exclusively radicalised within their own countries without the experience of foreign fighting.
That fact does not stop western governments from worrying about potential violence from returning foreign fighters. The impact of terrorism on western society is such that even one attack involving just a few casualties is considered too great a risk for any government to accept.
A failure to manage the aftermath of the Madrid bombings in 2003 led to the downfall of the Spanish government a few weeks later. Consequently, governments fear public opinion turning against them. Fear of being considered inadequate pushes them to emphasise the potential threat of foreign fighters and a wish to appear tough in dealing with it. Hence, there has been considerable debate about taking away passports of foreign fighters to prevent a return to their home countries and placing restrictions on those individuals who manage to return.
Most of these measures are legally problematic and many critics, some within government, question the effectiveness of bringing in new legislation. Others question the mere definition of a foreign fighter when many have dual identities if not dual nationalities.
For example, is a British Syrian who goes from the UK to fight in Syria a foreign fighter? To get around that, the Australian government proposed linking the crime to location rather than identity by making it an offence to be in a “designated” area without good reason.
That definition may also address the problem of punishing the small but highly mediagenic group of females who have gone to Iraq and Syria primarily to become wives of foreign fighters. They may not have engaged in fighting and so they can only be prosecuted for being somewhere their governments do not want them to be.
All of this is based on the assumption that many foreign fighters will want to come back and they will wish to carry out attacks in their homelands, will have the capability to do so in terms of planning and obtaining weapons, and also that they will have the opportunity to do so. The reality is that the majority of those returning are likely to be disillusioned by a painful realisation that the idealistic movement they went to fight for is actually a bloodthirsty gang of thugs driven by power and sexual lust rather than spiritual and social purity.
While those individuals need not be welcomed with hugs, they at least should be given the chance to rehabilitate if they are genuinely remorseful, their potential for adding to the woefully inadequate intelligence on ISIL should be exploited and their credible first-hand accounts of the brutal reality of ISIL should be exposed to dissuade other impressionable youngsters from joining ISIL.
If any of them still believe ISIL is a force for good then there are sufficient laws in most countries to put them away for a long time to contemplate their warped view of the world – better they languish in jails at home than run amok with guns abroad.
Afzal Ashraf is a consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and served in the UK Armed Forces. He was involved in developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the policing and the justice sectors in Iraq.