“Exodus” of European Foreign Fighters to Syria

Date: 30 August 2013, 14:30 – 16:30
Venue: T.M.C. Asser Instituut, R.J. Schimmelpennincklaan 20-22, The Hague

On Friday 30 August, ICCT and the T.M.C. Asser Instituut convened the roundtable meeting entitled “The ‘Exodus’ of European Foreign Fighters to Syria”. The discussion examined the truly international problem of foreign fighters travelling to Syria. It explored the motivational factors for those going and posed the million dollar question: how can western policymakers deal with this problem?

Four panellists debated these questions. Amy-Jane Gielen (owner and founder of A.G. Advies BV.), Maajid Nawaz (Co-Founder and Chairman of Quilliam), Richard Barrett (former Head of the UN Al Qaida/Taliban monitor) and Sergei Boeke (ICCT Research Fellow) provided four complimentary insights, and Peter Knoope (ICCT Director) chaired the session.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Knoope commented on recent news from Syria, describing the fluidity and fast-paced nature of the developments in the country. The focus of this meeting was, of course, on foreign fighters, however, so he asked the panel why foreign fighters are such a big issue now, even though the phenomenon itself is not new? The first respondent explained that the modern phenomenon of foreign fighters goes back to Bosnia, followed by Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali and so on. Therefore, the question is why the issue of foreign fighters in Syria had become so prominent. The panellist continued that in examples like Afghanistan, there were of course some that joined the Taliban and Jihadist groups, but that this was a relatively small portion. The number of foreign fighters in Syria is currently also small compared to the overall number of rebels. The speaker acknowledged that there was a risk of threats from those returning to their home countries after fighting, but that this risk was very easily exaggerated.

The second panellist disagreed, arguing that the past involvement of foreign fighters was significant and had a big impact upon the global security landscape. For example, the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s led to the establishment of al Qaeda; the Iraq war contributed to the foundation of the Islamic State of Iraq. Both of these were, as such, almost organically established organisations. Whereas in the Syrian case, there is evidence that fighters are going from Europe specifically to fight with Jihadist elements, that  already have a hardened ideology. The number of western fighters in Syria is also significant, especially compared to the war in Afghanistan. The speaker argued that this was a threat to worry about, particularly considering the potential of the Syrian conflict leading to a new, regional war. Other panellists nuanced these statements, remarking that there are numerous factors at play motivating people to travel and that most of those travelling, rather than having hardened ideologies, are younger and looking for adventure. There was agreement from another panellist who added that some are also travelling for humanitarian reasons, and that it is sometimes even unclear to security services why people are travelling. This Syrian case also differs from previous cases, the panellist continued, because it bucks previous trends: it is not only young men travelling, but also young women and, in some cases, even families.

One of the panellists posed the question what authorities should say to someone who is thinking of travelling to Syria in order to counter their motivations. Someone who cites the use of chemical weapons as motivation for fighting the Assad regime, for instance, would have a fairly valid reason that is backed by a large section of the international community. Western policymakers agree with this same political position, but are projecting their fear onto those travelling. This led to the conclusion that the foreign fighter issue was all about ‘our fear’ of what may come and while we agree on the cause, we disagree on the methods of how to deal with those travelling of their own accord.

The discussion then moved on to comparing the Syrian context with Afghanistan and whether history will repeat itself. It was suggested that the current threat is potentially worse than Afghanistan. At the moment, movement, travel and communications are the easiest they have ever been. Al Qaeda’s grand strategy, similar to Communist Russia, is to spread their war globally. Furthermore, al Qaeda have split their franchises into country battalions – why would they do this? Answering this rhetorical question, the panellist surmised that it is purely to spread their war back to their home countries. This then begs the alarming question: if you have a couple of hundred individuals travelling from a country and they have experience in combat and, potentially, the making of bombs, does this then not bode well for an organisation that espouses a global ideology? The speaker argued that it is a worrying thought with regards to returnees.  An example is the Woolwich attacker who himself had tried to travel to Syria, but who could not and so took his mission to the streets of London – this is a worrisome precedent to bear in mind. Another speaker added that the threat is compounded by the erosion of borders and the increasing sectarianism in Syria. Monitoring those travelling is a major challenge for policymakers.

Knoope then steered the debate toward the level of media coverage. It is a well-known fact, he remarked, that anything which gets public attention will increase its relevance. Therefore, the question is whether the level of attention being paid to the foreign fighter issue is counter-productive. One panellist replied with an overwhelming yes: If we, whether the media or policymakers, begin labelling people as terrorists then it can of course, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

At this stage, Knoope acknowledged that the panel appeared to agree that there was a threat, with some perhaps more pessimistic than others. With that in mind then, he asked, what the panel would recommend to tackle this problem. A speaker emphasised the importance of prevention. The flow of foreign fighters is only increasing and so prevention will be a key policy intervention to prevent possible threats. Here counter-narratives might play a key role. Others agreed, but also raised the issue of returnees, and the huge and complex issues that identifying and engaging with returned fighters involves. There will need to be enormous engagement with family members, local community leaders and social workers, for instance, but it is a complex job.

The issue of national identity – and how it is diminishing – was also raised by several panellists as a crucial one. An influx of foreign fighters in Syria may well dilute a “Syrian identity”. Policymakers also need to bear in mind the large numbers of Kurdish people spread throughout the immediate Middle Eastern region. Added to the mix, there is of course a strong Sunni/Shiite divide amongst numerous other allegiances. In reality, there is a re-aligning of the Levant, which is a region where borders do not reflect anyone’s national identity. In the long term we will most likely see a painful re-aligning of the borders in the Middle East and therefore it is difficult to map how western policymakers should react.

With this in mind, a panellist pointed out that there are things that can be done and things that ought not to be done. On the former, we should try to decrease the numbers of people travelling to Syria. There should be a focus on isolating the hard-line groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq, and make this an entirely undesirable avenue to pursue for potential foreign fighters. There seems to be an increasing divide between the Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq.  Western policymakers should consider exposing the brutality of the latter; and to reduce the support base with a coordinated counter-narrative.

In terms of prevention, it was emphasised that, on the micro level, first line responders such as social workers and community leaders are crucial to prevent individuals from travelling to the conflict zone. The prevention aspect needs to take place on multiple levels: a combination of macro and micro initiatives. Knoope then opened the floor to the audience and asked for examples of local initiatives. Several micro level initiatives were raised but a participant remarked that there also needs to be input from local government – initiatives should be locally owned but with government buy-in to ensure effective collaboration. Another participant picked up the point of counter-narratives, remarking that moderates need to be empowered to have their voices heard in order to be able to counter charismatic mentors with more extreme views.

The panel agreed that substantial support needs to be provided to local communities and grass-root leaders to mobilise popular support. One problem was the lack of organisation of counter-narratives. A clear example is the case of Malala Yousafzai. The week she was shot in Pakistan, there was an outcry against the Pakistan Taliban and the slogan was “we are all Malala”. But jihadists were able to hijack this moment and bend it to their own brand: to the point where she is now persona non-grata in Pakistan and a puppet of the West. In this case, counter-narratives were not effectively or strategically organised. An obviously outsider-devised counter-narrative will not be owned, but more importantly it will not be widely popular; coordination is crucial and it is important that actions do not undermine the counter-narrative. It was pointed out that there a huge number of counter-narratives were being undertaken. Even including the debates in the UK parliament, it should not be considered an outright failure that the vote to ally with the US and support airstrikes failed, it shows that there are lessons learned after Iraq and this is all part of a counter-narrative.

A member of the audience wondered what type of counter-narrative would be able to counter spectacular videos produced by extremists such as suicide notes. The panel responded that counter-narratives cannot compete with suicide videos, but that these videos can be made “less cool”. For example, some aspiring Al Shabaab fighters became disillusioned when trying to join the group in Syria and made a video about their experience.

One panellist then referenced Hezbollah and their clear branding failure. Before Syria, Hezbollah were championed as freedom fighters fighting the Israeli Goliath. Now, however, the group is obviously aligned with the Iranian Shiite movement and this has hindered their brand enormously. One panellist argued that it is opportunities like this that should be exploited. However, the proviso is that promoting sectarianism should be actively avoided, which is a difficult task.

Returning to the floor, a participant asked whether legal measures are an actual deterrent to stop people travelling. The panel responded that legal measures are probably not effective deterrents and that the problem of identifying and prosecuting people is also extremely complex.

A panellist highlighted the difference between foreign-trained fighters and foreign fighters and pointed out that those in the former category have undertaken more attacks in Europe than the latter. This is a key point for policymakers to remember and should contribute to any policies undertaken. Secondly, the panellist bemoaned the dearth of empirical evidence on foreign fighters that is unavailable to practitioners and academics, and urged governments to share this information with trusted experts in order to contribute to informed discussions and choices.

For another panellist, two key points related to counter-narratives dominated the afternoon’s agenda. The speaker was certainly in favour of utilising counter-narratives to deal with the problem of foreign fighters but cautioned that, in order to have a chance of success, it is important to know the audience, and select the right message and medium. A counter-narrative should be carefully crafted. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he warned that in terms of communication, the media, policymakers and other stakeholders are still focussing too much on terrorism. He reminded the room that a terrorist’s goal is to terrorise and by continuing to give them enormous amounts of attention, terrorists are succeeding in their goal with very little effort.

It was emphasised that the local, front line approach as well as government buy-in was crucial. The panellist underlined the important combination of coordinated efforts. While complex to undertake, policy should be tailor-made for everyone who travels and everyone who returns.

The final remarks by one speaker concerned advice to western governments to hasten the fall of Assad in a legal, responsible way. While perhaps a radical view, this has achieved positive results in the past if one takes the Kosovo or Libyan examples. In terms of public opinion, both populations were generally grateful for interventions toppling ruthless dictators. In this respect, the longer  Assad remains in charge and the more harm that is inflicted, the more resentment grows against those who did nothing. Secondly, it is important to continually and tirelessly promote the democratic option and support those who support liberal democracy. Support for a genuine liberal and democratic way is required, and this needs to be supported and cultivated.