Yesterday I attended the launch event for a new report published by George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute. (Full disclosure: I am a 2010 Senior Fellow at HSPI.) The report, entitled Foreign Fighters: Trends, Trajectories & Conflict Zones, is co-authored by Frank Cilluffo, Jeffrey Cozzens, and Magnus Ranstorp, and can be downloaded here.
Though it does not contain new information that would surprise those who follow this subject closely, nor would it substantially change their paradigm for understanding the problem, Foreign Fighters does an excellent job at what it is trying to accomplish. As the introduction states: “This paper is not a strict academic treatise designed to provide clear causal arguments…. Instead, it is a primer on an emergent threat, one crafted in such a manner as to provide a basic understanding of the challenges and opportunities at hand — from the perspective of those entrusted with stopping it.” Cilluffo again emphasized during the event itself that the report was not designed as an academic treatise.
The new HSPI report attempts to frame our current knowledge of the problem of foreign fighters, and to lay out a basic paradigm for understanding the problem. It begins by explaining that foreign fighters pose a security challenge to Western states greater than their numbers might suggest:
Foreign fighters have the potential to bolster insurgent or terrorist factions within a given theatre of conflict, both operationally and motivationally. Foreign fighters and bridge figures can boost morale by lending credibility to the notion that all jihadists are fighting for a calling that transcends any specific time and place. Foreign fighters also draw attention (especially from Western media) in ways that indigenous fighters cannot. Thus foreign fighters serve to globalize local conflicts and promote the jihadist narrative.
At the FPRI event on foreign fighters that I attended on Monday, Marc Sageman distinguished between foreign fighters and foreign-trained fighters, arguing that while the latter have taken part in a number of terrorist plots aimed at the West, the former have appeared only rarely in such plots. Although this is a valid distinction (one that HSPI’s report does not recognize in its definition of foreign fighters), it would be a mistake to conclude that therefore the problem of foreign fighters is exaggerated. Often we focus too much on terrorism — meaning that we pay disproportionate attention to that particular tactic rather than the goals and other strategies that the jihadi movement employs. In my opinion, that movement does not understand itself primarily in terms of terrorism. With respect to its militant activities, terrorism is only one of the jihadi movement’s tactics. Thus, if foreign fighters only appear infrequently in plots targeting the West, but frequently migrate from one battlefield to another to advance Islamist causes (both of which are true), the second of these factors can do as much or more to advance the jihadi cause than terrorist attacks. One of the reasons researchers may focus on Western plots is the relative ease of gathering data: the HSPI report notes that “[n]umbers on foreign fighters are hard to come by,” and therefore “most of the more rigorous quantitative accounts of Western foreign fighters only observe them within the context of Western plots.” But it is obviously a mistake to conclude that Western plots are more important just because they are easier for our researchers to measure.
The report emphasizes the systemic complexities of foreign fighters, as well as complexities involved in possible responses to the problem. In conceptualizing al Qaeda’s interlocking components, Foreign Fighters draws on Arquilla and Ronfeldt’s SPIN model, which holds that al Qaeda resembles a “segmented, polycentric, ideologically integrated network.” In discussing the structural components of the foreign fighter network, the report emphasizes training and also (in Paul Cruickshank’s words) “the militant pipeline.” The report highlights the current crudeness of overseas jihadi training, relative to where it stood in before 9/11:
Overseas foreign fighter training courses are now often very basic and serve more as a final phase of indoctrination than as a phase of operation preparation. As Peter Nesser notes in one of the more extensive treatments of European foreign fighter training, today’s “second generation” Western jihadis are not necessarily groomed to become the mujahideen’s “special operators,” as they once were in the 1990’s…. [T]ypical overseas training is sometimes limited to one month in a temporary camp. Foreign fighters are often trained in basic bomb making, with limited knowledge of materials and methods.
The report also mentions more advanced training courses, which can be “enhanced in some instances by the fact that there are training camps inside the UK for pre-selection.” But it isolates actual participation in overseas combat as the best means of gaining experience. Such fighters “gain the most significant experience, skills, and knowledge.”
In addition to structural aspects of the foreign fighter network like training and pipelines, the report provides a paradigm for understanding the impact of individuals. This includes “bridge figures” such as Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdullah al-Faisal, who “are primary actors in the radicalization process and serve as a major catalyst for recruitment”; “jihadist ‘rockstars'” such as Omar Hammami, Eric Breininger, and Cabdulaahi Ahmed Faarax (who is perhaps misplaced in this category); and both foreign fighters and foreign fighter veterans.
Dynamism is emphasized not only for the networks themselves but also Western countries’ responses. After yesterday’s event, I spoke with Cozzens, who told me: “The important thing is looking at the complexity of the system. Pressure in one place creates a bulge, and we can become victims of our own success. We can displace the threat without understanding the consequences of that displacement.” The report delves into “the price of success in the FATA” as one illustration of the point Cozzens makes, warning that “[w]hile Western forces are successfully pressuring ‘core’ hierarchical networks associated with al Qaeda and the FATA, the resultant atomization of these factions due to various hardships creates other challenges.” These include foreign fighters moving to other jihadi conflict zones; would-be foreign fighters perhaps choosing “to strike at home rather than risk travel”; and a greater frequency of attacks emanating from that region that are smaller in scale.
Overall a worthwhile read. While the report doesn’t substantially advance the field of study, it is an excellent building block that is well researched, and provides concepts and paradigms that will be useful for future researchers.
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