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There have been renewed warnings of young Britons going to Syria and coming back as a potential threat to the UK itself. It is however, to critically assess this concern and recognise the potential threat from returning Jihadis.
By Jonathan Githens-Mazer
Recent reports on ‘Returning Jihadis’ seem to suggest that a threat is imminent and dramatic. What do we really know about the threat of blowback of Returning Jihadis from latest crises in Iraq and Syria. What does it mean to say that they have been ‘radicalised’ while fighting abroad? And if someone has fought under a black ISIS flag in Iraq or Syria – will they ever be ‘safe’ to return to British society?
The recent video of three young Britons (amongst others) urging fellow Muslims to come from the UK to fight with groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq has brought this threat to fore of media reporting. But, how should we understand the actual nature of the Returning Jihadi threat? In previous research which I conducted as part of a 3 year Economic and Social Research Council funded project, I found evidence for four ideal types of Returning Jihadi.
1. Never Again’
There are those who go abroad, inspired by what they perceive as their Islamic duty to protect Muslims from aggression, and to defend Muslim lands. While participating in this violence, they realise that violence is horrific, or that the conflict they fought in is so unique as not to be relevant again. For this set of individuals, return from violent Jihad often leads to increased ‘quietist’ observance of Islam at home, maintaining a high degree of faith and observance without ever feeling compelled to participate in violence again. Some of these individuals may even return with their faith deeply shaken, and take a step back from religious observance.
For others in this category, participation in violence is marked with little regret, and some pride. Despite this, they clearly divide these ‘foreign’ experiences from their life at home. They see participation in foreign conflict in the name of Islam as an inherently personal issue, devoid of transnational Jihadi ideals or glamour.
Yet others deeply and profoundly regret their violent actions. From this category some may even suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and/or substance abuse in the wake of their experiences. In fact, one of the main issues in the Returning Jihadi community is the difficulty in treatment of emotional distress in the wake of their activities – which can have dramatic knock-on consequences for families and communities.
2. ‘Active Dissuaders’
In a manner quite similar to this first category, some Returning Jihadis come back marked from their experience feeling like it is their moral duty to dissuade other Muslims from going to fight violent Jihad,. They make these arguments to both young and old within the context of their faith (i.e., in religious language) and using examples from their own experiences.
In past iterations of the British Government’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy (CONTEST), these were some of the bravest and most effective volunteers to help advise and even participate in the Prevent and Channel projects aimed at dissuading young people from engaging in violence in the name of Islam either in the UK or abroad. 
3. ‘Suffered from Dysentery’
Foreign Fighters often face a dramatic ‘reality check’ when they arrive in a conflict zone. Often distrusted, considered inept and/or material for cannon fodder, and bristling at the prospect of the mundane nature of guerrilla training, young men who arrive full of romantic ideals of what it means to be a Jihadi Warrior are confronted by the realities of guerrilla warfare.
This category of Returning Jihadi is full of bravado about what they did while away, but many crumble at the first hurdle of long days of intense religious study and practice, homesickness, and often reports of severe dysentery and hardship before they are considered worthy of basic training of how to breakdown and use an AK-47. This category are also occasionally referred to as ‘Jihadi Tourists’.
This category represents a real danger for communities, as they often perpetuate romantic ideals of ‘glorious Jihad’ on their return home, and serve to deceive others of the harsh and ignominious realities of guerrilla life. Historically, some from this category become the key conduits for Foreign Fighter networks, and even in some cases, have actively organised and encouraged domestic terrorist acts in the name of Islam.
4. ‘Transnational Global Jihadis’
This last category is the most familiar, and historically the rarest. These are individuals who feel totally ideologically committed to violence in the name of Islam at home and abroad, and who see little difference in the use of such violence in near or far wars. These tend to be the most serious operators, those who seek to hide their activities not out of a lack of pride or belief, but a tactical realisation that clandestine activity has the greatest potential to succeed. Many of this category will never return to their country of origin – instead taking on infamous nommes de guerre, and actively engaging in violence in the name of Islam across a variety of cases.
Putting exact numbers or percentages to each of these ideal types is a Herculean task because it is impossible to fully define the scale of any current problem. It is virtually impossible to know how many Britons (let alone exactly which ones) have crossed over the border from Turkey into Syria to fight with groups like ISIS and Jabat Al-Nusrah.
Putting the threat into context, however, is a useful exercise. The fact that there is a real increase in the statistically likelihood of terrorist incident associated with the Returning Jihadi phenomenon does not mean that a) all Returning Jihadis are potential terrorists or b) that the form of terrorist violence is likely to take predictable forms.
Scholars like Thomas Hegghammer have already pointed out the fact that participation in foreign jihad does not automatically equate to terrorist activity at home. Part of the explanation for this has to be that not only do not all Foreign Fighters start with the same motivation, but not all Returning Jihadis return with the same set of outlooks and experiences.
Jonathan Githens-Mazer is a Professor at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. He is also Director of Doctoral Studies and Deputy Director of Research at Exeter University’s Strategy and Security Institute.
The views expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.