Day by day, the Syrian Civil War is attracting foreign fighters, particularly from Europe. While there is no clear evidence of such individuals being sent back to carry out terrorist acts, historically similar jihadist battlefields have produced terrorist threats of one form or another.
The ongoing intractable civil war in Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters of every stripe. Unlike previous jihadist battlefields that have drawn foreigners in, however, this has not so far produced a terrorist threat back in the West. This is not same regionally. Across the border in Jordan, a terrorist network with connections to the battlefield has been disrupted, while in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, bombs have gone off with return addresses in Syria. The question now preoccupying European policymakers in particular is whether the pipeline of European nationals going to fight on the battlefield in Syria may eventually transform into a similar set of incidents in Europe.
The first thing to understand is how we have seen terrorist threats emanate from battlefields in the past. Historically speaking, jihadi battlefields have produced three types of terrorist threats (with an unknown number choosing to come back return to ordinary lives): directed plots by individuals sent back with instruction; terrorist plots conducted by individuals who decide to carry out attacks without direction; and networks of individuals that provide support and infrastructure for other terrorist plots.
The archetypal example of this is Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, the pair of young men at the core of the 7 July 2005 attack on London's transport system. Khan in particular was a regular to fighting and training abroad, and made at least three known trips to join with extremist groups with whom he conducted some sort of training, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Initially drawn to the battlefield by mythology around Kashmir, he seems to have quickly moved into preferring the Afghan struggle and ultimately believing that he was going to fight and die in Afghanistan. Once there on what he thought would be his final trip in 2004, he was instead re-directed by Al-Qa'ida to return to the UK to launch his infamous terrorist attack.
The clear lesson in foreign fighter terms here was that Khan was drawn initially to the battlefield to fight there, and was then persuaded by groups there to launch an attack back home. The driver of this seems to have largely been the eagerness of the group on the ground, Al-Qa'ida, to strike the West. The arrival of British passport holders seeking to support the cause was a gift to the group that they were able to transform into a tool to conduct a successful operation. The 7 July cell may have been the only ones to have succeeded, but a number of other plots have been detected that bear similar hallmarks.
Security officials on both sides of the Atlantic have spoken of concern about the growth of lone wolf or small cell terror plots. Usually involving single individuals or tight-knit units of individuals who demonstrate no direction from either Al-Qa'ida or one of its affiliates, expressions of this threat can be found in recent incidents in Boston, Paris, Toulouse, and Woolwich.
In some of these cases, a trace connection can be found to a known terrorist organisation, though there is little evidence of any direction in the choice of targets or other operational specifics. The foreign fighters phenomenon has some linkeage here: in both the Toulouse and Woolwich cases, for example, there is evidence that the individuals involved sought to make connections with radical groups abroad. Specifically, in Toulouse, Mohammed Merah went to Pakistan, trained with Al-Qa'ida linked groups and was then apparently sent back with some loose direction. However, his subsequent attack against off-duty French soldiers and then against Jewish school children seems to have been carried outlargely under his own steam.
Almost five years before Merah committed his bloody acts, a similar dynamic played out in the UK when Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed first left a pair of car bombs in central London before launching an attempted suicide attack on Glasgow's international airport. Ahmed died during the attempt in Scotland, but Bilal Abdulla was arrested and convicted, with his case uncovering a link between him and Al-Qa'ida's Iraqi affiliate, with whom it is believed he had undertaken some training. Seemingly undirected by the group, Abdulla seems to have taken it upon himself to punish the UK for its involvement in the war that tore his country apart.
In some ways it is the networks that foreign battlefields create that are of the greatest longer-term concern. The danger is not that individuals who are drawn to foreign battlefields may actually come back and launch anti-Western attacks, rather, they might instead provide support networks for individuals who have been tasked to launch attacks or help radicalise others.
With experience and contacts from the battlefield, they present the potential for providing soft support for networks intending to launch attacks as well as becoming potential radicalisers who persuade others of the salience of the global jihadi narrative, using their own personal experience as an example. In most terrorist plots that have been uncovered in the West, links to such radicalisers can be found - either in terms of loud public preachers such asAbu Hamza or more locally radicalising figures who do not appear on the public radar but feature in the background of security investigations.
This last group is deeply intangible, but in many ways can present itself as the most dangerous long-term menace, providing a natural incubator for global jihadist ideas in the West. Those going abroad to fight may have no intention to come back and launch attacks, but through connections they might find themselves drawn into supporting others and invariably through transmission of their experience will act as radicalising agents. Groups eager to launch attacks against the West continue to exist abroad, and it is perfectly possible that they will use these networks and communities to eventually try to direct other attacks.
New Ungoverned Spaces Presents Long-Term Problem
At this point the flow of Europeans going to Syria to fight has not produced any threats back home, though there have been a number of related arrests across the continent. In the UK a group is facing trial later in the year in connection to the kidnapping of a pair of European journalists in July 2012. A cell in Belgium appears to have been overheard talking about attacking the Palais de Justice in Brussels, but it is unclear that this had moved anything beyond the discussion phase.
Other networks can be found across Europe, and as security agencies focus on them, it is likely that other echoes will be heard. The bigger problem, however, is the situation in Syria where an inability to topple the regime and an incoherent opposition means that we are slowly seeing a Balkanisation of the country with radical groups taking hold of pieces of territory and are creating parallel governance structures. This presents the danger of new safe havens allowing groups to train and plot. This is all the more menacing when one considers the heavy presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS, the latest incarnation of Al-Qa'ida's Iraqi affiliate) on the field, as well as other Salafi-jihadi groups. Atop this, there are the reports of growing numbers of foreigners from across the Muslim world some of whom are connected to other Al-Qa'ida affiliates being drawn to Syria. Networks linking these spaces and groups to the West are of clear concern and rightly alarm security services.
Syria's slow slide into chaos and civil war is tearing at the fabric of the Muslim world. The already tense Sunni-Shia divide now has a battlefield in which to brutally play itself out and has already provided overspill into neighbouring countries. The West remains divided over what to do, and age-old rivalries are playing themselves out in the UN Security Council. European foreign fighters provide a direct link between Europe and a battlefield that is developing in so many different directions that it is difficult to know what the repercussions in the longer-term will be. What does seem clear though is that the community of foreign fighters is likely to prolong the incubation of extreme and violent Islamist ideas in Europe for the foreseeable future.
RUSI is currently undertaking a research project looking at the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Europe and how this can express itself as a terrorist threat back home.
Senior Associate Fellow