Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, foreign jihadists from across the globe have travelled to Syria to fight the Assad regime. According to a report by the 9/11 commission, the civil war in Syria has attracted around 10,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 countries. A growing number of these foreign fighter contingents have also returned to Iraq determined to reignite sectarian tension in the region. While the majority of non-Syrian fighters are Middle Eastern, the influx of European, American, and Canadian born fighters is significant. A study done by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London on the number of foreign fighters in Syria found that 18% are from the West. Britons make up one of the biggest groups of Western fighters with Danes, Italians, and French not far behind.
The news that American Douglas McCain was killed while fighting in Syria also indicates that there are Americans currently in Syria fighting against the Assad regime. In February this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the US Congress that more than 50 Americans are thought to be fighting in Syria. Canada has also seen a rise in homegrown jihadists going overseas to fight. According to a report done by the Public Safety Canada, an estimated 130 Canadians have joined overseas conflicts, many of them gravitating toward Syria and Iraq to wage jihad. The influx of overseas jihadists is unprecedented. The figures exceed the number of foreign jihadists involved in Afghanistan during its decade of war and its subsequent violent aftermath. Unlike in Afghanistan, many are travelling overseas not to just train or provide financial logistical support, but to also participate in the conflict directly.
There are many reasons why so many individuals have traveled to Iraq and Syria to wage jihad. Many have been drawn in by predictions in a version of Islamic ideology that the apocalypse will take place in Greater Syria. Such narrative has been inflamed by stories of atrocities against Sunni Muslims alleged to be committed by the Alawite Assad regime.
Accessibility is also a factor. In contrast to other jihadi theaters such as in Afghanistan, Mali, and Somalia, Iraq and Syria are much more logistically accessible. Europol reports that many foreign jihadists have traveled through Turkey, a common vacation destination, which arouses no or limited suspicion. Most of the foreign jihadists have been assimilated to ISIL, also referred to as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), but not exclusively. Some have joined other salafi-jihadi rebel groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.
These groups were founded by individuals who at one time were senior members of al-Qaida. They tend to be more inclusive, highly organized, and much better financed than their more moderate counterparts such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The foreign fighters are not only getting indoctrinated ideologically, but are also given training on operational tactics. Many are instructed in using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), car bombs, and suicide attacks.
From a threat perspective, foreign jihadi involvement in both Iraq and Syria could impact the global terrorism risk landscape in multiple ways. First, the returning jihadis potentially could revitalize their cause in their homeland and act as a conduit reconnecting local groups to the global jihad. Second and more importantly, there is also a risk that some of these veterans may attempt a terrorist attacks back in their homeland. While the majority of jihadist foreign fighters do not end up attacking their home countries, a small number do and they often prove more capable and proficient than those without any fighting experience.
Given the stronger counter terrorism environment in the West, such attacks will more likely fall under the category of lone wolf terrorism attacks. These are individuals who work alone or in very small groups and do not seek any type of external assistance to execute their operation thus making it difficult for the authorities to gather enough intelligence to thwart any potential attack. Returning jihadists with proficiency in the local language and the ability to understand Western society can execute and plan their terrorism plot without raising much suspicion. While these homegrown lone wolf plots are much harder to detect and stop, their attacks tend to be limited to smaller attack types.
Current counter-terrorism practitioners assert that ISIS and its foreign contingent are interested in attacking western cities but question whether they have the ability to orchestrate a large-scale attack such a car bomb in cities such as in Toronto or London given the strong counter terrorism environment in these cities. Thus, it appears lone wolf attacks such as assassinations, beheadings, and kidnappings are the more likely scenarios. Despite these changes in the global terrorism landscape, RMS continues to recommend clients to use the standard risk outlook for its suite of probabilistic terrorism models.