Hard Power and ISIS Foreign Recruitment
Foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) are an urgent global security problem, and a long-term strategic threat. They strengthen the ranks of Islamic jihadists abroad, and survivor returnees present a significant blowback danger in their states of origin. Other survivors spread jihad elsewhere in the world, or become resources for international criminal networks.
The United Nations (UN) defines FTFs as those who leave their state of origin to ‘perpetrate, plan, prepare or participate in terrorist acts, or provide or receive terrorist training’. Recruits are overwhelmingly Muslim, young (15-35) and male. Today there are over 100 source states, and the number of FTFs has grown from a few thousand ten years ago to nearly 30,000 today in Syria alone. The Islamic State (ISIS) is a particular problem, since about 80 percent of FTFs join ISIS and they now make up about half of the ISIS fighting force.
Western countries are mostly concerned about the FTF returnee threat. One study found that returnee terrorist plots were twice as likely to kill, and other studies have shown “…that when FTFs are involved, the terrorist attacks are larger and more dangerous…”. Blowback has already occurred in Egypt, the United States, Britain, and other parts of Europe, and all eleven countries in a 2014 study of the foreign fighter phenomenon had already adopted punitive measures to deal with returnees.
Soft Power Response. Soft power response to FTF recruitment falls under the rubric of ‘countering violent extremism’ (CVE), a new policy paradigm. “(U)unlike counterterrorism approaches that rely on broad security legislation or heavily-militarized responses,…(CVE) focuses on prevention by trying to alleviate underlying causes of injustice—endemic poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, and political marginalization—with the goal of building more conflict-resilient communities.” CVE includes such elements as arts and culture programs, interfaith dialogue, and gender focusing.
In February the US State Department unveiled a 9-element CVE initiative, funded at $188 million, that at least includes two more promising elements: counter-narratives, and what was called in Afghanistan ‘Mullah outreach’. At a practical level, UN FTF recommendations focus on criminal legislation, border controls, data sharing, recruiter sanctions, prevention policy, returnee screening, Internet and social media engagement, travel and financial companies, financial transfers, currency transfers through private voluntary organizations, and capacity building.
Hard Power Response. Hard power responses, focused on law enforcement and military action, include everything from interdiction and criminal prosecution to signals intelligence and drone strikes. Given the nature and scale of the problem, and the relative lack of success so far in countering it, greater emphasis on three hard power elements should be considered as the FTF strategy evolves: aggressively neutralizing FTFs as high value targets (HVTs), promoting greater resentment against FTFs in the war zone, and establishing hard ‘no return’ and prosecution policies.
High Value Targeting. FTFs self-aggregate in the war zone, which makes them easier to target and neutralize. About 75 percent of FTFs in Syria, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Europeans and Chinese, travel together with others. Because of their disproportionate impact, brutal and battle-hardened jihadis like the Bosnians and Chechens—and specialist FTFs like US and European computer and social media experts—should be elevated to the ranks of high value targets (HVTs) and more aggressively pursued. Successfully targeting FTFs not only takes them off the battlefield, and obviates the future carnage they would create, but it also sends a sharp message to potential recruits. The recent killing of British ISIS recruiter Junaid Hussain is a case in point, reportedly causing a significant slowdown in social media recruitment.
A kinetic HVT response to FTFs is especially critical because of time-sensitivity. As the UN pointed out earlier this year, the current aggregation of FTFs in the Syrian-Iranian battlespace may not last forever, since an unintended consequence of defeating ISIS could be to scatter graduates of the jihadi “finishing school” throughout the world. The concern over atomization of FTFs has been overtaken by events, however, with ISIS cells already spreading like cancer to Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
Sowing Discord. FTFs are creating major discord in enemy camps and cities. Anti-ISIS organizations in Syria and Iraq report that preferential treatment of FTFs is a major cause of infighting among ISIS extremists, as power, salaries, housing, cash, sex slaves and other spoils of war are divvied up. Some point to defector complaints that FTF privileges are un-Islamic, while others point to the resentment of locals in Raqqa and Mosul where FTFs frequent Internet cafes or live at five-star hotels. This happy if unintended phenomenon has all of the benefits of the traditional Chinese stratagem of creatting discord within the enemy camp. A strategic communications campaign designed to aggravate local resentment against FTFs could both increase blue on green attacks, and undercut recruiter messaging about ‘five-star jihad’.
‘No Return’ Policy. A ‘no return’ policy—deporting and/or stripping returnees of citizenship—already exists to a limited degree in the US, Britain and the Netherlands. The policy has two major advantages: it rids the source country of future terrorist threats from would-be returnees, and it can dampen recruitment.
First, the international emphasis on preventing FTF recruitment ignores the fact that recruitment rids source states of their most virulent Muslim fanatics. Every potential FTF dissuaded from joining up is more likely than the general population to conduct acts of terrorism at home, or to spread radical Islamic dogma, radicalize or recruit others, generate social media content, raise funds, or provide training, logistical or courier support to the jihad. This risk will only grow as prevention increases. US Assistant Attorney General John Carlin recently noted in this respect that as the number of dissuaded recruits grows, ISIS “…will issue direction for them to attempt attacks…at home”.
Conversely, prohibiting survivors from returning home reduces the level of domestic terror that surviving FTFs would have caused had they been allowed to return. This includes ISIS defectors. ICSR, which studied 58 defectors in detail, found that “not every defector is a saint, and…many still hold jihadi ideals.” The fact that three of the four major categories of defector complaint in their study were that ISIS wasn’t pure enough underscores the likelihood that defectors are also very high risk for committing future domestic terrorist acts.
The second advantage of ‘no return’ is that it can dampen recruitment, since most young recruits plan to return home after waging jihad. As a Finnish fighter of Somali descent said, “Here, you go for fighting and afterwards you come back to your family.” Most FTF ISIS defectors are also “…desperate to see their families, and typically return to the towns and villages where they grew up and first joined the jihadist movement”. Ominously, there now appears to be a ‘network effect’ where ‘friends and family bring along other friends and family’ to the jihad, something that can be reversed if hard ‘no return’ and aggressive prosecution policies are put in place.
Since the narratives of ISIS defectors can be valuable, and rehabilitation may sustainably work in some cases, an exception to ‘no return’ could be carved out for those rare few who become disillusioned with Islamic jihad, survive, and return committed to demonstrably helping counter Islamic fanaticism. The rest should be prosecuted aggressively.
Upshot. While the CVE community contemplates arts programs and community resilience, much greater hard power action is needed to fix the foreign fighter problem. Given the exploding numbers and lack of success so far, a revised FTF strategy should include greater emphasis on three hard power elements: aggressively neutralizing FTFs as high value targets, fomenting resentment against foreign fighters in the field, and aggressively executing ‘no return’ and returnee prosecution policies.