By Nabil Bhatia
A 2018 UN report suggests that up to 30,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, including a “significant component of…active foreign fighters.” While it is unclear where exactly foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) will travel following the complete liberation of ISIS-controlled territory, in analyzing this issue, many Western academics, counter-terrorism practitioners, and politicians have focused disproportionately on the threat of ‘Western foreign fighters’ returning to wreak havoc in countries like Canada and the US. While some Western returnees are likely dangerous, relatively few return. Most FTFs fleeing Iraq and Syria will likely travel to non-Western states, where weaker security structures will allow them to more easily consolidate power. Jihad is a global phenomenon, and newly-formed or strengthening terrorist groups abroad pose a much more significant threat to Western and international security in the long term than returning Western fighters.
FTFs have many incentives to flee to non-Western countries. Most FTFs in ISIS-controlled territory originated from non-Western countries, and these states’ proximity to Iraq and Syria — and their weaker border security practices —increase the likelihood that fleeing FTFs will return or relocate there. Additionally, weaker domestic security and intelligence services in the non-West, combined with domestic conflicts — which are more prevalent in non-Western states — provide FTFs with more opportunities to utilize their combat experience and weapons training and make sizable gains against weaker governments. This occurred in Libya in 2011, when opportunistic jihadist veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Syria led relatively inexperienced rebels in the seizure of major cities in the anti-Gaddafi revolt.
Conflict conditions and a jihadist presence in many non-Western regions around the world have also served as fertile ground for the emergence of ISIS affiliates, making these regions attractive destinations for FTFs who wish to continue the jihad after Iraq and Syria. ISIS has diverted assets and fighters to regional affiliates in Afghanistan and Libya, and some analysts suggest that the same will occur in the Sinai Peninsula. ISIS also appears to be eyeing Southeast Asia as a destination for jihadist operations, naming the region a wilayat (province) in July 2018. In the Philippines, FTFs from eight countries made up approximately 10% of ISIS-affiliated fighters involved in the 2017 battle in Marawi. FTF flows to the Philippines began when domestic jihadist groups pledged allegiance to ISIS. Among these groups were battalions of the Abu Sayyaf Group, an organization which was itself founded by a Filipino FTF from a previous jihadist conflict.
The consolidation of power and resources in non-Western havens will in turn allow FTFs to mobilize support and recruit domestic fighters and establish transnational terrorist networks, posing a direct threat to Canada and its allies. Having a haven from which to operate is among the most important determinants of terrorist groups’ success, as training camps and safe houses allow groups to solidify their strength and plan and execute transnational operations. Al-Qaeda’s ability to receive refuge in Sudan until 1996, for example, and in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan until 2001, was crucial to the training of its operatives — including 9/11 ringleader, Mohammed Atta — and the success of its transnational operations. Equally compelling is the example of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in Algeria, whose members utilized European networks established during the Soviet-Afghan War to carry out a string of attacks in France in the mid-late 1990s, including eight bombings, the hijacking of Air France flight 8969, and a (foiled) plot to bomb the 1998 World Cup.
Western analysts need not look further than the Islamic State to see that the provision of safe haven can strengthen terrorist groups and extend their transnational reach. Narrow conceptions of ‘Western foreign fighters’ localize the increasingly global phenomenon of jihad and take a solely national security-focused approach to a problem that is also an international security concern. As terrorist operations transition from the local to the global, it only makes sense for academics, analysts, and governments interested in counter-terrorism to do the same.
Nabil Bhatia is a researcher and analyst, specializing in the study of global jihadism, comparative counter-terrorism, radicalization to violence, and (inter)national security. He has written on emerging security issues for the NATO Association of Canada and iAffairs Canada, and his work on transnational crime is scheduled for publication in 2019. You can connect with Nabil at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn.
*Image courtesy of the Associated Press