The foreign fighters crisis

It's no secret the number of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq has reached crisis levels. In fact, the newest numbers indicate there are over 12,000 foreigners in Syria who have joined alongside Islamic extremist groups. The danger these individuals pose from a Western perspective is that many of them are from the West — up to 3,000 are Westerners of which close to 100 are thought to be American. They have Western passports, which makes their travel to and from Western countries much easier. The fears of several top-level government officials is that foreign fighters will either be instructed to wage attacks against their homelands in the West upon their return, or they will simply carry out attacks as lone wolves using the skills and training they gained in combat.

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated about the foreign fighter crisis in a recent interview, "In some ways, it's more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general." Holder even delivered a speech in Norway at the beginning of July outlining a unified four-point strategy involving polices European nations and the United States can implement in order to mitigate threats posed by foreign fighters returning home to potentially wage attacks against their governments.

Before nations begin to potentially alienate large communities within their constituencies with draconian counterterror and law enforcement methods, there are data and testimony that suggests many foreign fighters do not want to return to their home countries as they have found a purpose in jihad. According to TIME magazine, "many fighters say they have no intention of returning home. They have found what they were looking for in al-Baghdadi's Islamic state. Some burn their passports in a show of allegiance." TIME quoted one British fighter who is currently in Syria as saying, "This idea of us wanting go back and plot terror attacks in our home countries, I think it's absolute rubbish. ... All of the people I am speaking to on the ground have no intention of going back at all. We are having a good life here."

Furthermore, interviews of foreign fighters published in a report by West Pont's Combating Terrorism Center's "CTC Sentinel" point to a similar sentiment. "The foreign fighters have no plans to return home once the Syrian conflict concludes. They have come to Syria expecting to die as martyrs for Islam," asserted the authors of the report. According to an anonymous 24-year-old French foreign fighter in Syria, "Going back. That's impossible! How could I leave such a glorious life and return to the animalistic one? Never!"

While this testimony only represents a small fraction of the 12,000 foreign fighters, it should not be discounted. Western governments should be wary about enacting policies that will incite further furor against them. Richard Barrett, of Soufoun Group, stated in TIME, "You can't stop people from going, and you can't stop them from coming back, so you need to help them reintegrate. ... If you treat them all as potential terrorists, they are more likely to become one," indicating governments should work not to alienate these individuals, but reintegrate them if they do not pose a threat. Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence agrees, and stated that he opposes the strategy of the British government of stripping the passports of the returnees without assessing the threat they may pose to the government, if any. Maher continued to relate the current situation in Syria to fighters who left Afghanistan following the defeat of the Soviet Union, who were then sent to prisons by their governments, which forced them to become stateless. This notion, Maher asserted, provides such individuals with a cause against their governments as they have now become disenfranchised and are now forced to spend more time with their fellow disenfranchised former fighters.

Going forward, Western governments must be wary to not provide foreign fighters, or others, with more cause than they may already have to wage attacks against their governments. Reports of suspect counterterrorism practices the FBI has used, such as sting operations to entrap targeted ethnic groups into becoming "terrorists" and breaking trust with informants, can be a slippery slope that may radicalize others. Furthermore, stringent and sweeping spying authority should be used with the utmost care in rooting out terrorism while not disenfranchising innocent citizens or those deemed to not pose a threat. The foreign fighter crisis is real considering the possibility of undetectable bombs that could be detonated by fighters on airplanes returning home. Moreover, interviews with foreign fighters indicate that they will continue jihad after the Syria conflict concludes, which indicates they are drawn to the idea of a unified cause and feel disaffected by their home governments. Western governments must not overplay this issue as to drive more to terrorism.

Pomerleau is a freelance journalist based in Washington covering politics and policy.