The Tidal Wave of Foreign Fighters in Syria: Situational Awareness for Counter-Terrorism Practitioners

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With the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) 8th Annual International Conference fast approaching, STR, partnered with the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies (CTSS), is launching a series of guest blog posts, written by those who will be presenting their research at STR14. In the fourth installment of this series Mubin Shaikh, a national security consultant and PhD Student with the University of Liverpool Tactical Decision Making Research Group, outlines the growing issues of foreign fighters in Syria, the embedded role of Social Media within this conflict and the implications of this for future domestic counter terrorism.

 Three years on, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, it seems that the Syrian conflict is without end. Add to this the developments in Iraq since the 2003 invasion by the U.S., internal and sectarian dynamics, proxy war patrons in the region and what has filtered over from Syria – it is here we find our foreign fighters in question.  The migration of citizens of Muslim background (born or converted) coming from Western and European states to an active war zone in which brutally extremist groups are operating and training these fighters, creates a nightmare scenario for national security intelligence organizations who do not have the resources to keep track of even most of them.  It raises a serious concern as to what they intend to do if and when they return and it is on this the basis, that I frame my comments.

Having lived in Syria for 2 years (2002-2004) to study Arabic and Islamic Studies after a period of my own journey through extremism, the war has affected my greatly.  My mind is full of gruesome images, of videos of depraved indifference to human life committed by the Syrian Regime, its proxies but also, sociopathic (I use this word deliberately) Takfiri’s from the group called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).  For sake of brevity, I shall not comment on semantic discussions regarding “ISIL” and will most certainly not feed their delusions of grandeur by using “IS” (Islamic State).  The point here, is that many of these images and videos posted come from Westerners who are either in Syria or in Western lands championing the cause of their cohorts.

My presentation at the Society for Terrorism Research (STR) 8th Annual International Conference at the University of Massachusetts Boston will cover what I have been doing in terms of engaging, debating, arguing and trolling these fighters, complete with screengrabs of various types of conversations between other foreign fighters with other groups (Jabhat Nusrah) as well as with myself.  It will briefly cover everything from what kind of food they like to eat, what the routes of travel are, what the women are saying up to and including what their grand plans of return might be.

My overarching point is that we must not underestimate (or overestimate) the threat they pose.  What is clear is that in order to perform a proper risk assessment, it will be necessary to understand the extremist ideology we are dealing with, one which I am intimately familiar with due to my own former life as a Jihadi-Salafi. It is a belief where attacks on civilians is not only justified but a source of religious righteousness.  Also, we are dealing with individuals who have been relative nobodies back home but suddenly finding themselves with a hero status in the extremist milieu.  These are not professional soldiers and will not simply return to a mundane life, flipping burgers or otherwise, serving under “Kuffar” bosses (Kuffar being a dehumanizing term used for any and all non-Muslims including those they deem not Muslim enough).  Another problem is that their motivations have been taken at face value and there is a danger of analysts and journalists becoming vehicles for the extremely sophisticated propaganda that ISIS is producing.

Amidst their Tweets related to their stated motivations and intentions, there is the necessity of professionals to be mindful of various psychological biases the individuals are affected by and not just the propaganda factor.  As just one among many examples of this, they gleefully boasted about attacking the U.S. and the U.K. in response to any military intervention upon them and have mocked maimed veterans by including them in one of their hashtag campaigns (one of many), “#CalamityWillBefallUS.”  We have also seen U.K. fighters openly posting pictures of homemade bombs in Syria, taunting the West with their newfound skills as well as some seeking “permission” from ISIS leader Baghdadi to retaliate in the U.K. against anti-Muslim violence.  While most of them are just joining the proverbial caravan, it is very likely that a small number will act within this frenzied environment for status purposes.  It is a situation we must be acutely aware of if we are serious about dealing with this threat.  The STR conference is going to be very important in this regard by informing the academic and practitioner community about what these extremists want and how internal dynamics within the groups can be exploited to mitigate the threat.  This is not a conference to be missed.

Mubin will be presenting his paper “Twitihad: Engaging Syria-linked extremists on Twitter – Tales from the Trenches” during one of the many panels dedicated to discussing current trends at the Society for Terrorism Research Conference on Communication and Collaboration for Counter-Terrorism, September 17-19th, in Boston, MA.

A list of all the talks we have at the STR conference is now available via our preliminary program

If you are also presenting at STR14 and would like the opportunity to write a blog post for this series please contact strconference@uml.edu

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