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The Threat of Terrorism from Westerners Returned from Fighting in Syria and Iraq

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On January 12, Daniel Byman, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy and Jeremy Shapiro, fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe launched their new policy paper Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq.

Following a brief presentation of their findings, Shapiro and Byman were joined by Daniel Benjamin, nonresident senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and former ambassador-at-large as coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. The discussion was moderated by Will McCants, fellow and director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings.

Be Afraid.

Byman began by describing several features of the conflict in Syria and Iraq that make it unique from previous foreign fighter experiences, such as the large number of Western fighters, social media facilitation, and the exceptionally radical ideology and behavior of ISIS. Benjamin and McCants discussed how the threat of terrorism from returned fighters has evolved, and why the use of assault weapons in the recent Paris attacks marks a worrisome change of tactics. They said we will see an increase in this type of attack from returned fighters who are skilled in the use of these weapons and can acquire them undetected with relative ease in Europe and the United States, unlike bomb-making materials.

Benjamin described the context of the West’s foreign fighter threat as a perfect storm— the galvanizing effect of Islamic extremism, growing support for anti-Muslim politics, and an economic downturn that creates xenophobia all contribute to the problem, he said.  Shapiro noted that terrorism is a small numbers phenomenon and that some few individuals, particularly young men, will always heed the call of violence. Governments and even communities cannot reach everyone, no matter how powerful their message. Benjamin disagreed and warned against overlooking what he called the “bedrock” issues.

Byman and Shapiro agreed that returned fighter attacks in the West are nearly inevitable, and encouraged the public have realistic expectations about this possibility. Shapiro noted that like crime or drugs, terrorism can be controlled but not eliminated.

Authors

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Elizabeth Pearce

Senior Project Manager - Foreign Policy and Institutional Initiatives

Be A Little Afraid.

The panelists were in broad agreement that the threat of terrorism in the West from returned fighters, while serious, has been overstated. Byman said that there are many opportunities for wannabe jihadis  to travel to Syria but far fewer to return and commit domestic terrorism— many die in battle while others are arrested upon return. Byman and Benjamin commended the skill of the security and intelligence services in disrupting returning foreign fighter plots, and recognized dramatic homeland security improvements since 9/11.

Byman told the audience that the threat of terrorism is far greater to Middle Eastern countries that will suffer most from the long-term effects of the situation in Syria.

Be Prepared.

The panel discussed policy options that address the foreign fighter threat in all phases. To avert an individual’s decision to join a terrorist group, Shapiro suggested governments develop a way for concerned citizens to peacefully contribute to alleviating the effects of the crisis in Syria. To interrupt the flow of foreign fighters, both Byman and Shapiro urged security cooperation and intelligence sharing between the United States, European nations, and with Turkey in particular.

To deal with returned foreign fighters and intervene in the plotting phase of a homeland attack, Byman and Shapiro were resolute that security services implement a triage process that directs already overextended resources toward the individuals they determine are most dangerous. Individuals should be assessed for their ability to reintegrate rather than be subject to inflexible incarceration policies; alienation or excessive imprisonment risks causing the very radicalization and violence they are seeking to prevent. However, Shapiro said that the price of failure of this kind of policy is high and acts as a strong deterrent for politicians. It is much easier and less politically risky to arrest than to reintegrate.

Benjamin recommended resources also be devoted to “the long, hard work” of countering violent extremism at home through job creation, integration, and other measures.

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