Foreign Fighters |
39. Citizens of western countries travelling abroad
to take part in foreign conflicts has been an area of concern
as far back as the 1590s, when Guy Fawkes returned from fighting
with the Spanish in the Eighty Years' War. More recently, British
citizens have participated in the Afghan and Bosnian wars. In
his July 2013 report, David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer
of Terrorism Legislation highlighted the threat posed by British
nationals joining extremist organisations abroad.
The travel of UK nationals overseas to engage
in jihad presents a number of potential threats to the UK, both
while these fighters are overseas and on their return to the UK.
The nature of these threats can differ, depending on the country
in which they are fighting or the terrorist group which is hosting
them, but there are a number of common themes. While overseas,
these fighters can help terrorist groups develop their external
attack capability by providing links with extremist networks in
the UK and information about potential targets and the operating
environment. In addition to English language skills which can
help these groups with media outreach, some foreign fighters may
also have other specialist skills (e.g. scientific, IT) that can
help to strengthen the capability of these groups. The intelligence
services have also seen foreign fighters attempt to direct operations
against UK interests abroad.
40. In September 2013, US Congressman Peter King,
former Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, highlighted
the extent of the current problem and the reason it raised concern
amongst Western security agencies in his evidence to this inquiry.
As recent events have demonstrated, one of the
most significant challenges facing Western states in the fight
against al Qaeda is stemming the flow of foreign fighters who
attempt to fight alongside al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria, Somalia,
Yemen, and other parts of the world. ... The willingness to travel
to terror safe havens and join violent Islamist extremist groups,
even when these attempts are unsuccessful, should be considered
an indicator that these individuals are capable of carrying out
attacks in their home countries, as in the case of the Woolwich
attackers, one of who reportedly attempted to join al Shabaab
in 2010, and in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Some reports suggest
that Tsarnaev's travel to Russia in early 2012 was an attempt
to meet with violent extremists in the Caucuses. Both of these
individuals would return home and subsequently murder innocent
victims in the name of jihad.
These concerns are corroborated by an analysis carried
out by Dr Thomas Hegghammer which found that on average, one in
nine foreign fighters returned home to take part in a domestic
terror plot. He found that plots with foreign fighters are more
likely to reach fruition and twice as likely to have a lethal
impact. He noted that
a one-in-nine radicalisation rate would make
foreign fighter experience one of the strongest predictors of
individual involvement in domestic operations that we know. The
predictive power of other biographic variableswhether nationality,
economic status, or any other biographical trait studied so fardoes
not come close.
41. There is recent evidence of UK citizens having
fought in both Somalia and Yemen as well as a number of nationals
fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
David Anderson QC found that previous travel to the Federally
Administered Tribal Areas for extremist training has been a feature
of a number of terrorist plots in the UK, including four of the
five plots disrupted in 2010-2012.
However, the numbers of foreigners fighting in each of these arenas
has been dwarfed by those that are now travelling to take part
in the Syrian civil war.
42. The uprising in Syria has involved many organisations
with different political views and tactics; some are connected
with and supported by Al Qa'ida. The conflict in Syria has drawn
extremists on both sides; whilst instability across that region
has provided new ungoverned spaces for terrorists to operate in.
Trends in the conflict have reflected both diversification and
profusion of armed groups and improvement in the size and capabilities
of some actors relative to others. Many groups and units who claim
to coordinate under various fronts and coalitions in fact appear
to operate independently and reserve the right to change allegiances.
We took evidence from a broad range of people both inside and
outside of the British Government on the threat from foreign fighters
travelling to Syria.
43. Few, if any, Governments or Non-Governmental
Organisations (NGOs) can accurately and independently verify the
size, equipment, and current areas of operation of terrorist groups
operating in Syria. While there is much good work going on both
inside and outside of Government to understand the conflict dynamics
and the implications for security in Syria, the region and more
widely, we should be cautious in accepting hard numbers without
appropriate evidence. A report by the Congressional Research Service
open source analysis of armed groups operating
in Syria relies largely on the self-reporting of individual groups
and coalitions. Information is not evenly and regularly available
for all groups. Verification is imperfect and is based on independent
analysis of self-reported and third party-reported information.
Social media outlets and news reports can help verify information,
but most analysts consider it to be very difficult to confirm
44. The sheer complexity of the security environment
in Syria should not be underestimated. There are hundreds of active
militia forces, ranging in size from a few dozen to thousands
and organized around a wide variety of local communities, ethnic
and religious identities, and political-religious ideologies.
The size and relative strength of groups have varied and will
continue to vary by location and time.
45. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation
(ICSR) estimates that-from late 2011 to 10 December 2013-between
3,300 and 11,000 individuals have gone to Syria to fight against
the Assad government. Based on the credibility of various sources,
and the think tank's own judgement, they believe the "true"
figure to be above 8,500. A number of examples have been brought
to our attention including:
Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood
to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel
were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning
an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old
Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist
attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint
in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested
in 2012 for gun possession... The one plot that has publicly emerged
in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back
with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear
that they had secured any weapons.
The ICSR estimate that the number of fighters from
Western Europe ranges from 396 to 1,937. Western Europeans now
represent up to 18 per cent of the foreign fighter population
in Syria, with most recruits coming from France (63-412), Britain
(43-366), Germany, (34-240), Belgium (76-296), and the Netherlands
(29-152). Adjusting for population size, the most heavily affected
countries are Belgium (up to 27 foreign fighters per million),
Denmark (15), the Netherlands (9), Sweden (9), Norway (8), and
Estimates of Western European Foreign
Fighters in Syria
UK nationals fighting in Syria
Numbers and the threat posed
46. Syria is an extremely attractive destination
for foreign fighters. It is described as a 'perfect storm' in
regards to foreign fighters as it is
· easily accessible (via either a three-day
drive across Europe and through Turkey to the northern Syria border
or a low-cost flight to Turkey and then a short drive to the border);
· has a sectarian element;
· has a viable narrative in regards to fighting
against a perceived tyrant, widely criticised by Western leaders:
· is close to jihadist conflicts in Iraq
and Lebanon which means that fighters are kept well-supplied.
47. It is not just European foreign fighters who
are travelling to Syria to take part in the war. There are reports
that foreign fighters from North Africa and the Middle East make
up almost 70% of the up to 11,000 fighters which some estimate
to be fighting on behalf of the opposition.
Estimates of Middle Eastern Foreign Fighters
There are also believed to be close to 10,000 foreigners
fighting on behalf of the Government although the majority of
these are thought to have been sent by the regimes in Iran and
48. When we questioned our witnesses about the motivation
of those wishing to travel to Syria to fight the regime, humanitarian
reasons were highlighted as a key motivator
as was the Muslim concept of 'ummah' which was described as
the idea that all Muslims around the world are
united through some kind of fraternity of the faithful and that
Muslims from one part of the world owe duty, allegiance and loyalty
to other Muslims, particularly in times of oppression or injustice.
It was also emphasised that this conflict was viewed
as a fight against a tyrant and therefore the actions of those
fighting him were morally correct. This is a feeling that could
well be reinforced by the attempts made by both the UK and US
Governments to undertake military action against the Assad regime.
Other witnesses ascribed less noble motivations towards those
fighting in Syria with the EU Counter-Terrorism coordinator describing
them as narcissists who wanted their picture taken with a Kalashnikov.
Another witness, Dr Thomas Hegghammer, told us that as well as
those who travelled for humanitarian reasons, some had travelled
primarily with the objective of wanting to build a sharia state
whereas others might have travelled for the kind of social dimension
which we might more readily associate with a gap year student
than a fighter.
[T]he search for camaraderie; the joy and excitement
of adventure; the pleasure of doing something with your life;
making a difference: all that kind of thing.
49. Dr Hegghammer noted there were now more European
foreign fighters in Syria than had fought in all previous conflict
zones combined. This
in itself raised concerns as even if the rate of returning foreign
fighters engaging in domestic terrorism was much less than he
had previously estimated, the large number made it likely that
such a threat was likely.
The threat posed by the British citizens or residents fighting
in Syria was set out by Charles Farr, the Director General of
the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.
Some of those people may pose a threat whenif
I take Syria as an examplethey get to Syria and they may,
from their base in Syria, plot attacks back in the UK. Others
may pose a threat to us when they travel back from Syria themselves
and they plan attacks here, either under the instruction of people
outside this country or at their own initiative. Foreign fighters,
so called, in this particular case British residents or nationals,
pose a threat in a variety of different ways to us.
50. This was elaborated on by Gilles de Kerchove,
who told us that the large number of jihadists travelling to Syria
meant that the foreign fighters will now have had training in
how to use a weapon or to build a bomb and also have contact points
with other jihadists from around the world and even those travelling
for humanitarian reasons were likely to be indoctrinated.
Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the International Centre for the
Study of Radicalisation also highlighted the danger of the indoctrination
of those with humanitarian motivations.
People who may well go into Syria for all the
right reasons, as you say, who are motivated by purely humanitarian
intentions, are not just of course fighting 24 hours a day on
the front lines. They spend a lot of time being indoctrinated
and going to study groups and so on. What we find from the ones
we are talking to is certainly that if they had not embraced what
you might describe as a global jihadist ideology before arriving
in the country, they are certainly beginning to embrace that while
they are out there, so that encompasses a lot of ideas that I
think do make them certainly more dangerous than they would have
51. However, not everyone agreed that foreign fighters
were as much as a threat as might have been suggested. Richard
Barrett told us that some may have returned horrified by what
they saw rather than with the intention of carrying an attack
out on their own country-he suggested that a qualitative assessment
would have to be carried out on returnees before such a judgement
could be made about the threat that they posed.
It was also pointed out to us by several witnesses that the rate
of attack upon return of foreign fighters varies across different
conflicts. Foreign fighters who have trained in Afghanistan or
Pakistan (where there are organisations with the stated objective
of attacking the West) are much more likely to engage in planning
an attack than those who travelled to Iraq where there was not
the same degree of hostility against the West.
At present, the motivation of those fighting in the Syrian civil
war is sectarianSunni against Shiawith no group
openly advocating action against the West, although it was also
noted that this could change in the future.
52. Given the lack of perceived hostility against
the West, many people have viewed those fighting in the Syrian
Civil War as synonymous with those who travelled to take part
in the Spanish Civil War. When we asked Dr Hegghammer why British
citizens fighting in the Syrian civil war should be viewed differently
to British citizens fighting in the Spanish Civil War he told
The difference between the Islamist foreign fighter
phenomenon today and a war like the Spanish Civil War is that
today there are many cases of people moving on from this foreign
fighter activity to international terrorism involving attacks
against civilians in western cities. You did not have that at
the time. There was not this sort of frequent and smooth transition
from guerrilla warfare within the conflict at stake to more transnational
terrorist operations. Whatever we think about the moral justification
behind the initial involvement in the war, I think the reality
that a substantial number of people move on to international terrorism
from this activity should merit certain policy measures to prevent
just that kind of violence.
The role of transnational terrorist operations in
the war was also a point of concern for both Nigel Inkster of
the International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISSD) and Shiraz
Maher of the ICSR. Nigel Inkster told us that
For me, the real worry about Syria is that it
has the potential to become the crucible for a new generation
of international jihadists, rather in the way as happened with
those who took part in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, that
they become a kind of band of brothers, united by shared experiences,
shared outlooks, shared ideology, and that they then move on looking
for new forms of jihad to undertake, one of which could well consist
of attacks in countries such as the UK.
Shiraz Maher described the effect of war in Syria
being that the gains made in the battle against international
terrorist groups following the 11 September attacks were being
reversed. As a result of the Syrian battlefields acting as a permissive
environment these organisations were able to repopulate their
networks in ungoverned territory in a way that would have been
unthinkable even two years prior.
Dr Hegghammer supported this concern, noting that there are now
more jihadist groups across the Middle East than there were at
the time of 9/11 and that we were seeing a new generation of militants
being trained which would lead to the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism
being extended by at least 15 to 20 years.
53. The phenomenon of British foreign fighters in
Syria has only recently begun to be perceived as major threat
to the UK. Indeed,
it had not yet become significant enough to be included in the
Home Office's submission to our call for evidence in October 2013
despite one of the terms of reference being 'the monitoring of
those linked to terrorist activities, both at home and abroad'.
By our first oral evidence session on 12 November, Charles Farr
identified Syria as the most important area in terms of identifying
and monitoring people who were travelling to fight in areas of
jihad. Both the Home
Secretary and Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick highlighted
the difficulty of identifying those who were travelling to engage
in jihad as opposed to those who were travelling for humanitarian
as noted above, even those with humanitarian motivations may eventually
54. In the first fortnight of 2014, fourteen people
were arrested in relation to Syrian-linked activities. This was
in comparison to the 24 people arrested over the course of the
preceding year. A month later, on 16 February 2014, The Sunday
Times reported that as many as 250 individuals who had fought
in Syria had now returned to the UK. In an interview later that
day, the Immigration and Security Minister did not dispute the
figure, stating that the security concern linked with Syria was
likely to be an issue for the foreseeable future.
55. In terms of preventing travel, the Immigration
and Security Minister set out the range of legislative options
that were available to the police and security service.
Depending on the intelligence or evidential case
there are existing laws that can assist in the prevention of travel.
However, it is important to highlight that where intelligence
is limited we may be unable to meet the required thresholds for
exercising powers available to us. Clearly where there is strong
intelligence or evidence, powers of arrest under TACT 2000 can
be used in order to investigate terrorist offences and establish
whether individuals are engaged in the commission, preparation
and instigation of acts of terrorism. In addition those seeking
to travel may also reach the arrest threshold for criminal offences;
such arrests may prevent or disrupt travel. In terms of specific
legislation aimed at curbing travel the following are most relevant
at this time; TPIMs, foreign travel restriction orders, the Royal
Prerogative, deportation, exclusion and deprivation. TPIMs require
a strong national security case. Foreign travel restriction orders
are available in relation to convicted terrorists who have received
a sentence of imprisonment of more than 12 months.
However, he also noted that in terms of people returning
from Syria, each case had to be considered individually as not
everyone who returned will have been engaged with a terrorist
organisation. He emphasised that in order for a case to be prosecuted,
both sufficient evidence to convict and a public interest in the
prosecution would be required.
The necessity of treating cases individually was also a point
made by Gilles de Kerchove who told us that the EU was designing
mechanisms to assessand I think this will
be necessary for each and every returneewhether this person
poses a threat, and whether they need psychological support, because
many have been confronted with a really ugly war, or social support
to help them get back to normal life, to find a job or to retrain
56. Gilles de Kerchove also set out the wider EU
response to the concern which consisted of:
· Collating information on those travelling
to fight in an attempt to understand whether there were networks
involved, who was travelling, what routes they were taking, how
they were being funded and what their motivations were.
· Trying to stem the flow of foreign fighters.
· Ensuring that there is an adequate legal
framework to investigate and prosecute those who have joined the
most radical groups.
· Maximising existing processes such as
the Schengen Information System and exploring new processes such
as passenger name records.
· Engaging collectively with transit countries.
Using these objectives as a starting point, he told
us that a 'concrete project' was being put together.
57. A number of witnesses had other suggestions for
dealing with the concern raised by the issue of foreign fighters.
The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police noted that in a number
of cases the parents of those who had travelled to fight were
unsure of where they could access advice or information to allow
them to stop it. He also suggested that more work could be done
with mosque leaders.
In his evidence before us, Gilles de Kerchove suggested that testimony
of the returnees could be used to highlight the infighting between
the groups and the terrible experiences of those who have fought
in the war. The Immigration
and Security Minister made reference to the importance of emphasising
the fact that the Free Syrian Army (and indeed the Syrian people)
have said that they want humanitarian assistance rather than foreign
fighters. On a practical
note, Dr Hegghammer suggested that external partners could work
with Turkish authorities to increase their capacity at the border,
a project which may be as simple as building a fence.
58. The number of UK citizens and Westerners travelling
to fight in foreign conflicts has reached alarming levels unlike
anything seen in recent years. We require an immediate response
targeted at dissuading and preventing those who wish to go to
fight from going; helping countries who are key to intercepting
those who are entering Syria, and ensuring those who return do
not present a danger to the UK.
59. We are alarmed by the relative ease by which
foreign fighters appear to be able to cross the border into Syria.
It is the responsibility of the international community to assist
transit countries, and the UK must offer practical support to
those countries in securing their borders. We have been impressed
by the efforts made to prevent football hooliganism in foreign
countries by sending "spotters" to help pick out those
at risk of committing criminal acts and believe similar practical
help would be beneficial in the fight against terrorism. We recommend
that the Government maintain representation from the UK Counter
Terrorism command to help the Turkish authorities identify those
who are at risk of crossing the border into Syria intending to
fight and make available any relevant intelligence to the Turkish
authorities that may be beneficial. The Government should also
work with transit countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan
to better establish who is likely to be travelling for genuine
60. The Government needs a clear strategy for
dealing with foreign fighters on their return, which may include
help to come to terms with the violence they have witnessed and
participated in, as well as counter-radicalisation interventions.
We are concerned that their experiences may well make them vulnerable
to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder thereby increasing their vulnerability
to radicalisation. We recommend that the Government implement
a programme, similar to Channel, for everyone returning to Britain
where there is evidence that they have fought in Syria. The engagement
in this strategy should be linked to any legal penalties imposed
on their return. In developing the strategy the Government must
work with mental health practitioners and academia to ensure that
the programme best integrates those returning from conflict zones
such as Syria.
Thomas Hegghammer 'Should I stay or should I go? Explaining Variation
in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting'
American Political Science Review 107, February 2013 Back
Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional
Research Service, January 15, 2014 Back
Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional
Research Service, January 15, 2014 Back
Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional
Research Service, January 15, 2014 Back
Q434; 470 Back
Q473; 558 Back
Oral evidence taken on 16 December 2013, The work of the Home
Secretary, HC 235-iii (2013-14), Q204; Q365 Back