FEATURED | ISIL: The Foreign Fighter Challenge by Satgin Hamrah

FEATURED | ISIL: The Foreign Fighter Challenge by Satgin Hamrah


ISIL: The Foreign Fighter Challenge by Satgin Hamrah IndraStra


By Satgin Hamrah
Associate Fellow at The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University and Editor-at-Large at E-International Relations

Introduction:

The influx of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria remains unabated as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues its offensive. This issue has been exacerbated with the establishment of a so-called Caliphate and it will continue to get worse as ISIL continues to expand its sphere of control and influence. For many extremists worldwide, ISIL’s victories are an attractive reason to join the terrorist organization and help it further its goals. [1] This strengthens ISIL’s capacity to fight and terrorize the region. However, foreign fighters leaving their home countries to join ISIL are a major concern to their home countries. It is widely believed that after their time fighting in the Middle East, these terrorists are likely to take their skills and knowledge back home and engage in terrorist activities.[2] As such, it is vital for the United States and its global partners, such as Germany, to develop and implement measures that counter ISIL’s recruitment efforts on all fronts, including partnering with local community and faith leaders, as well as developing a multinational campaign that promotes information sharing by private citizens with law enforcement.

Overview:

Foreign fighters are an essential component of ISIL’s strategy. Their impact on success levels has been immense. Many have superior fighting skills and are force multipliers both in battle and in training new recruits. This has allowed ISIL to successfully depend on the ability of relatively few fighters to be able to out fight larger numbers of soldiers and militias. Thousands of these fighters have joined this terrorist organization from across the globe,[3] from at least 90 countries with the majority joining from the Middle East and North Africa.[4] Many have also joined from other parts of the world including the United States, the European Union, Russia and Australia. The rate of individuals traveling to join ISIL is unprecedented. “…It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan…Yemen or Somalia at any point in the last two years.”[5] However, the exact number of foreign fighters is unknown. Moreover, as ISIL continues its brutal rampage and achieves success it will continue to attract foreign fighters who believe its success illustrates the “will of God.” This coupled with their ability to adapt recruitment tactics to counter security measures will result in an increase in foreign fighter recruitment. [6]

Foreign Fighters in Syria & Iraq by CNN
Copyright : CNN


ISIL’s ability to successfully recruit foreign fighters is due to its savvy global marketing campaign[7] and professional communication strategy.[8] Its “…slick use of multimedia productions, its use of social media and personal peer to peer communication are proving to be effective parts of a sophisticated program aimed at the West.”[9] This has resulted in an ability to successfully attract many Western recruits. [10] For example, online tools such as Facebook, Youtube, Twitter,[11] Tumblr, Ask.fm and other forms of social media are being used as recruitment tools and as platforms for recruits to disseminate their views to followers back home.[12] Overall, its recruitment efforts and its targeting of individuals for radicalization is “… a major problem for Muslim leaders in the West, who find their communities targeted relentlessly by the slick propaganda churned out by the media savvy...” terrorist organization.[13] This not only strengthens their capacity to fight and terrorize the region, but it also has a severe detrimental impact on the home countries of foreign fighters.


Implications:

The threats posed by aspiring foreign fighters and returning ones is a real and persistent problem.[14] As foreigners continue to pour into the Middle East to join ISIL, they will undergo a radicalization process, gain military training and become accustomed to brutality and violence.[15] This experience coupled with the skills attained in fighting in a war zone will enhance their willingness to commit acts of terrorism in their homeland and elsewhere. Moreover, given their insider connection, experience and ability to understand the culture of their home country and that of a jihadi, foreign fighters have the ability to return home and effectively recruit fighters and engage in violent activities on behalf of ISIL. It is widely believed that after their time fighting in the Middle East these terrorists are then likely to take their skills and knowledge back home to engage in terrorism. For example, ISIL has reportedly organized an English speaking unit of foreign fighters called Anwar al-Awlaki Battalion, “…whose purpose is to plan and execute attacks in English-speaking countries.”[16] Furthermore, not only are these individuals more likely to commit acts of terrorism, their connection to a well established network is also dangerous. This network will increase their access to training, weapons and other resources, such as explosives. The result is not only dangerous for the Middle East but for the international community as well.

Conclusion:

ISIL has emerged from obscurity to become the world’s most infamous terrorist organization. Its brutal offensive in Iraq and Syria has helped it attain vast amounts of territory, while simultaneously reconfiguring the region’s geopolitical and security landscapes. Moreover, this terrorist organization continues to challenge the regional interests of the West and poses a threat to the stability and territorial integrity of the region. While the United States and its allies may not be able to eliminate ISIL right away, they can better control the environment and significantly hinder the organization’s ability to sustain itself and grow.  A strategy that should be utilized is one that decreases its ability to recruit foreign fighters. More specifically, measures should be developed and implemented that counter ISIL’s recruitment efforts on all fronts. As noted earlier, this should include partnering with local community and faith leaders, as well as implementing a multinational campaign that promotes information sharing by private citizens with law enforcement. This will greatly assist the United States and its allies to strengthen their ties with people on the ground who can serve as a strong layer of defense against ISIL recruitment.

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References:



[1] Richard Barret, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” The Souhan Group (June 2014) http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/TSG-Foreign-Fighters-in-Syria.pdf (accessed July 14, 2014)
[2] Ehab Zahriyeh, “How ISIL became a major force with only a few thousand fighters,” Al Jazeera (June 19,2014) http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/6/19/isil-thousands-fighters.html (accessed July 12, 2014)
[3]Louisa Loveluck, “Islamic State, one year on: Where do its fighters come from?”  The Telegraph (June 8, 2015)   http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11660487/Islamic-State-one-year-on-Where-do-its-fighters-come-from.html (accessed July 1, 2015)
[4] Jamie Crawford and Laura Koran, “U.S. Officials: Foreigners flock to fight for ISIS, CNN (February 15, 2015)  http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/10/politics/isis-foreign-fighters-combat/ (accessed July 3, 2015)
[5] ibid
[6] Alessandria Masi, “ISIS Foreign Fighter Recruitment, Social Media Undeterred By New Security Crackdowns,” International Business Times (February 28, 2015) http://www.ibtimes.com/isis-foreign-fighter-recruitment-social-media-undeterred-new-security-crackdowns-1831764 (accessed July 1, 2015)
[7] Kevin Johnson, “ISIL's sophisticated recruiting campaign poses persistent threat in U.S.,” USA Today (April 26, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/26/foreign-fighters-isil-fbi/26202741 (accessed July 10, 2015)
[8] Rima Marrouch, “How ISIS is growing and the fight to stop it?” CBS News  (September 14,2014)
[9] Kevin Johnson, “ISIL's sophisticated recruiting campaign poses persistent threat in U.S.,” USA Today (April 26, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/26/foreign-fighters-isil-fbi/26202741 (accessed July 10, 2015) 
[10] EuroNews, “ISIL’s radicalization of foreign fighters,” EuroNews (May 21, 2015)    http://www.euronews.com/2015/05/21/isil-s-radicalisation-of-foreign-fighters/ (accessed July 14, 2015)
[11] Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro, “Be Afraid be a little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,”  The Brookings Institution  http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2014/11/western-foreign-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq-byman-shapiro/be-afraid--web.pdf (accessed July 1, 2015)
[12] Ibid
[13] Rima Marrouch, “How ISIS is growing and the fight to stop it?” CBS News  (September 14,2014)
[14] Kevin Johnson, “ISIL's sophisticated recruiting campaign poses persistent threat in U.S.,” USA Today (April 26, 2015) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/04/26/foreign-fighters-isil-fbi/26202741 (accessed July 10, 2015)
[15] Richard Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” The Souhan Group (June 2014) http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/TSG-Foreign-Fighters-in-Syria.pdf (accessed July 14, 2014)
[16] Kukil Bora, “ISIS Continues Steady Recruitment As 20,000 Foreign Fighters Join Extremist Groups In Syria, Iraq: Report,” International Business Times  (February 11, 2015) http://www.ibtimes.com/isis-continues-steady-recruitment-20000-foreign-fighters-join-extremist-groups-syria-1812440 (accessed June 20, 2015)
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