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posted on 04 November 2017

When Foreign Fighters Come Home And Bring Terrorism With Them

from STRATFOR

-- this post authored by Scott Stewart

The threat posed by foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq has been the subject of a lot of discussion lately. Indeed, my news feed has been full of media reports about the danger to country X, country Y or the world in general. Some good studies have been produced on the topic, such as the one recently released by Richard Barrett of the Soufan Group.

But the concern about foreign fighters is not new. Indeed, in April 2014 I wrote a piece assessing the danger, and it has aged pretty well. Like then, I believe that returning foreign fighters pose a real threat, but it is being mitigated by several factors - the most significant of which is the fact that the world has become aware of them. But other elements can also help lessen the threat.

Building Blocks of Security

As we've noted previously, several building blocks contribute to solid personal security. These same principles are also applicable on a wider scale to national security. The first block is mindset, which has three aspects: recognizing that there is a threat, accepting responsibility for one's security and using the available tools to protect oneself. It is not difficult to see how these tenents can be readily translated into a national security context and used to respond to the threat of returning jihadists.

Clearly, the fact that we are discussing this topic demonstrates widespread recognition of the risk, and there is little indication that governments are in denial or ignorant of it. Being aware of the threat from returning jihadists is vastly different from what I experienced after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. First, there was little discussion about the threat from fighters returning from Afghanistan. Some people even foolishly predicted the end of terrorism after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, because the Soviets had been one of the major sponsors of political violence around the globe. But sadly, terrorism was not just a tool of Marxist revolutionaries, and it was picked up and wielded by believers of other ideologies.

When I traveled with an FBI colleague to Yemen to investigate the attacks on U.S. Marines in Aden in December 1992 and a rocket assault on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in January 1993, we suspected that Libyans were behind them. They had a history of striking U.S. military and diplomatic targets in the region, and they had made previous attacks in Yemen. However, our investigation determined that jihadists, who had been trained by the CIA's Office of Technical Service in Afghanistan and had returned to Yemen, had done the bombings.

Shortly after I got back from Yemen, I was sent to New York to help investigate the World Trade Center bombing of February 1993. Excellent forensic work quickly determined that the truck had been rented by a group of jihadists who had traveled to Afghanistan. The FBI had previously investigated the group, but unfortunately it was determined that they did not pose a threat despite the fact that one member had assassinated ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane at a midtown Manhattan hotel in November 1990. The World Trade Center bombing - along with the connected 1993 New York landmark bomb plot - combined with the Yemen attacks to help raise awareness that jihadists could be a transnational threat to the United States and its interests abroad. However, while awareness was rising, it would still be a couple of years before we knew these jihadists were part of an organized network called al Qaeda.

Perhaps the best illustration of the ignorance of the threat in the 1990s was the case of Sgt. Ali Mohamed. He is a former Egyptian special forces officer who moved to the United States in 1984 and received his citizenship after marrying an American. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as an instructor in Arabic culture at the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C. While on active duty with the Army, and with the knowledge of his supervisors, Mohamed traveled to Afghanistan, where he reportedly fought the Soviets and trained al Qaeda jihadists. He pleaded guilty in October 2000 to helping plan the August 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Clearly, no military in the world would condone, or even ignore, this type of jihadist tourism today. Unlike the '90s, no government is ignorant of the threat these extremists pose.

Situational Awareness

Another building block that is closely related to recognizing the threat is situational awareness. In a personal security context this means using one's senses to scan the environment for dangers. In a national security context, it means using intelligence and law enforcement agencies to monitor for threats - in this case, returning jihadists. But beyond the government, the wider society needs to pay attention and be proactive in notifying the authorities when a threat is perceived.

Muslim communities have become an important component of society's situational awareness monitoring, in part because it is predominantly Muslim children who are being radicalized and used as cannon fodder by jihadists. In recent years many families have approached the authorities to report children who have left home without permission intending to fight or travel to a jihadist theater such as Syria and Iraq. Some of these children have been caught at the airport before departure or in a transit country. In some cases, investigators have been able to identify the jihadist recruiters. Some of these extremists have been arrested or killed in airstrikes.

In a threat environment in which jihadist groups are recruiting members in cyberspace and encouraging grassroots fighters to adopt the leaderless resistance form of terrorism, grassroots defenders must supplement the efforts of the security forces.

Environmental Baselines

To practice effective situational awareness - even collectively - one needs to have a good baseline understanding of the environment in which one is living or working. This is the next building block for personal and collective security.

In a personal context, an environmental baseline means understanding things such as the types of crimes being committed, the modus operandi of the criminals, and the most likely times and locations for crimes. The potential for natural disaster, terrorism and war should also be considered. Once this baseline has been established, one can then evaluate vulnerabilities based on the types of crimes and the tactics of the criminals.

In the context of national security when considering returning jihadists, a baseline means attempting to identify those who left and are returning, but also understanding the terrorist tradecraft that they might have learned overseas and how this will impact the way they approach the various steps in the terrorist attack cycle. Have individuals acquired advanced bombmaking or surveillance capabilities? Or were they front-line fighters, experienced with firearms and more likely to attempt an armed assault than a bombing?

The specific skills a fighter has learned overseas may well influence how they conduct jihad.

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Indeed, looking at recent cases involving fighters returning from Iraq and Syria, they have tended to conduct attacks against soft targets instead of making more complex attacks against harder, more significant targets. Some examples include a Jewish museum and the soft side of the airport in Brussels; a concert in Manchester in the United Kingdom; and a cafe, concert venue and sports stadium in Paris. Understanding the capabilities of returning jihadists and their potential targets via a vulnerability assessment can help prevent such attacks.

Reacting to Attacks

The final piece in the building blocks of personal security series was an installment on reacting to danger, and this is also a critical element of collective security. In one sense this can refer to the quick realization that an attack is happening - attack recognition - and then suitably responding to armed assaults, knife attacks and vehicular assaults. Indeed, police departments all over the world are forming special units to quickly respond to, and end, such attacks. In the United Kingdom, an increasing number of police officers are now carrying firearms.

But beyond simply responding to an attack in progress, security forces are also studying past assaults and taking steps to prevent similar ones in the future. For example, after the rash of recent car and truck attacks, authorities in several countries and cities have placed vehicle barriers in high-profile locations that could be targets, More will likely follow suit in the wake of the Nov. 1 vehicular assault in New York.

The threat posed by returning jihadists will persist at a low level for the foreseeable future. It will also be augmented by grassroots jihadists who were unable or unwilling to travel abroad, and by those who will be released from prison after completing sentences for jihadist-related crimes. However, it does not take a great degree of skill to conduct a deadly, simple attack, and because of this, it is important to lessen the overall threat posed by grassroots jihadists.

"When Foreign Fighters Come Home and Bring Terrorism With Them" is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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