Stopping the Foreign Fighter Flow

Countries in the region offer innovative approaches to curtail Da’ish recruitment

Thousands of Middle Easterners, North Africans, Central Asians and Europeans have been seduced by the false promises of Da’ish, pledging allegiance to the terrorist group’s corruption of Islam to commit atrocities in Syria, Iraq and beyond. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, an estimated 21,000 foreign fighters from nearly 100 countries have traveled to the region. More than half hail from other countries in the Middle East and another 3,000 from Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Countries targeted by Da’ish recruitment have taken the lead in adopting counterterrorism measures to prevent the outflow of foreign fighters or to intercept them if they try to return home. Based on statements from their leadership, these countries realize that instability radiating from Syria and Iraq represents a threat to individual nations and the region.

“Swift measures should be taken to stop feeding the fires of terrorism with the blood of our youth, who are the primary target of recruitment, both voluntary and forced, by armies and extremist terrorist groups,” His Royal Highness Crown Prince al Hussein ibn Abdullah II of Jordan said during a speech before the United Nations Security Council in April 2015.

Foreign fighters engaged in Syria and Iraq are typically males between the ages of 18 and 29, but some recruits are boys and middle-age men. Terrorism experts have failed to establish a universal economic, social or psychological profile for those drawn to Da’ish and other terror groups. But whether recruits are mainly motivated by religious extremism, political resentment, economic deprivation or a desire for camaraderie, nations need to address the resulting criminal behavior.

The Saudi experiment

The Saudi government estimates that more than 2,000 of its citizens have joined terrorist organizations operating in Syria and Iraq. In its attempts to prevent violent extremism and rehabilitate those drawn to its ranks, Saudi Arabia has introduced some of the most innovative counterterrorism policies.

The year 2014 saw the passage of new counterterrorism laws that increased penalties for violators. By a decree of the late Saudi King His Majesty Abdullah Ibn Saud, citizens of Saudi Arabia who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom — even if they served in noncombat roles — could be sentenced to as long as 20 years. The decree noted it was the Saudi government’s duty to block actions and language that harm public security and stability.


Saudi inmates at al-Ha’er Prison, many of them Da’ish supporters, are permitted to play sports to help reintegrate them into society. [REUTERS]

That has led to an increase in inmates in prisons such as al-Ha’er south of Riyadh, where hundreds of returnees from the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are housed. The number of inmates in such high security lockups has nearly doubled during the past two years, reaching 4,209 in the summer of 2015, al-Ha’er Prison Director Col. Mohammad Abu Salman told Gulf News.

Many prisoners await enrollment in a unique anti-radicalization program designed not to punish, but reintegrate them into society. The program combines education, vocational training, family counseling, psychological therapy and religious discussion to change behavior of convicted extremists. In some deradicalization centers, art therapy lets prisoners express themselves with paintbrushes. Gymnasiums provide for physical fitness.

In the past 10 years, close to 3,000 extremists have graduated from the Mohammad Bin Nayef Centers in Riyadh and Jeddah. One of them, Badr al-Anisi, a 29-year-old father of three girls who tried to smuggle himself into Syria and Iraq, said the center saved him. Thinking at first that he would be mistreated, al-Anisi was surprised to discover the Saudi government was trying to help him.

“It changed our vision,” al-Anisi told NBC News in describing his stay at the center. “Instead of dark and black, it became positive and optimistic. Any problem we encountered was solved psychologically or socially.”

Preventive programs in Saudi Arabia such as the Assakina Campaign, begun in 2004 to engage extremists over the Internet, have claimed many successes. One of the most impactful could be a new satirical television program produced by Saudi actor and comedian Nasser Al Qasabi that mocks the cruelty and stupidity of Da’ish. Its audience in the Arabic-speaking world has grown to millions, helping counter propaganda videos Da’ish airs on the Internet.

“God is my protector. I’m an artist, and the artist’s essential role is to reveal society’s challenges, even if he pays a price,” Al Qasabi told al Arabiya TV in June 2015. “Warning the people about Da’ish is the true jihad, because we’re fighting them with art not war.”

United Arab Emirates takes action

Fighting Da’ish propaganda is also the goal of the Sawab Centre, established in Abu Dhabi in July 2015 to act as a hub of anti-Da’ish information for the region. The center will engage would-be extremists online 24 hours a day to disrupt terrorist messaging that aids recruitment and fundraising for such criminal groups.

Some countries have confronted online radicalization by blocking Internet content or focusing on Da’ish violence. The Sawab Centre’s approach will be more creative. It will spend less time critiquing Da’ish’s murderous videos — which can inadvertently act as a recruitment tool for young men who glamorize war — and highlight the group’s ineptitude at establishing a so-called “caliphate.”

“By tackling the problem of online radicalization, the Sawab Centre will make an important contribution to the stability and security of the region and will make a start in reclaiming the online space from the extremists,” said Dr. Anwar Mohammad Gargash, UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs.

It’s part of the wider effort by the 63-nation anti-terror coalition to defeat Da’ish in all spheres, in the media as well as on the battlefield. The UAE has also battled Da’ish as a participant in coalition airstrikes in Iraq and has sponsored initiatives such as the Hedayah Centre to Counter Violent Extremism and the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies.

Stopping the flow in Central Asia 

Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have all announced anti-terror campaigns to stem the flow of Da’ish recruits to Syria and Iraq.

The Kyrgyz government has established outreach events to prevent indoctrination of young people typically recruited to fight in the Middle East. These events take place in mosques, apartment blocks, women’s councils and youth groups. In 2014, the country announced it had arrested 40 terrorists and their supporters, most of whom had returned home after undergoing training in Syria.

“Thanks to the continuing meetings, congregations have come to realize that the police and clergy want to protect them against reckless deeds, crimes and radical groups,” said Mirlan Toktomushev, imam of the Osh Sheyit-Dobo Mosque. “The public now is willing to tell the police about strangers who are recruiting youths.”

As in Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan has made fighting abroad a criminal offense. The government estimates that 300 Tajik citizens have joined Da’ish, and dozens have been arrested for recruiting foreign fighters. Recruits are often compelled to serve when Da’ish burns their passports.

Nevertheless, Tajik leaders dangle the possibility of amnesty for would-be fighters who change their minds.

MapEng“A criminal case can be launched only if we have enough information and evidence to show that the individual was a member of an armed group in a foreign country,” said Sharif Qurbonzoda, chief prosecutor for Tajikistan’s northern Sughd province.

Kazakhstan views terrorism largely as an offshoot of poverty and hopelessness, said Kairat Abdrakhmanov, the country’s permanent representative to the United Nations. As such, with its adoption of  a “Road Map to Employment” young people can have a free education, vocational training and support in setting up businesses. Another program, called Countering Religious Extremism and Terrorism for 2013-2017, allocates $600 million for preventive measures. Uzbekistan spent part of 2015 promoting a program called “anti-terror cleansing” that included exposing Da’ish members in the state-sponsored media as murderers and criminals. Uzbekistan’s homegrown extremist group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, may have provided Da’ish with fighters. According to the country’s National Security Service, terrorists returning from Syria and Iraq may be planning attacks in Uzbekistan.


Reducing the appeal of Da’ish among the vulnerable populations in which it recruits is an important part of curbing the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. Such an effort requires the anti-Da’ish coalition to maintain a strong media and online presence to challenge the false heroic narrative propagated by the terrorists.

But prevention won’t be enough. The police and military have an additional role to play in blocking foreign fighter flow by defending borders, breaking up terror cells and choking off financing.

And if Da’ish members are captured or return home, programs such as Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization centers may play a bigger role in enticing nonviolent criminals to reintegrate into society.

Finally, countries of the region must pursue national reconciliation and build nonsectarian societies in which groups such as Da’ish can no longer take root. It’s no coincidence that Da’ish emerged strongly in Syria, a country ripped apart by civil war. Peace and stability are rarely sustainable without good governance.