Foreign Fighters in Syria

Three kinds of countermeasures could be effective against Daesh recruitment


The number of foreign fighters who had traveled to Syria to fight on the side of Daesh and other terrorist groups exceeded 30,000 as of late 2015. Because they take advantage of shared borders with war zones in Syria and Iraq, citizens of neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have provided a disproportionate number of foreign fighters.

But a surprising number come from distant Tunisia, which, at 6,000 fighters, generates more terrorists for the Syrian conflict than any single nation. The former republics of the Soviet Union, including the Russian Caucasus, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, have also seen increasing numbers of their young men travel to Syria to join Daesh, as have immigrant communities in Western Europe.

Analysts suggest that countermeasures to block the flow of foreign fighters have failed to live up to their potential, although accurate numbers, owing to secrecy, are difficult to establish. These countermeasures fall into three broad categories, depending on when the state detects and engages the foreign fighter. 

1. Prevention

Although extremely challenging, counterstrategies must strive to prevent the mobilization of foreign fighters before they have a chance to act. Repressive preventive measures focus primarily on deterrence, early intervention and prevention of travel. Examples of behavior to target include possession or dissemination of terrorist training materials, participation in domestic terror training, fundraising for terrorism, conspiring to support or join a terrorist organization, and engaging in preparation for acts of terrorism. Individuals committing such offenses can be prosecuted before they leave the country. One example was the August 2015 arrest of a young couple from Mississippi in the United States as they tried to board a plane to Turkey with the alleged intention of joining Daesh. Nevertheless, successful prosecutions depend upon sufficient evidence, and it is extremely difficult to demonstrate prior intent to commit terrorism in a court of law.

When prosecutions are not feasible, an increasingly popular alternative involves applying legally authorized sanctions. Examples include the confiscation of passports or identity documents and restricting individual movements through the use of “security certificates” or similar legislation. Such measures are based on intelligence, as opposed to evidence, and thus have a lower threshold for when they can be applied. However, restricting individual freedoms without trial is controversial. In some cases, it may be seen as also punishing suspects’ families. Combined, these factors can undermine the legitimacy of the government and add to the alienation of vulnerable communities.


One of the highest-ranking foreign fighters for Daesh, a Chechen named Omar al-Shishani, was reportedly killed in a battle near Mosul, Iraq, in July 2016. The Associated Press

A possible solution to these problems is to enforce bans on going to Syria or elsewhere for the purpose of fighting without establishing a person’s connection to terrorism. Intuitively, this makes sense; laws like this already exist in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands and are being implemented elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether these laws will actually be effective.

Other options are available, such as notifying suspects that they are being watched, censoring online material and banning extremist organizations that appear to be contributing to radicalization. In general, however, these all suffer the fundamental flaw of treating the symptoms rather than the cause and can result in additional resentment against the state. “Harassing” suspects confirms their negative worldview and is likely to increase, rather than decrease, their desire to leave the country. Meanwhile, forcibly preventing people from traveling may provoke them to take out their frustrations at home. This is where persuasive “soft” approaches are beneficial.

Generally referred to under the catch-all of “countering violent extremism” (CVE), persuasive approaches aim to undermine the appeal of extremist narratives, either directly or indirectly, and allow a greater role for nongovernmental participation. Indirect approaches include things such as aid and development projects or providing education and employment, either at home or abroad. In secular countries, this may include efforts to improve integration of Muslim populations in society through education, individual mentoring or interfaith dialogue. Although these measures are unlikely to have an immediate impact, over the long term they may help to quell grievances that extremist recruiters exploit and reduce the pool of potential recruits who are most susceptible to radicalization and recruitment.

Direct persuasive approaches include a variety of counterradicalization projects, which specifically deal with extremists and extremism. An example is the Channel Project in the United Kingdom, which identifies people vulnerable to radicalization and then challenges extremist beliefs by using social support mechanisms and tailored counterradicalization initiatives.

Countermessaging can also take place online. The Assakina Campaign in Saudi Arabia has been engaging extremists over the Internet since 2004 and has had some success in persuading people to abandon violence. More recently, Western governments, including those in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, have taken to social media to undermine extremist narratives.

Persuasive efforts, whether physical or virtual, preventive or otherwise, are not without limitations and potential drawbacks. To begin with, secular governments lack credibility in religious matters. Furthermore, CVE initiatives can exacerbate problems of alienation and radicalization by reinforcing the notion that Muslims are “suspect communities” in Western countries. It is also extremely difficult for secular governments to navigate the complex landscape of their respective Muslim populations, especially when choosing nongovernmental partners. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to gauge the true impact of preventive persuasion, since there is no way of telling if levels of foreign fighter mobilization would have been higher in the absence of intervention. Nevertheless, a failure to contest extremist narratives would be to accept defeat in the “war of ideas” and, ultimately, the potential benefits far outweigh the costs.

2. Management

Relatively few options are available for individuals who have left home and joined the terrorist fight in Syria or elsewhere. The primary task in repressive measures is to confirm that a person is indeed participating in the conflict and then gather as much information as possible on his background and friends, how he was recruited, how he got to Syria, which specific group he has joined overseas, what he is doing, and whether he is eventually killed. This information is usually difficult to acquire, although monitoring extremist social media accounts is an excellent place to start. Collected data have multiple applications, such as identifying recruitment and facilitation networks, building a prosecution, and conducting a risk assessment for when a fighter comes home, which can determine how to proceed. Personal information might also be used to entice or coerce fighters to come home.

Sanctions can be applied at this stage, including withholding social benefits and freezing financial assets, which can suppress terrorism financing, force some fighters to return home and deter others from going altogether. More severe sanctions can include canceling residency rights and stripping a person of citizenship, if he holds dual nationality, which may prevent active foreign fighters from returning home. Such sanctions are highly contentious. Their degree of deterrence is questionable and, although they may protect domestic populations in the short term, the resulting resentment may raise the risk of domestic terrorism in the long run.


Daesh members stand next to a black terrorist flag atop a hill in the eastern part of the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab. Terrorist groups recruit foreign fighters to supplement their ranks. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Persuasive approaches designed to manage the potential threat presented by a returning fighter have yet to be fully developed. Governments are engaging jihadists online,  trying to coax them away from violence by highlighting the blunders, hypocrisy and brutality of groups such as Daesh and al-Nusrah Front. This is an encouraging start. Germany’s HAYAT program is a good example of a promising nongovernmental approach. It provides specialized counseling to the families of Islamist extremists to prevent them from going abroad to places such as Syria or to persuade them to abandon violence and come home. This program focuses on maintaining open lines of communication between the families and the individuals and avoiding a judgmental or confrontational approach that could drive them further away.

When it comes to managing the foreign fighter threat, it is not just about the suspects themselves but also very much about their families and their communities. While it is true that families can contribute to radicalization, they are often in the dark about their loved ones’ activities until after they have left the country, and it is frequently family members who first notify authorities of the problem. Supporting families and building good community relations should therefore be a priority for authorities. It is important to prevent feelings of resentment and, possibly, further radicalization and is essential to stimulate cooperation and the flow of information.

3. Mitigation

When veteran fighters return home, the task becomes damage control. For those countries that have outlawed foreign fighting, prosecution is an option, and Jordan, for example, is using it aggressively. However, this may stir up domestic grievances. Furthermore, many countries still lack the necessary laws, and returning fighters are likely to be interviewed and released, at least initially. Suspects may be subsequently monitored until they are no longer deemed a threat or until they show signs of committing an offense, such as inciting terrorism or planning attacks. At that point a criminal investigation will commence. There are several limitations with this approach. First, risk assessment is not foolproof, meaning that false negatives are a real possibility. Secondly, it places a tremendous strain on security services, and it is possible that there will be too many former fighters for effective monitoring. Thirdly, there are questions about how intrusive monitoring should be and how long it should last. Repressive approaches alone are insufficient to mitigate the threat.

Persuasive options for managing returning foreign fighters include deradicalization programs. These exist in various forms in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, but few have been created specifically to deradicalize veteran extremist fighters. One notable exception is Saudi Arabia’s program, which historically included three separate sections: domestic security offenders, those caught trying to go fight in conflicts abroad or who had returned from fighting in conflict zones like Iraq and Yemen, and former detainees in Guantanamo.


Although each country’s approach is culturally unique, this would be a good time to re-examine the Saudi program with a specific focus on lessons learned from dealing with foreign fighters. It would make sense to combine this with a study of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration initiatives, as well as veterans’ programs from around the world. The ultimate goal of persuasive approaches to returning foreign fighters should be that they refrain from promoting or perpetrating acts of violence and peacefully reintegrate into society. With this in mind, specialized deradicalization programs may or may not play the lead role. Authorities should make use of mainstream health and social services and work with local communities to find the most appropriate solutions.

Finally — as the November 2015 attacks in Paris highlighted yet again — it is vital to recognize that countering the threat of foreign fighters depends on sharing information and coordinating effort. If relevant governmental and nongovernmental agencies are unaware of who the potential terrorists are, steps to prevent, manage and mitigate the threat will inevitably fall short.