The Foreign Fighter Conundrum

Foreign fighters in places such as Syria are a present and future threat to international security.

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A Free Syrian Army soldier, takes his position during his fighting against the Syrian troops, at an alley of Aleppo city, Syria, Monday Sept. 24, 2012. Most of those fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, having become fed up with the authoritarian government, analysts say. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines.

As I've mentioned in this space before ( here, for instance), the issue of third party nationals (aka foreign fighters) who go and fight in places such as Syria is a present and future threat to international security. Liz Sly of the Washington Post noted three weeks ago about Syria that:

Conservative estimates put the number of foreign fighters who have entered Syria in the past two years at 6,000 to 10,000, a range that exceeds the number who volunteered to fight U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Brian Fishman, a former counterterrorism official who served in Iraq with West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and is now a fellow at the New America Foundation.

The biggest influx of foreign fighters into Iraq occurred in 2006-2007, when more than 600 crossed in, he said. Many were recruited as suicide bombers and swiftly removed from the battlefield.

"There's a lot more foreigners than we ever saw in Iraq, and there's going to be a lot more," Fishman said of the situation in Syria. "They control territory, they've established governance . . . and you see these foreigners playing more dynamic roles. They're getting trained and leading people and illustrating a level of ability we didn't see in Iraq."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

In a story about foreign fighters in Syria in Sunday's Washington Times Kristina Wong reports that:

"This is probably one of the biggest foreign-fighter mobilizations since it became a phenomenon in the 1980s with the Afghan jihad against the Soviets," said Aaron Y. Zelin, a Washington Institute researcher who studies al Qaeda and Syria.

The number of foreigners in Syria has not reached the level in Afghanistan three decades ago, but that civil war lasted nine years, while the Syrian rebellion is 2 years old.

Mr. Zelin said the rate of foreign recruits streaming into Syria is "unlike anything else."

The foreign fighters — called jihadists, or holy warriors — come from at least 60 nations. Most are Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, but a few dozen are from Western Europe, particularly Britain, Belgium, France and the Netherlands, Mr. Zelin said. Ten to 20 fighters have come from the United States, he said.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

She states that such foreign fighters make up large proportions of the leaders and members of the rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra (80 percent of leadership and up to 20 percent of its 6,000 to 7,000 fighters) and the Islamic State of Iraq (80 percent of leadership and about 40 percent of its 4,000 to 5,000 fighters). Wong quotes the former CIA analyst Michael Scheur as saying that the threat they pose to their home countries "is clearly more serious today than ever before." And that:

They return with confidence that victory is possible. They and their colleagues now know that they inflicted humiliating defeats on the United States military in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that knowledge will boost both spirits and recruitment.

And they come home with a list of contacts among their fellow mujahedeen from whom they can seek advice or more material forms of assistance.

Al-Qaida itself, recall, had previously been pumped up over their belief that the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s had brought down the Soviet Union.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

As Wong goes on to note, these groups are working to recruit foreign fighters and to win local support. This may be leading to the moderate opposition "being ‘squeezed' between the Islamist rebels and government forces in the civil war, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives." Another issue, as reported in the New York Times a few weeks back, is the increasing number of attacks by the rebels on the civilian population in Syria. That report stated, for instance, that:

In a coordinated attack, numerous rebel groups fought off a small garrison of government troops and swept into the villages, killing 190 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Friday. At least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children, the report said. More than 200 civilians are still being held hostage.

This is unsurprising because one of the major issues framing the civil war in Syria has been the sectarian contest between Sunni and Shi'a Islam. Unfortunately, this will likely only get worse.

The trouble with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and other actors in the larger tent of AQAM (al-Qaida and Associated Movement) is that, as Capt. Rob Newson — a Navy SEAL officer with operational experience in Southeast Asia, the Balkans, East Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen —  wrote recently over at the Small Wars Journal, they are "GLOCAL" organizations. Such GLOCAL groups are agile, networked, committed, resilient, and adaptive and they are characterized by:

  • Thinking globally and acting locally
  • Creating and utilizing a global network of subject matter expertise, logistic, and financial support
  • Pursuing international attack planning and opportunities while building a local base of support and conducting local operations
  • Exploiting local grievances and government shortfalls
  • Frequently debating and revisiting the degree of focus and effort and the balance between their global and local objectives

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Vote to Strike Syria?]

But, he argues, they are also flawed because:

They are inefficient, forced to trade organizational efficiency and effectiveness for increased security, lower visibility, and they hope, survivability. They are often incompetent – repeatedly failing to maintain operational security and/or botching the execution phase of international attacks, for example the shoe and underwear bombers trained and sponsored by AQAP in Yemen. Their funding is sporadic and unreliable and they are dependent on criminal enterprises for subsidy. They are prone to overreach, frequently alienating the local populace with a heavy, indiscriminant hand.

The best way to deal with these groups is to work with friends and allies to help them to develop not only the physical capabilities to cope but also ways to combat their messages and appeals informationally to work against these organizational weaknesses. An illustration of how this is happening in regards to Syria was mentioned briefly recently in an interview given by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the commander of Special Operations Command Central, to the Tampa Tribune. MG Nagata stated:

As I am sure you know, there is a fairly large Centcom presence in Jordan ... but it was significantly increased in the last year and a half because our concerns for the stability and survival of Jordan. We have a small element there, supporting the Centcom effort. Our role is to provide support and mostly through training, helping train the special operations forces of Jordan, as a hedge against instability that might emanate from Syria. It's not independent action, but a component of the larger work Centcom is doing with other forces. We are just part of a larger team ... For example, we work with Lebanese armed forces in Lebanon. We work with Saudi military forces. We work with Bahraini special operations forces. We may not have begun those efforts because there was a problem coming out of Syria, but they are now useful for that purpose, to help all of our friendly national partners in the region prepare for any potential threat or instability that might come from Syria[.]

Michael P. Noonan is the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.