international analysis and commentary

Western foreign fighters in Syria: what they really want


Early this spring, French police arrested a 23-year old man on suspicion of organizing a terrorist attack. The suspect had close to a kilogram of explosives in his house, as well as bomb-making manuals and bolts and nails which are typically used in attacks to increase the lethality of the explosives. The police believed a terrorist attack was “imminent”. What made this incident especially noteworthy is that it was the first instance of a Western foreign fighter allegedly planning an attack returning home from Syria. Thus, the incident confirmed the worst fears of analysts and policy makers regarding Western radicals who are fighting with jihadist militias against the Assad regime, namely that they may come back as hardened terrorists to carry out attacks in their home countries. But while the foiled plot in France shows that such scenarios cannot be ruled out, the motivations of the Western fighters, as well as those of the groups they join, suggest that the threat may be overstated.

Ever since it reared its ugly head, so-called “home-grown” jihadist terrorism (jihadist terrorism perpetrated by people born and raised in the West) has been widely misinterpreted. To explain its rise some ten years ago, many pointed to the jihadists’ aversion to Western lifestyles. Perhaps somewhat complacently, proponents of this view saw a clash between dogmatic and cruel jihadists on the one hand and the liberal, free and tolerant West on the other. Their interpretation of events closely followed that of George W. Bush who said, referring to Al-Qaeda, that “they hate us because of our freedoms”. Other explanations focused on the socio-economic backgrounds of the jihadists. Poverty, discrimination and unemployment supposedly enraged young Muslim men and drove them to terrorism, a position held in the glaring absence of any evidence that European or American jihadists were poorer, less educated or less successful than their non-radical peers.

Both these lines of thought ignored the numerous and unequivocal explanations given by the jihadists themselves as to why they committed their attacks. For instance, Mohammed Siddique Khan, ringleader of the cell responsible for the London Bombings in 2005, said in his martyrdom video: “Until we feel security, you will be our targets. And until you stop the bombing, gassing, imprisonment and torture of my people we will not stop this fight.” His fellow-perpetrator Shezhad Tanweer was equally explicit in his martyrdom, warning that attacks “will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and until you stop your financial and military support to America and Israel.” Many other jihadists made similar statements, which shows that Western societies were not targeted because of what they are, but because of their military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is true that some attacks were planned to avenge the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, but the majority of perpetrators clearly had the Muslim lands on their minds.

The current assessment of the threat from European and American jihadists in Syria is flawed in the same way as the analyses of home-grown jihadism five to ten years ago. Today too, the importance of the Muslim lands in the motivation of Western jihadists is underestimated, as arguments about the threat from foreign fighters are based on the shaky assumption that those who travel to Syria also have an axe to grind with their home countries. Western foreign fighters in Syria are against the repression of Muslims by the Assad regime and want the establishment of an Islamic state in Greater Syria. Since the West does not play a prominent role in the Syrian conflict, there is little to suggest that Western countries will provoke the wrath of the jihadists the way they did when they sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this regard, it is interesting to note that many Western foreign fighters took part in radical discussion groups, but were not involved in terrorist activities against their own countries before they went to Syria. They turned to violent action only when an opportunity to improve the situation in the Muslim lands presented itself – that is, after it became clear that it is relatively easy to reach the Syrian battlefield through the country’s long and porous border with Turkey. Furthermore, they are committed to the erection of a Syrian Islamic state governed according to shari’a law, but this does not mean that their ambitions extend beyond the Middle East. As a Dutch jihadist in Syria said in a televised interview: “Many of the brothers came here to die, I think. Us going back is not part of our perspective here. It’s a big sacrifice, and there’s a lot of work to be done, so why should I even think about Holland or Europe?”

But what if Western jihadists are instructed to commit attacks against their homelands by the militias they are joining? In an interview with The Telegraph, a defector of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), one of the largest and most radical jihadist groups currently fighting in Syria, claimed that Western jihadists are being trained and encouraged to take the fight to their home countries. It is possible that such practices are taking place, also since ISIS is establishing base areas where they can train Western recruits. At the same time, though, it is hard to see what the jihadist militias would stand to gain by terrorist attacks in the West. Their primary objective is the overthrow of the Assad regime, and it is unlikely that they would be willing to spend precious resources on attacks that would contribute little to nothing to their current fight. Even the Al-Nusrah Front, closely allied to core Al-Qaeda and supportive of Al-Zawahiri’s global jihadist agenda, has put its plans for world domination on the backburner. As for ISIS, it attracts relatively large numbers of foreign fighters, but it too, has little to say about plans beyond the civil war. Moreover, the group is still predominantly made up of native Syrians, so it remains to be seen whether it will ever turn its attention to the Western world.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Mainziere and French President François Hollande publicly stated that returnees from Syria pose very serious security threats to their countries. Similarly, the FBI’s top priority is the monitoring of returning Syria veterans. This perception of the threat, however, is based on a questionable assumption, namely that the Western foreign fighters and the Syrian militias are interested in attacks in the West. When it comes to terrorism, intelligence officials and policy makers tend to expect the worst. This time, though, they can take some comfort in the fact that the fight is not about us.