The next waves of ‘foreign terrorist fighters’

Recent weeks have borne witness to many stories and analyses about the problem of ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ and what to do about them. Those who are holding these terrorists are asking host nations to repatriate them and prosecute them at home.  The responses to these requests vary from ‘hell no, we don’t want them back’ to various forms of facilitated return.

When most people think of this issue their first thoughts turn to Iraq/Syria and the terrorist group Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh).  In truth, there are other terrorist organisations active on the ground in that area of the world although IS has received the lion’s share of the attention, in part due to the sheer numbers of foreigners who traveled to live under and fight to safeguard the so-called ‘Caliphate’ and in part due to the heinous nature of IS actions.

Canada has a relatively small number of citizens to worry about, somewhere on the order of several dozen (most of whom are women and children).  Other countries are faced with hundreds of cases.  The remedies to this crisis are not obvious and it remains to be seen what the Canadian government policy in this regard will be: to date Canada is part of the ‘hell no!’ brigade.

There is another aspect to this problem that has received little attention.  The war in Syria/Iraq has created a  massive refugee wave, both internally displaced (IDPs) and foreign bound.  Estimates range as high as six million Syrian IDPs and five million who have fled to neighbouring lands.  This means that 11 million Syrians have not had a ‘normal’ life for years: no jobs, no school for their children and other ills associated with refugee status.  These people need help in returning to their cities and villages, if these even still exist.  It is not clear what assistance they will receive and when, if ever, life will go back to what it was.

While there is not a one-to-one relationship between hardship/displacement and radicalisation to violence/terrorism it is nevertheless true that these populations are vulnerable to these processes.   Terrorist groups usually stress injustice and grievance to recruit and radicalise members: these populations have lived injustice and grievance to a huge extent.  It is inevitable that a percentage of those in these conditions will end up in terrorist groups.

As if the situation in Syria and Iraq is not dire enough, consider the following similar ones:

  • In Yemen, the war between the Houthis and the government, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has led to three million refugees and 15 million Yemenis on the brink of starvation.  Both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an IS affiliate are active in Yemen.
  • In Nigeria the government’s war against the Boko Haram terrorist group has led to over 200,000 refugees abroad and 2 million IDPs.  There is also an Islamic State affiliate in Nigeria (IS in West Africa)
  • In Somalia, the decade-long war against the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab terrorist group has caused close to 1 million refugees and 2.1 million IDPs.  IS again has a small affiliate  in the country
  • In Myanmar the campaign against the Rohingya has spawned a refugee flight (largely to Bangladesh) of close to 1 million.  Terrorist groups are known to operate among the refugees.

If any of these conflicts are not adequately resolved we will be faced with future terrorist threats.  Some Canadians may seek to travel to join these groups and we will face the same repatriation issue we see in Iraq and Syria today.  More importantly, festering humanitarian crises will lead to more instability, not less, and terrorism will be part of that mix.  We need to keep focused on these refugee and IDP disasters and not walk away just because we believe we defeated terrorist group X (as the US President recently tweeted about IS).  These victories would be pyrrhic indeed.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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