What threat do returning foreign fighters pose?

As we still reel from the foiled terrorist attack  last week in Strathroy, Ontario, we can still rest assured that attacks, successful or not, remain a rarity in Canada.  In the period since 9/11 we have had no more than 8 such incidents: on average one every two years.   When we compare our experiences with those of our close allies, let alone countries where terrorism is a weekly – if not daily – event, we see that we are very safe in Canada.

(For the record, the eight are: the Toronto 18 (2006), Project Samossa (Ottawa – 2010), Via Rail (2013), Victoria legislature (2013), St-Jean-sur-Richelieu (2014), National War Memorial/Parliament Hill (2014), Canadian Forces recruiting centre (2016), and last week’s attempt)

That safety may be undermined in the coming months and years, however.

The incidence of terrorist attacks may spike because of the phenomenon of what are called “foreign fighters”.  The term has come to be understood as those who leave their home countries to fight in wars that their own governments have not sanctioned – more specifically people who have become radicalised and travel to join terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or Islamic State.

While this is not a new phenomenon, it has come to the fore of late because of what is happening in Syria and Iraq.  Terrorist groups there have welcomed an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, as many as 30,000.  These volunteers come from all over the world – Tunisia appears to have sent the largest cohort – and of greater concern to the West is the long list of countries from which wannabe jihadi soldiers have left to join up.  We in Canada are told by CSIS and the RCMP that a few hundred or so have abandoned our country for the apparent glamour of jihad and possible martyrdom.

These numbers are unprecedented but we can perhaps learn from what happened in previous wars (shameless self promotion: my book Western Foreign Fighters: the threat to homeland and international security is due to be published this January by Rowman and Littlefield).  Veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets – the so-called “Afghan Arabs” – left Central Asia after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops ignominiously and although some went on to “jihads” in Bosnia and Chechnya, others went home.  Once back in familiar settings, some returned to normal lives while others, now even more heavily radicalised and with seasoned battlefield experience, caused havoc in their homelands.

Historical analysis, especially that carried out by Thomas Hegghammer in Norway and David Malet in Australia, demonstrates that not all veterans return to carry out terrorism back home.  Hegghammer estimates that 1 in 9, or 10 percent, do so.  That figure should give us some comfort.

Even so, the research by Hegghammer leaves questions unanswered.  Will historical trends continue or will we see a greater percentage of returnees engage in terrorism?  And, perhaps most importantly, which ones are the real McCoys and which ones have no violent intent?  The answer to that question is still wanting.

We in Canada learned last week in the wake of the failed bomb attack in a small Ontario town that distinguishing “talkers” from “walkers” is nigh impossible.  There is no template or tool that I have seen that can reliably winnow those who will act from what we in the security intelligence used to call “couch jihadis”.  There are too many variables that are in constant motion to make that judgment. Absent active monitoring, some will evade detection and succeed in their plans.

But back to foreign fighters.  The challenge facing CSIS and the RCMP is to know who has gone and who has come back (fortunately, some die in theatre – this is not callous but rather an acknowledgement that a dead terrorist is no longer a threat to be monitored).  Some evade scrutiny and if you do not know who has left for jihad it is difficult to know that they may pose a threat upon return.  These agencies will have to do assessments on the people on their radar and keep those assessments evergreen: the case of Mr. Driver shows that someone can escalate in a short period of time.  Once that is done, the resources have to be deployed to watch them (as we learned from the RCMP’s Mike Cabana last week, the Mounties simply cannot watch everyone).  If there is enough evidence to lay charges, either immediately upon return or after investigation here in Canada, then that will be done.  If not, how long can authorities keep eyes on a returnee?  From a Charter perspective, how long should they maintain investigations and when does it become clear that a given individual no  longer poses a threat?  All very good questions with no easy answers.

Other countries (France, Germany, Belgium) have suffered attacks from returning foreign fighters.  Some of those who are Canadian and make it back will return with lethal intent  in the near future.  Our security and law enforcement agencies will identify and neutralise most.  We need to prepare for the few that will get through.




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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