The Islamic State’s recent global terror campaign—including the October 31 downing of a Russian passenger jet that killed 224 and the November 13 shooting attacks in Paris that killed 130 restaurant patrons and concert-goers—has increased the urgency for the U.S. to lead a global alliance to defeat the Islamic State and its ideology.
ISIS has also been able to establish a presence in at least 19 different countries within the past two years, even in places where its competitor, al-Qaeda, has been operating for years. With a slick and sophisticated Internet and social media presence, and by capitalizing on the civil war in Syria and sectarian divisions in Iraq, ISIS has been able to attract more than 25,000 fighters from outside ISIS’s territory to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria.
These foreign fighters include over 4,500 citizens from Western nations, including around 250 U.S. citizens who have either traveled to the Middle East to fight with extremist organizations or attempted to do so. The civil war in Syria has been the main catalyst for young people to leave their home countries and volunteer to team up with ISIS to fight the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Failure of Western nations to respond to incidents like Assad’s 2013 chemical attack on civilians in Ghouta facilitated ISIS recruiting. Unexpected ISIS success in Iraq, where in June 2014 it captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate that same month, has further accelerated the flow of fighters to the region. Never has a conflict generated such a large number of foreign fighters so quickly.
ISIS’s unprecedented success in recruiting fighters from around the world is largely due to its ability to convince impressionable young Muslims of a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West, making it the duty of all Muslims to join the war. ISIS claims the battle is best joined in the caliphate in the areas under ISIS control in Syria and Iraq. The caliphate, according to ISIS, is a critical step in a chain of events leading to the apocalypse and a final Muslim victory over the “unbelievers.”
The most effective way to end the surge of foreign fighters to the region is for the U.S. and its international partners to demonstrate that ISIS is not invincible. Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R–AZ) said during a recent congressional hearing that “the longer ISIL remains undefeated in Iraq and Syria, the more potent its message is to those around the world who may be radicalized and inspired to join the group and spread violence and mayhem on its behalf.” Journalist Graeme Wood, in his seminal March 2015 article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” holds that the most important task is to deny ISIS territory, since without it, the group cannot claim to have established a caliphate.
Since August 2014, the U.S. has conducted over 6,900 air strikes against ISIS positions as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford reported in mid-October that the U.S.-led coalition has helped the Iraqis secure important advances against ISIS in recent months. The Iraqi Army, supported by U.S. air strikes, succeeded in recapturing the city of Ramadi in late December. Still, there are doubts that the Iraqi forces can maintain the momentum on their own, and it is likely that the U.S. will have to increase its level of military engagement in the region for the foreseeable future.
While military success against ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria is the best guarantee for stemming the foreign fighter pipeline, the U.S. must also lead a global approach to counter the ideology that drives people to join ISIS, and to implement policies that will prevent terrorist attacks in returning foreign fighters’ home countries. The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee Task Force report on foreign fighters that was released in late September laid out numerous recommendations for countering terrorist travel. The report suggests that the U.S. government do more to share information on terrorist travel with international partners; to bolster law enforcement in dealing with the growing threat; and to enhance community awareness about the problem of youth radicalization.
This Heritage Foundation Special Report analyzes ISIS presence, activities, and influence in each region of the world where it either operates directly, or indirectly through affiliated organizations, or in which it is actively recruiting fighters. Each regional section provides details on ISIS operational capabilities, recruitment, links with other organizations, competition with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and implications of the foreign fighter phenomenon for the security of individual nations.
Unprecedented Number of Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria
As of the start of 2015, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) reported that more than 20,000 foreign fighters had travelled to Syria from over 90 countries. A report released in September by the House Committee on Homeland Security estimated that these numbers have only grown, with at least 25,000 foreign fighters travelling to join the Syrian conflict, including 250 Americans. Most of these fighters have joined ISIS, which provides radical and disaffected Muslims with a unique call to action, to be part of an actual caliphate with a violent interpretation of Islamic law (sharia). Furthermore, ISIS has spread its message through social media, adeptly using propaganda aimed at multiple audiences, including references to Western popular culture, to draw fighters from the U.S. and Europe.
A March 2015 report commissioned by the United Nations Security Council found that the number of foreign fighters for Islamist causes worldwide was higher than it has ever been and had soared by 71 percent between mid-2014 and March 2015. The study concluded that Syria and Iraq, by far the biggest destinations for foreign fighters, had become a “finishing school for extremists.”
Islamist militants from around the world have been drawn to the fighting in Iraq and Syria in much greater numbers than they were drawn to the fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s, to fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s, to Afghanistan or Iraq post-9/11, or to conflicts in Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen in recent years. In all of these cases, radical Islamist ideologues appealed to Sunni Muslims to mobilize and join a jihad (holy war) in defense of fellow Sunni Muslims who were allegedly threatened by non-Muslims or by secular dictatorships.
In Syria, the Assad regime is perceived to be vulnerable on both scores: It is a secular dictatorship imbued with the pan-Arab socialist ideology of the Baath (Renaissance) Party, and it is dominated by Alawites, a religious minority regarded as apostates by hard-core Sunni Islamists. The Iraqi government is dominated by Shiite political leaders, who are considered heretics aligned with Iran by their Sunni enemies.
While most of the foreign fighters are joining ISIS, some have gravitated toward rival Islamist extremist groups fighting in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra (the Victory Front), al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Al-Nusra has an estimated 5,000 members to 6,000 members and has emerged as one of the top two or three rebel groups fighting Syria’s Assad dictatorship. About 30 percent of al-Nusra’s fighters are foreign volunteers, according to its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Julani. Al-Julani, a lieutenant of then-Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Baghdadi, established al-Nusra as an AQI offshoot in late 2011. Al-Nusra has since adopted a more pragmatic course than its parent organization, and has cooperated with moderate Syrian rebel groups against the Assad regime, as well as against ISIS.
When Baghdadi unilaterally proclaimed the merger of AQI and al-Nusra in April 2013 to form the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Julani rejected the merger and renewed his pledge to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Since then, the two groups have clashed repeatedly, causing an estimated 3,000 deaths as of March 2014.
Al-Nusra has focused its attention on overthrowing the Syrian regime, and has not emphasized its hostility toward the United States, although that is almost certainly a tactical—not a strategic—decision, and is sure to change if it consolidates power within Syria. As an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra released a propaganda video in June 2015 glorifying past al-Qaeda attacks against the United States. Of even greater concern is the case of Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ohio who trained with al-Nusra or ISIS in Syria in the spring of 2014 and was suspected of planning an attack on a U.S. military base in Texas upon return.
Al-Nusra also poses a potential threat because of its recruitment of a growing number of foreign Islamist militants, including from Europe and the United States. According to U.S. officials, al-Nusra has worked closely with the Khorasan group, a cadre of experienced al-Qaeda operatives dispatched to Syria by al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri to organize terror attacks against Western targets. At least one American citizen, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, conducted a suicide truck bombing for al-Nusra in northern Syria on May 25, 2014, the first reported suicide attack by a fighter from America in Syria.
Foreign fighters also have joined the war in Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime. Iran has deployed up to 2,000 Revolutionary Guards to fight alongside, train, and support regime forces, as well as several thousand Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Iranian-trained Shiite militia fighters from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
ISIS Recruitment: The Caliphate’s Siren Call
ISIS is currently focused on establishing a revolutionary Islamic stronghold in Iraq and Syria, but ultimately seeks to overthrow every government in the region and drive Western influence out of the Middle East, allowing the group to become the nucleus of a global Islamic empire. Baghdadi represents a new generation of al-Qaeda leadership that bristles at criticism of its extreme brutality from old guard leaders, like al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor. After declaring a caliphate in June 2014, Baghdadi renamed himself Caliph Ibrahim, signaling his determination to become recognized not only as the true successor to bin Laden, but more important, as the successor of the prophet Mohammed. This claim has been ridiculed by various Islamic scholars and religious leaders and rejected by many rival Islamist extremist groups. But it adds a dangerous new dimension to the appeal of the Islamic State that is being amplified by a sophisticated propaganda apparatus that spews high-quality media content on a variety of social media that appeal to far too many young Muslims.
ISIS claims that true Islam is being practiced in its caliphate, the expansion of which will restore Muslim dignity and stature lost to the West. In the caliphate, according to ISIS propaganda, a Muslim can live out his faith in a committed Muslim community that offers camaraderie and identity. Working to expand the state, whether as fighters, mothers birthing the next generation of militants, or civil servants keeping the bureaucracy running, offers a sense of purpose and a cause greater than oneself.
ISIS recruiters know their target audience and understand how to appeal to potential recruits through a broad spectrum of social media. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) interviewed former foreign fighters for Islamist extremist groups. The ISD found three major motivations for joining: (1) reacting to a perceived injustice or persecution, (2) loneliness and search for identity, and (3) seeking purpose and meaning, a search for something bigger than oneself.
There is no single explanation for what drives a person to embrace extremism, as the process is driven by a complex mix of triggering events and personal and environmental factors. Former CIA case officer Patrick Skinner maintains that those fighting for ISIS can be subdivided into three main categories: “the Psychopaths, the Pious, and the Pragmatists.” Foreign fighters tend to fall into either the Psychopaths or Pious. The Pragmatists are generally Syrians or Iraqis who have joined the fight on behalf of ISIS for non-ideological reasons, such as collecting a paycheck, advancing tribal interests, or fighting common enemies, such as in the case of Iraqi Baathists and members of Saddam Hussein’s military and security organizations.
Some Western recruits fall into the category of Psychopath. They are seeking adventure and violence, and they usually have little to no military experience. Often they are used for violent propaganda and suicide missions. The Pious are drawn to join ISIS for religious reasons. These fighters believe they are fulfilling a religious obligation by undertaking a hijra (a religious migration) to the self-proclaimed caliphate.
ISIS calculates that the release of propaganda videos of the grisly executions of innocents will intimidate the terrorist group’s enemies, inspire its followers, and incite further attacks against the enemies of ISIS. The spectacle of ritual killing is meant to dramatize the power of the movement and the helplessness of its victims, thereby encouraging fanaticism among its followers. The slickly packaged propaganda seeks to stimulate and galvanize members of the movement, spur potential recruits to join in the carnage, and incite additional attacks.
By displaying young Muslim militants brazenly taunting a superpower, it advertises an intoxicating blend of religious fanaticism and revolutionary violence that attracts impressionable young people. In the Middle East, the ruthless employment of violence often is taken as a sign of strength that should be emulated.
When recruiting Western fighters, ISIS often looks for recent converts or those with little knowledge of Islam. As many as one in six fighters from Europe is a convert to Islam; many are looking for answers to the basic questions of life and find purpose in the mission of ISIS. Mubin Shaik, a former Taliban recruiter who is now a national security operative in Canada, told the International Business Times that Islamist recruiters target people who have little knowledge of Islam; “[p]eople who were converts, because converts would probably have problems with their parents at home, so they were more likely to stay in our company.” Sometimes the initial contact these targeted recruits have is from recruiters who hang around classes for converts at their local mosques to radicalize them. ISIS recruiters have become increasingly skilled in using social media, and often use Western foreign fighters to recruit other Westerners. The age of most Western foreign fighters ranges from 18 to 29. These are people who have grown up in the age of social media. ISIS recruiters use Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, and Ask.fm to spread propaganda, romanticize the Islamic State, and answer questions and build relationships with curious potential recruits.
There is a vetting process that includes progressive indoctrination to bring foreigners into the Islamic State. After an individual is identified as interested in joining ISIS, an interview is set up via Skype or local contact. The interview is used to determine the legitimacy of the person’s interest. The vetting process includes finding a mentor for potential recruits, either online or in person, who serves as a guide while screening the recruit. The recruiter inculcates the narrative of being a part of the brotherhood, a community of friends and like-minded individuals working toward a larger goal. The recruit then transitions to becoming a foreign fighter as his recruiter/mentor helps him to travel to Syria or Iraq to join with the group.
The United States. The majority of foreign fighters in ISIS come from Arab nations, particularly Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Yemen. But the fact that more than 4,500 of ISIS fighters come from Western countries, including 250 from the U.S., has raised alarm about threats they pose to the U.S. homeland. Armed with a U.S. passport and radical, violent ideologies, these individuals could return to strike inside the U.S. Furthermore, because these individuals are often radicalized here in the U.S., it is possible that some will forgo travel to Syria and Iraq and instead carry out terrorist attacks inside the U.S.
ISIS has already inspired several attacks in the U.S. The most notable was the recent shootings in San Bernardino, California, carried out by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik that killed 14. The investigations into the attacks so far show that Farook and Malik had been radicalized for some time and seem to have been inspired by ISIS ideology. In addition to the San Bernardino attacks, the U.S. has faced 11 other terror plots that were inspired by ISIS’s ideology and message, such as Zale Thompson’s hatchet attack on New York City police officers in October 2014. On May 3, 2015, there was a foiled attack by two Islamist extremists who were fatally shot by police before they could commit mass murder in Garland, Texas. Another case is that of Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Somalia, who travelled to Syria in 2014 and trained with al-Nusra or ISIS before being ordered to return to the U.S. to engage in terrorism. He was arrested before he could attack a military base in Texas. Those who have joined ISIS or other terrorist groups, have been trained and seen combat, only to return to the U.S. with that training and those connections to terrorist groups, are a serious threat to the U.S. homeland. While some may return to the U.S. because they have grown disenchanted with the cause, the violence, or with the living conditions, any returnee should be viewed as a high risk unless it is conclusively determined that the returnee could be an asset in de-radicalizing others.
FBI Director James Comey has stated that tracking Americans who have returned from Syria is one of the FBI’s top counterterrorism priorities. Comey revealed that the FBI is investigating suspected ISIS supporters in all 50 states. In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder urged his international counterparts to block the flow of thousands of foreign fighters to Syria, which he termed “a cradle of violent extremism.” Speaking at a conference in Norway Holder had declared:
We have a mutual and compelling interest in developing shared strategies for confronting the influx of U.S.- and European-born violent extremists into Syria. And because our citizens can freely travel, visa free, from the U.S. to Norway and other European states—and vice versa—the problem of fighters in Syria returning home to any of our countries is a problem for all of our countries.
Europe. Europeans have constituted a significant source of foreign fighters for ISIS. Because of their tremendous propaganda value, European citizens are highly sought after and the target of major recruitment operations by ISIS. Western foreign fighters create a “shock” factor for a Western audience in a way not possible by a local fighter. Westerners are jarred when they witness someone, like Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John,” with a British accent decapitating journalists and aid workers. (A U.S. Army spokesman reported that U.S. officials were “reasonably certain” that Jihadi John was killed in a U.S. drone strike in mid-November.)
Europe has a significant, and ongoing, problem with homegrown radicalization. For example, in the U.K., 69 percent of Islamist-related offenses committed between 1999 and 2010 were carried out by British nationals. The comparable figure in the United States between 1997 and 2011 was 54 percent.
This problem has only been heightened with the rise of ISIS. An analysis of all ISIS plots in the West (directed or inspired by the group) from the declaration of its caliphate to August 2015, shows that 66 percent of plotters were living in the very country they were aiming to attack. The two large plots over which ISIS has had operational control—the Verviers, Belgium, cell disrupted in January 2015 and the Paris atrocities of November 2015—relied overwhelmingly on operatives who were citizens of those countries.
This demonstrates that Europe’s problem goes beyond an inability to adequately integrate new immigrants, as many radicalized individuals are second-generation or even third-generation Muslims born in Europe. The proliferation of social media and message boards has given ISIS access to marginalized or disgruntled European youth, who are more susceptible to targeted and slick recruitment tactics.
Socioeconomic factors, often named as a source of radicalization, do not explain the radicalization of Muslims in Europe. In the U.K., 42 percent of Islamist-related offenses were perpetrated by employed individuals or full-time students. Almost one-third had attended college. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, the Nigerian student who tried to blow up an airplane flying from the U.K. to the U.S. with explosives in his underwear on Christmas Day 2009, was the wealthy son of a banker and had graduated from the prestigious University College London. Radicalization of well-off Muslims in Europe should not be surprising, as Osama bin Laden himself, as well as certain 9/11 hijackers, came from wealthy families in their home countries.
There are an estimated 3,500 foreigners from Europe currently fighting for ISIS; this number more than doubles when including fighters from the North Caucasus in southern Russia. And, not just men are following the call of ISIS: Dozens of young women have travelled to Syria and Iraq to marry fighters. In Belgium and now France, these fighters have returned to Europe to plan attacks. Most notably, the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris were planned and executed in part by ISIS fighters returning to Europe from Syria.
Almost every European country has been an origin of fighters for ISIS. However, the Nordic region, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and Western Europe are worth examining in detail, as the bulk of Europe’s foreign fighters come from these four regions.
1. The Nordic Countries. The Nordic countries have recently undergone swift demographic changes and have struggled to assimilate new immigrants, some of whom have been susceptible to radicalization. Sweden has taken in large numbers of refugees from the Middle East, up to 190,000 in 2015 alone, second only to Germany, which will accept more than 1 million asylum seekers, mostly young Muslim males, in 2015. Sweden has also taken in a large number of Somali and Iraqi refugees over the past two decades. Unemployment is rampant among many of these migrant communities. For example, over half of foreign-born residents in Sweden are unemployed.
Denmark has tightened its asylum laws, and instituted a temporary residence permit for asylum seekers from countries embroiled in civil war. However, the Nordic region’s interconnectedness means that new measures to curb asylum seekers in one country may not be effective. For instance, “citizenship” agreements between Nordic nations allow refugees who obtain Swedish citizenship to move to Denmark without a Danish resident permit.”
Denmark has some of the highest per capita rates of citizens traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS in all of Western Europe. Danish security services estimate that about 115 Muslims with Danish citizenship have traveled to Iraq and Syria to wage jihad, and note that the numbers could be higher. Danish security forces assess the domestic terror threat as stemming mainly from individuals and small groups that already have a militant Islamist outlook, and are then inspired by ISIS to act, like the lone wolf perpetrator of the Copenhagen attack. In February 2015, a 22-year-old Danish citizen who had sworn allegiance to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi attacked a synagogue and a café in Copenhagen killing two before being fatally shot after opening fire on police.
The other Nordic nations also face the threat of returning fighters. Approximately 300 Swedes have traveled to Iraq and Syria for jihad, with 80 believed to have returned to Sweden. In addition, 70 Norwegians are believed to have traveled to the region to fight, with 20 having returned to Norway. While Finland does not have as many citizens traveling to fight in Iraq and Syria, at least 60 Finnish passport holders are estimated to be fighting with the Islamic State. In December 2014, four Somalis living in Finland were convicted of financing terrorist acts, with one also convicted of recruitment to commit terrorism and planning to commit terrorist acts. It was the first terrorism trial in the country’s history.
2. The Caucasus. The Caucasus can be divided into two unique geographical areas separated by a major mountain range bearing the same name. For the purposes of this Special Report, the North Caucasus encompasses the Russian areas of Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia; and the South Caucasus encompasses Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.
The Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus threatens to turn the region into a haven for international terrorism and to destabilize the entire area, which is a critical hub of oil and gas pipelines located at Europe’s doorstep. Neither Russia’s excessive use of military force nor its massive economic aid to the region appear to have helped quell the threat of terrorism. Some estimates claim there are as many as 3,000 Chechens fighting for the Islamic State.
The South Caucasus has been a culturally, economically, and militarily important regional crossroads for centuries. While this strategic location has sometimes provided benefits, in the case of the rise of ISIS, it clearly is a liability. This is because the South Caucasus is increasingly becoming a recruiting ground and transit route for fighters heading to Syria.
The number of Georgians fighting for the Islamic State is around 100, while the number of Azerbaijani fighters is between 200 and 300, including Azerbaijani wrestling champion, Rashad Bakhshaliyev, who was killed fighting for the Islamic State in 2014.
Visa-free travel, cheap transit costs, and shared land borders between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey make getting to Iraq and Syria relatively easy. Georgia, which borders Chechnya and Dagestan, two extremist hotbeds in southern Russia, serves as a major transit country for fighters headed to Syria and Iraq. Georgia also has a land border with Turkey, another major transit country for fighters entering Iraq and Syria.
Perhaps the most well-known Islamic State fighter from the Caucasus is Tarkhan Batirashvili, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani—“Omar the Chechen.” After a stint in the Georgian army he now serves as an Islamic State senior commander with authority over Aleppo, Raqqa, Latakia, and northern Idlib provinces in Syria. His fair skin and red beard have become a regular feature in Islamic State propaganda products.
3. The Balkans. The Balkans have long served as Europe’s tinder box. Although security in the region has improved dramatically since the 1990s, sectarian divisions remain and are exacerbated by sluggish economies, high unemployment rates, and endemic political corruption.
The region has not yet suffered an attack by the Islamic State, but has served as a fertile recruiting ground for the group. High unemployment and stagnant economies have added to the social pressures in the Balkans. Islamic State recruiters have taken advantage of the fact that many men feel marginalized from mainstream society and see few options for the future. There are several hundred fighters from the Balkans fighting in Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters have even formed a “Balkans Battalion” for the Islamic State. The bulk of the fighters have come from Kosovo, but others can be traced back to Albania, Bosnia, and the Republic of Macedonia.
The region is important for the Islamic State for reasons beyond recruitment. The Balkans are becoming an important transit route for the Islamic State, allowing fighters to travel between Western Europe and the Middle East. This is especially true for Greece and Croatia with their long coastlines. There is concern that, if the current trajectory continues, ISIS could use the Balkans to plan and launch attacks across the rest of Europe.
4. Western Europe. Western Europe is also a major recruiting ground for ISIS. As a consequence, the region has also been the location of multiple terrorist attacks. One study showed a total of 13 ISIS or ISIS-inspired plots in Western Europe between July 2014 and August 2015. This number has now increased following the spate of attacks across France in November 2015.
France alone has an estimated 1,550 citizens or residents involved in some form with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, 800 of whom have traveled to the region. As many as 650 Belgian, 550 German, 700 British, and 100 Dutch citizens have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria. This is in addition to smaller numbers of fighters from Austria, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland.
One of the key vulnerabilities of Western Europe derives from the free movement of persons within the EU’s open-borders “Schengen zone.” Inside the Schengen zone, the EU forbids systematic checks of EU citizens against various law enforcement databases. Furthermore, no uniform EU air-passenger-screening system exists. This is particularly problematic as potential foreign fighters traveling to Iraq and Syria frequently travel to Greece (which is within the Schengen zone) or Bulgaria before crossing the land border into Turkey. The same ease of crossing borders inside the Schengen zone applies to foreign fighters who return to Europe.
Immigration and Assimilation Challenges. A study by the Centre for Hizmet Studies found that the radicalization of Western European citizens occurs most often when Islamist extremists take advantage of certain conditions, including an identity crisis; perceived grievances; a sense of helplessness; or a sense of alienation from, or stigmatization by, broader society.
Instead of seeking long-term solutions to controversial issues like immigration and assimilation, many European countries have focused solely on legislative responses. An anti-terrorism law passed prior to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January 2015 allows France to seize the passports of citizens suspected of trying to leave the country to engage in terrorist activity. Additionally, the French parliament is expected to pass a bill that will increase the power of the government to surveil suspected terrorists. The Georgian government has responded to the foreign fighter problem by also proposing legislation making it a criminal act to join or support terrorist groups. Denmark enacted a law in 2015 under which Danish citizens suspected of planning to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside ISIS can have their passports confiscated and be banned from travel outside the country. Norway passed a statute in 2013, criminalizing preparatory acts of terrorism. Sweden has proposed legislation that would put in place passport restrictions against Swedes looking to fight with ISIS.
The U.K. faces a massive problem from homegrown terrorism. MI5, the domestic security agency, is now thought to be monitoring 3,000 terror suspects (up from 2,000 monitored in 2007). The U.K. has struggled to deal with the radicalization of Muslim youth for decades. British Muslims travelled to fight in Bosnia in the early 1990s. One British Muslim is believed to have carried out a suicide bombing in Afghanistan as early as 1996, and it has been estimated that between 1997 and 2000, another 200 were killed fighting in Kashmir, Chechnya, and Afghanistan. Authorities did little to stop recruitment, fundraising, or the preaching of jihad in radical mosques. For example, the Finsbury Park Mosque in London became a European hub for helping aspiring jihadists either receive terrorist training or engaging in jihad abroad.
British authorities started to take the problem more seriously after 9/11. This led to the arrest in March 2004, and subsequent convictions, of members of a British cell planning to detonate fertilizer bombs, as well as the arrest in August 2004 of al-Qaeda operative Dhiren Barot. As successful as U.K. security agencies and police have been in thwarting terrorist attacks, they were ultimately unable to prevent the suicide attacks on London public transportation in July 2005, which killed 52, or the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists in South London in May 2013.
The Conservative government in the U.K. has been aware of the ongoing problems posed by radicalization. In 2011, in its first term in office, David Cameron’s government revised the previous government’s “Prevent” counter-extremism program, indicating that it was flawed in serious ways. For instance, the Conservative government pointed out that a portion of the funding for Prevent programs ended up in the hands of organizations espousing extremist ideologies. The Prevent program thus, in effect, supported the very organizations it was created to stop.
In this reformulated “Prevent,” the government also provided a definition for the type of extremism it was combating: “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. We also include in our definition of extremism calls for the death of members of our armed forces.”
The government has also now provided a definition of British values in an attempt to undercut the extremist narrative and strengthen national cohesion. It defined these values as a belief in “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs.”
The government’s battles on this front do not just pertain to the violent extremism espoused by ISIS or al-Qaeda, but also “soft Islamist” entry into the public sphere. For example, in 2014, the “Trojan Horse” scandal revealed that Islamists were taking over local school governing bodies (particularly in Birmingham, West Midlands) in order to enforce the teaching of hardline, intolerant Islamic views in the classroom.
In late October 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron announced new proposals to counter extremism and the radicalization of British youth. The new measures aim to curb the flow of foreign fighters from the U.K. to the Middle East by allowing parents to revoke their children’s passport if they suspect that they are interested in travelling to the Middle East to fight with ISIS. The new plan also includes steps to prevent radical material from being posted online, and to bar anyone who expresses support for terrorism or extremism from working with children. Calling the struggle against Islamist extremism “one of the great struggles of his generation,” Cameron also re-emphasized the importance of promoting national values like tolerance of different faiths.
Cameron’s statements provoked criticism by some Muslim organizations, who claimed that they contained undertones of “McCarthyism.” Cameron defended his position by posting on his Facebook page: “While Islamist extremists in no way represent the true spirit of Islam, we cannot ignore the fact that they attempt to justify their views and actions through Islamic scripture and theology.”
Africa. Africa has had a foreign fighter problem for decades. Long before ISIS was spawned, North African militants flocked to Afghanistan to join the anti-Soviet mujahideen; a number of them returned to their native countries to found terrorist groups that still exist today. More recently, documents captured in Iraq in 2007 showed that 40 percent of foreign fighters who joined al-Qaeda in Iraq in a one-year period were North African.
The problem has worsened since the rise of ISIS. Citizens of as many as 13 African countries have joined the group and other Middle East terror organizations, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. One African country, Tunisia, is the world’s largest exporter of fighters to ISIS. Most of the fighters hail from the Arab countries of North Africa, though Nigeria recently claimed it had stopped 24,000 people from leaving the country, some of whom were allegedly bound for terrorist organizations.
The environments in the countries of North Africa heighten the appeal of ISIS’s message. All five have relatively high youth unemployment, which scholars have found has a strong association with terrorism in Europe. In 2013, the world youth unemployment rate was about 14 percent, while North African rates ranged from 18.5 percent (Morocco) to 51 percent (Libya). Most foreign ISIS recruits are between 18 years and 29 years old.
Corruption remains widespread as well. Tunisia has the best score for North African countries in Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, but receives only a 40 of 100, with 100 being the best possible score. Libya has the worst regional score, at 18. More broadly, Muslim-majority countries around the world, including in North Africa, fare poorly in many human development categories; for frustrated North Africans with few prospects, the solutions ISIS claims it has for the troubles of the Muslim world can be compelling.
The failure of the Arab Spring has added to the disillusionment of North Africans. As the revolutions began to sweep through the region in 2010, they ignited hope that, after decades of seemingly indissoluble autocratic misrule, a better life was within the grasp of millions who had known little of it.
Those hopes remain largely unrealized, however. An autocrat whose policies resemble those of former president Hosni Mubarak, toppled during the Arab Spring, is in power in Egypt. The revolution largely bypassed Algeria, and its president won a fourth term in 2014 in tarnished elections. Libya has collapsed into a virtual failed state. Moroccans enjoy more freedoms than most of their regional brethren, but no sweeping democratic advances are likely in the country. Tunisia has made the greatest democratic strides since 2010, yet they are fragile and reversible.
Tunisia’s laudable progress in human rights and democracy inadvertently deepened its radicalization problem. Hundreds of Islamists imprisoned by former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali were released after the 2011 revolution, and some Tunisian fighters took advantage of the newly open environment to return from abroad. One of the released prisoners, Seifallah ben Hassine, went on to found the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia that courted support in poorer communities in Tunisia.
North Africa is also overwhelmingly Sunni, and has experienced an upsurge of Sunnis subscribing to Salafism, a Sunni sect. Salafists believe that teachings derived from revelations after the time of Mohammed and of his immediate coterie are heretical aberrations from pure Islam. Adherents of a fanatical subset of Salafism, Salafi-Jihadism, believe they are divinely mandated to impose on the world their narrowly conceived version of Islam. ISIS is staunchly Salafi-Jihad, as are most other contemporary Islamist terrorist organizations.
Not all Salafists are interested in establishing a caliphate ruled by Islamic law—in fact, there are quietist Salafist factions that abjure all political activity. But as Salafism has grown in North Africa, so, too, has Salafi-Jihadism, widening the pool of people disposed to ISIS’s worldview.
Yet none of these phenomena fully explain Islamic radicalization. The majority of Muslims, including from impoverished and repressed countries, repudiate extremist Islam. Tunisia is North Africa’s least-corrupt and highest-ranked country in the U.N. Human Development Index, yet exports the most militants to ISIS. Morocco has the lowest youth unemployment rate and sends the second-most fighters to ISIS.
The complexity of the phenomenon partly explains why it has been so difficult for the countries of North Africa, and throughout the world, to stem the rising tide of radicalization. The Moroccan government has perhaps the most comprehensive program in the region, earning praise from the U.S. State Department. The Moroccans have constructed a multi-pronged approach that includes counter-radicalization initiatives, such as religious and political reforms, and deradicalization measures, such as outreach to radicalized prisoners and reintegration of reformed Islamists into society. Algeria and Tunisia also have committed to approaches that incorporate security measures and initiatives to address the ideological and environmental aspects of the problem. Egypt has taken an overwhelmingly military and law enforcement approach, while the Libyan government is virtually nonexistent and lacks the capacity to combat ISIS’s influence inside its borders.
South Asia. ISIS is seeking to make inroads into South Asia, but its efforts have so far met with only limited success. ISIS has sought to gain the allegiance of various terrorist groups in the region and in January announced the formation of the Khorasan group. Khorasan is an Islamic historical term used to describe the area encompassed by Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, and parts of other countries bordering Afghanistan. According to the Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad), South-Central Asia maintains a key role in establishing a global caliphate. The Hadith contains references to the Ghazwa-e-Hind (Battle of India), where the final battle between Muslims and non-Muslims before the end times will supposedly take place. One Hadith further says that an army with black flags will emerge from Khorasan to help the “Mahdi” (the prophesied redeemer of Islam) establish his caliphate at Mecca.
So far, only a handful of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders and a few disgruntled Afghan Taliban leaders have pledged their allegiance to ISIS leader Baghdadi. The announcement in late July 2015 that Taliban leader Mullah Omar died two years before could prompt further defections to ISIS. In fact, in early August, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which operates mainly in northern Afghanistan, announced its allegiance to ISIS and accused the Taliban of lying about the circumstances surrounding Mullah Omar’s death. The Pakistan-based anti-Shia sectarian outfit Jundullah also reportedly pledged support to ISIS.
The limited appeal of ISIS in South Asia is most likely due to the well-established roots of al-Qaeda in the region and al-Qaeda’s ability to maintain the loyalty of the various South Asian terrorist organizations. Al-Qaeda leader al-Zawahiri has carefully nurtured the group’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban, and publicly pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar’s successor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in August.
The number of fighters that have traveled from South Asia to fight with ISIS in Iraq and Syria also is relatively low. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that only around 50 fighters have traveled from Afghanistan, 500 from Pakistan, and merely a handful from India and Bangladesh.
Even though ISIS’s attempts to establish a foothold in Afghanistan have thus far been limited, its activities are complicating the militant landscape and contributing to overall instability. For example, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside a bank in Jalalabad on April 18, 2015, that killed 35 people. There have been sporadic reports of clashes between ISIS militants and the Taliban in eastern and southern Afghanistan, and a former Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Rauf, who pledged allegiance to ISIS earlier in the year, was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan in February 2015.
On July 7, a U.S. drone strike in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar killed more than two dozen ISIS fighters, including Shahidullah Shahid, former spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, who defected to ISIS ranks in 2014. In congressional testimony in 2015, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan General John Campbell said the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan largely consisted of rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban members.
The Afghan Taliban view ISIS as a direct competitor, vying for financial resources, recruits, and ideological influence. This competition was evident in a letter sent by the Taliban to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi in mid-June, urging the group not to take actions that could lead to “division of the Mujahideen’s command.” An Afghan Taliban commander told the Western media in May that elements of ISIS had started recruiting in the country and were moving in groups of a few dozen, conducting military exercises. He said that Taliban commanders are aware that their fighters are impressed with the territorial gains that ISIS has made in Iraq and Syria.
Zawahiri has sought to strengthen relations with Pakistan-based terrorist groups and make inroads with the Muslim populations in other parts of South Asia to help fend off ISIS encroachment. In September 2014, Zawahiri made a video announcement launching an al-Qaeda wing in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). In the video, Zawahiri assures Muslims in India, Bangladesh, and Burma that the organization “did not forget you and that they are doing what they can to rescue you from injustice, oppression, persecution, and suffering.”
With the world’s largest Muslim-minority population (around 176 million), India’s strong democratic foundations, which include a secular constitution guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities, have helped to limit proliferation of radical Islamist ideologies in the country. In September, more than 1,000 Indian Muslim clerics ratified a religious edict condemning ISIS and calling its actions “un-Islamic.”
Despite a general lack of interest so far from the Indian Muslim community in joining ISIS, Indian leaders must remain on guard. In June, Indian authorities arrested Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who was operating a pro-ISIS Twitter handle while working with a multinational company in Bengaluru, India’s high-tech hub. Mehdi was charged with allowing his account to serve as a meeting place for ISIS supporters and facilitating contact between top ISIS leaders. There are reportedly 10 members of the Indian Mujahideen (IM) indigenous terrorist group that have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS; however, the IM, as a group, has not sworn allegiance to Baghdadi.
Likewise, Bangladesh was founded on principles of secularism and pluralism, and most Bangladeshis value Bengali culture as part of their core identity, which has contributed to a traditionally tolerant society that eschews extremist ideologies. Still, a series of recent attacks in Bangladesh claimed by ISIS have raised fears that the group is developing a presence inside the country. On September 28, 2015, an Italian aid worker was gunned down while jogging in the streets of Dhaka. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, although the Bangladeshi government has denied that ISIS was involved. Five days later, masked gunmen riding on a motorbike killed a Japanese agricultural worker in northern Bangladesh. The attacks follow the murders of five secular bloggers since the beginning of the year and have raised alarm among the Western expatriate community in Bangladesh.
A bomb attack in late October in Dhaka during a procession commemorating the Shia holiday of Ashura was also claimed by ISIS, raising the prospect that ISIS operatives may be linking up with indigenous Bangladeshi terrorist groups. This was the first sectarian attack in the country, marking a possible major departure for the trajectory of Islamist violence in the country.
The Bangladeshi authorities arrested several members of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) in 2015 for making or attempting to make contact with ISIS. JMB is the Bangladeshi extremist group responsible for a series of bombings throughout the country in 2005. The previous government executed several of JMB’s leaders but the group was never fully eradicated. It is possible that an indigenous Bangladeshi terrorist group like the JMB is working either directly or indirectly with ISIS operatives.
In another sign of its growing interest in Bangladesh, ISIS recently published a five-page article titled, “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal,” in its flagship magazine Dabiq, which warned of further attacks against Westerners in Bangladesh.
Western Pacific Region. East Asia is home to the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, as well as one of its most economically developed, Malaysia. Combined, they represent 95 percent of Asia’s Muslim population. In Southeast Asia, specifically, it is these two countries that are most susceptible to the ISIS foreign fighter phenomenon. Several other countries in the region with significant Muslim minorities, the Philippines, Thailand, and Burma, for example, pose less of a direct problem. China has a relatively difficult-to-discern challenge in its west, and Australia, surprisingly, given its small Muslim minority, also faces a significant problem with foreign fighters.
Violent Islamists have been at work in Indonesia throughout its existence as an independent nation, from the Darul Islam (DI) movement and the secessionist Islamic State of Indonesia (NII) through the foreign fighter phenomenon around the Soviet war in Afghanistan to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the groups that have splintered off from it.
Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the founder of JI, Indonesia’s most effective terrorist organization of the past decade, comes from a DI background. He has now pledged allegiance to the claimed ISIS caliphate and encouraged his followers to do the same. JI, from which Ba’asyir ultimately broke, has been in decline for many years as a result of an effective government crackdown. It is now opposed to ISIS’s flavor of radicalism, in deference to al-Nusra’s, but groups that have emerged from it, including Ba’asyir’s own, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Mujahideen Indonesia Timor (MIT), have also pledged allegiance to ISIS. The head of MIT, Abu Warda Santoso, is the most high profile of Indonesia’s ISIS advocates. His group is very small—30 members—but it controls symbolically important territory in a very remote area of Indonesia, on Sulawesi Island. Much more significant in terms of real influence in Indonesia is Aman Abdurrahman, who serves as a central figure in connecting the dozen or so organizations aligned with ISIS in Indonesia.
Over the decades, one factor that has helped Indonesian authorities contain Islamist violence is the communal nature of the movement, that is, geographic, ethnic, and family ties among the foot soldiers. In addition to infiltrating these networks, however, ISIS is using modern media to overcome communal constraints. It is thereby appealing to a broader cross-section of Indonesian society than previous groups, and is gaining influence with people with no previous ties to violent extremism.
In another departure from most indigenous Indonesian Islamist movements, ISIS represents a direct threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty. Indonesia has been an independent nation for fewer than 70 years. Its political leadership and people are highly protective of the country’s sovereignty. Allegiance to ISIS means allegiance to a foreign power with the trappings of a state, territory, and government. This is new, and it has made Indonesian authorities particularly vigilant about stamping it out, to a much greater degree than previous terrorist organizations. The horrific violence that characterizes ISIS has also had an impact on Indonesia’s leadership. In 2014, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called the Islamic State’s violence “shocking” and “embarrassing” and “humiliating” to Islam.
In terms of numbers, estimates vary, but by one authoritative account, only about 159 Indonesians have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, not including families and charity workers. Eleven of these fighters “are confirmed dead, though there are estimates of higher casualty rates, while 11 have returned to Indonesia.” Other authoritative estimates put the number between 250 and 300. Not all of these fighters are going to Iraq and Syria to serve ISIS. Many are joining up with al-Nusra, which taps into a different, smaller range of organizations in Indonesia.
There also is an historical JI connection in Malaysia. Ba’asyir co-founded the organization there while in exile from Indonesia in 1993. Similar to Indonesia, ISIS in Malaysia has tapped into JI’s organizational structure and draws recruits already organized into cells. Also like in Indonesia, but to a much greater extent, ISIS is using Internet and social media to reach beyond these traditional sources for recruits.
There are between 67 and 154 Malaysian fighters in Syria and Iraq. Of these, “counterterrorism officials have confirmed 11 Malaysians have been killed, including six suicide bombers.” Multiple reports indicate that these low numbers are largely attributable to the efforts of the government to restrict travel.
Indonesians and Malaysians speak close variants of the same language. ISIS has sought to both take advantage of this and overcome the obstacle of the recruits’ near-illiteracy in Arabic by establishing Katibah Nusantara, an ISIS Southeast Asian unit, and schools for the children of recruits. Of course, this accommodation would also help ISIS build capacity to reach out to potential new recruits in the region.
Australian authorities recently estimated that approximately “120 Australians are currently fighting or are engaged with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.”Australia has some history with foreign fighters; approximately 30 fighters went to Afghanistan and Pakistan between 1990 and 2010. In addition, over the past decade or so, a handful of Australians have traveled to Lebanon to fight in the civil war there. This raises concern that Australian foreign fighters will take advantage of the links they already have to Lebanon to enter Syria, thus opening an alternative transit route to the Syrian–Turkish border. Another unique concern for Australia regarding ISIS is the emergence of an Australian convert, Musa Certanonio, as one of the most popular preachers and recruiters for ISIS globally.
With regard to China, assessing the foreign fighter phenomenon is made difficult by the context of China’s concern over separatism in its west, namely its oppressive policies there regarding the Muslim Uighur minority and reliance on state propaganda organs, rather than independent outlets, to disseminate information on the threat from the region.
Party-run sources in China have put the number of Uighur fighters going to fight in Syria and Iraq at 300 or more. This number almost certainly is too high. Independent estimates put it at between 20 and 30. Common linguistic and cultural connections to Turkey mean that Uighurs fleeing Chinese repression often go to Turkey and stay there, rather than travelling on to Syria. Chinese interest in combatting separatism in its Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region province colors any assessment or assertions Beijing makes about connections between ISIS and what has been called the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
In July 2014, Baghdadi singled China out for revenge, saying, “Muslim rights are forcibly seized in China, India, and Palestine,” and telling the Uighurs: “Your brothers all over the world are waiting for your rescue, and are anticipating your brigades.” Chinese media coverage of the speech pointed out that China was first on the list and displayed a map showing territory ISIS planned to take in the next five years, including a significant portion of Xinjiang. The speech may have served as a wake-up call for Beijing, but it also presented an opportunity to legitimize the state’s own unique concerns regarding its Uighur minority.
U.S. Tools to Stop Foreign Fighters
Given the growing number of foreign fighters, a brief analysis of U.S. intelligence and travel systems, as well as efforts to counter violent Islamist extremism, should be considered, as such tools constitute the primary ways the U.S. can combat the foreign fighter problem.
Intelligence. The U.S. has significant intelligence capabilities for tracking suspected terrorists. While this Special Report cannot do justice to adequately describe all those capabilities, the primary forms of intelligence in this area are signals intelligence (SIGINT) and human intelligence (HUMINT). Under SIGINT, the U.S. seeks to access or trace the electronic communications of known or suspected international terrorists. Different programs are bound by different rules, especially in terms of who is targeted. For example, one of the programs authorized by section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect communications from non-U.S. persons who are believed to be engaged in terrorist activity or otherwise have pertinent foreign intelligence information.
In the summer of 2015, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the USA Freedom Act. The act banned—180 days after the act became law—the NSA from bulk collection of metadata telephone records, which it had been doing under Section 215 of FISA and court orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The act now requires the government to request call-detail records on a specific selection term that identifies a “person, account, address, or personal device” from the FISC. The act requires the government to adopt minimization procedures of all call-detail records determined not to be foreign intelligence information. Under the now-expired Section 215, phone companies had been required to give the NSA metadata of all phone calls, to include the date and time of call, but not the contents of the conversations. The USA Freedom Act also prohibits the use, in court proceedings, of information obtained under the FISA Section 702 program—overseas surveillance of foreign citizens.
On the other hand, HUMINT sources gather intelligence based on individuals’ access to sensitive information. Outside the United States, the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency gather intelligence from individuals within or connected to some element of a terrorist organization or a nation state. Domestically, the FBI often receives reporting from informants on individuals who may be engaging in various aspects of terrorist activities. Indeed, the House Committee on Homeland Security recently found that more than 75 percent of foreign fighter arrests involved reports from human sources. Of course, the U.S. also receives a great deal of intelligence from American friends and allies. Through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), for instance, participant countries are required to provide the U.S. with information on known and suspected terrorists, serious criminals, and lost and stolen passports.
Multiple intelligence agencies as well as state and local law enforcement also monitor social media to detect individuals who may be looking to act on a violent ideology, a form of intelligence that may more aptly be described as open source intelligence (OSINT). Indeed, there is a growing capability in the cyber domain that enables tracking the activities of known or suspected terrorists. This type of collection is governed by many of the same rules applicable to the collection of signals intelligence described above.
These tools, however, face an intelligence budget that has fallen significantly over the past several years. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and the Military Intelligence Program (MIP) were appropriated a cumulative total of $80.1 billion. In FY 2013 and FY 2014, U.S. intelligence received just under $68 billion. U.S. intelligence programs have also faced greater restrictions, such as the changes exemplified by the USA Freedom Act, which curtailed the effective use of the section 215 program. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that “in terms of both direct compromises that have been made and conscious decisions we’ve made to throttle back—the damaging impact they’ve had in terms of foreign relationships, not to mention domestic partnerships.… You overlay that with the budget cuts we’ve incurred—three solid years of cutting intelligence—and the bottom line is…accepting more risk.” Such realities paint a picture of grave concern for how well the American intelligence community can continue to provide political decision makers, the military, and law enforcement communities with the information needed to prevent terror attacks on U.S. soil.
Travel. Intelligence is what allows the FBI, the nation’s primary domestic counter-terrorism organization, to investigate individuals whom it suspects of seeking to travel abroad to fight for a radical Islamist group or engage in terrorism here at home. The intelligence community provides a wide array of information that makes its way into one of several U.S. databases. The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) “is the U.S. Government’s central repository of information on international terrorist identities.” The FBI combines information from TIDE with its intelligence on domestic terrorism to compile the Terrorists Screening Database (TSDB), the central U.S. terrorism watch list that is then used to populate other sub-databases and watch lists that are used to prevent travel, or to at least notify authorities when an individual is travelling. For example, the Transportation Security Administration’s Secure Flight and No Fly and Selectee Lists, and the Customs and Border Protection’s TECS and Advance Passenger Information System, as well as other systems, derive their information from the TSDB and are used to prevent suspicious individuals from boarding flights, require additional screening, and alert officials to the attempted travel.
The VWP, which allows travelers from 38 trusted nations to visit the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days, is part of the solution. To join the VWP, member countries must share additional intelligence on known and suspected terrorists, serious criminals, and lost and stolen passports, which improves the U.S.’s ability to stop terrorist travel. The VWP also screens applicants through various government databases and watch lists, which, when combined with other programs mentioned above, ensures that individuals coming to the U.S. do not pose a threat. While Congress is worried that European citizens who became foreign fighters in Syria may abuse the VWP to attack the U.S., the reality is that the U.S. gains valuable intelligence through the VWP process that it otherwise may not receive. Indeed, the U.S. should consider judiciously expanding the VWP to other trusted countries, such as Poland, as that will improve U.S. intelligence and allow Washington to focus finite consular resources on higher-risk countries and individuals.
Ultimately, the failure to identify foreign fighters and self-radicalized terrorists springs from the lack of intelligence linking the individual to a violent, Islamist ideology. While improvements in the traveler screening systems could certainly be made to better detect and prevent prospective foreign fighters from travelling, the reality is that many succeed in making it to the Middle East because the U.S. does not have sufficient, actionable intelligence to justify preventing an individual from travelling. The House Committee on Homeland Security estimated that only about 15 percent of foreign fighters from the U.S. are stopped from reaching the conflict zone by U.S. law enforcement. Without credible intelligence of an individual’s radicalization and signs of planning to act on that radical ideology, a flight to or through Turkey for vacation is often indistinguishable from a trip to join ISIS.
Countering Violent Extremism. As a supplement to intelligence and traditional counterterrorism tools, Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs are aimed at preventing and reversing the radicalization of individuals to violent ideologies. CVE efforts must be driven primarily by local governments, the private sector, and civil society in order to address the specific local circumstances and environment, to be viewed as authentic and authoritative, and to be correctly focused. Only local partners can know what their community needs and how to correctly prevent radicalizing individuals from acting on a radical ideology. For example, a University of Southern California study prepared for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on CVE efforts in Minneapolis–St. Paul challenged common assumptions. Those who were recruited to join al-Shabaab from the Somali community were not necessarily poor or unsuccessful. Moreover, recruitment in this community, though supported by social media, depended largely on face-to-face interaction. Such unique features can only be noted by each local community and are key to successful CVE programs.
Currently, the U.S. has a CVE strategy, Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States, which wisely identified local law enforcement and community organizations as key to stopping radicalization. In December 2011, the White House followed up with its plan to implement that strategy, assigning responsibilities to a variety of federal agencies, with DHS leading or collaborating with others to reach most objectives, but also assigning many tasks to the FBI and the Department of Justice. However, this strategy has fallen short, lacking meaningful attention and resources.
Rolling back—and defeating—ISIS requires a global approach in which the U.S. leads a multi-pronged, multi-nation effort that seeks to deny ISIS the ability to hold territory; disrupts its recruitment of foreign fighters; and counters its destructive ideology. The U.S. must:
Deny Territorial Gains. One part of the solution must be military. The Islamic State derives much of its cachet and legitimacy from its success. The group’s glossy magazine, Dabiq, frequently trumpets ISIS victories as a sign of Allah’s favor, and even has a recurring feature titled, “In the Words of the Enemy,” which consists of quotations by senior Western officials lamenting ISIS gains. Driving ISIS from its conquered territories will undermine the group’s legitimacy in the eyes of aspiring jihadists, thereby hurting its ability to recruit.
Continue to Focus on High-Value Targets (HVT). ISIS is stocked with experienced and ruthless military leaders, who must continue to be targeted via drone strikes (providing there are no ground forces capable of carrying out the attack). Baghdadi is a clear high-priority target. However, drone strikes alone will not achieve victory over ISIS. They must be accompanied by a political, military, and ideological plan for resolving the Syria/Iraq crisis.
Shut Down the Foreign Fighter Pipeline. The key to shutting down the flow of foreign fighters is intelligence. The U.S. and its allies must work together to identify those individuals who intend to act on the violent Islamist ideology. This requires hard intelligence work and even closer coordination between countries to identify suspicious travel. This includes pushing allies to take greater intelligence and security measures that reflect the global nature of the threat. The U.S. should make greater use of state and local law enforcement, both as intelligence sources and as intelligence users. When debating intelligence funding and resources, Congress should consider the critical role that intelligence plays in thwarting terrorist activity.
Counter Islamist Ideology. The other important task is to defeat the ideology of Islamist extremism. Only Muslims have the knowledge and credibility within their communities to lead this fight. Morocco’s program of training foreign imams in the country’s Maliki school of Islam has potential, though the country’s continuing radicalization problem shows there is still a long way to go. Egypt has made the most high-profile attempt to fight extremist ideology. In response to calls for reform by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s Ministry of Education is removing radical texts from the curriculum of the network of schools it operates, including al-Azhar University, perhaps the Muslim world’s most respected center of learning.
Yet censorship is a simplistic and likely counterproductive approach, as scholars have pointed out. One of ISIS’s central conceits is that it is the only practitioner of unadulterated Islam. To illustrate its purity, the group applies a literalist interpretation of, or unearths obscure injunctions from, Islamic texts, and fastidiously and ostentatiously implements them. Censoring problematic texts is only another opportunity for ISIS to highlight and apply them, as it has done in stomach-churning fashion with texts that support slavery, thereby bolstering one of its primary claims to legitimacy. It would be better to present these texts and then teach a moderate interpretation of them, similar to how some leading Islamic scholars have debunked ISIS’s theological claims point by point.
Nor is it likely that state-led reform efforts will work. The ideological battle revolves around convincing Muslims of which interpretation of Islam is correct, and anything that suggests that reforms are driven by something other than the search for Islamic truth will delegitimize them. Government-led efforts can too easily be dismissed as politically motivated. Associating the reform movement with leaders like Sisi, whose increasingly authoritarian regime has brutalized many Egyptians, similarly taints the reform process. It would be far better to quietly, and with extreme care, support an organic reform movement that is recognized as a good-faith effort to elucidate moderate interpretations of Islamic texts.
An important way of undermining ISIS credibility and ideology is to amplify the stories of ISIS defectors. Most of the defectors have complained about the brutality that ISIS uses against fellow Sunnis, or have expressed their disillusionment with the factional infighting among the different extremist groups and the ISIS leadership’s obsession with weeding out spies and traitors. While those who fought for ISIS should face the legal consequences, they should also be encouraged to tell their stories of disappointment and disillusionment.
Approaches in Specific Regions
The Middle East
- Expand military action against ISIS. The White House should end its timidity and micromanaging of the war against ISIS and allow the Pentagon to mount a more robust military campaign, with much more intensive air strikes, expanded deployments of special operations forces, and the deployment of U.S. advisers embedded with the Iraqi army, Kurdish militias, and Sunni Arab militias operating much closer to the battlefront. The sooner the Islamic State’s control of territory is destroyed, the more its ideology is discredited and the sooner the flow of foreign fighters can be reduced. NATO allies may be willing to increase their military efforts due to the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks—but that will not happen without U.S. leadership.
- Stem flow of fighters into Syria and Iraq. Washington needs to do a better job of cutting off the flow of foreign fighters by working closely with U.S. allies, especially Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and NATO members. The U.S. should help Turkey increase the security of its border with Syria, especially the areas controlled by the Islamic State. The U.S. should promote greater intelligence sharing on the Islamic State, its recruitment activities, and the movement of new recruits to Iraq and Syria. In particular, Western, Arab, and Turkish intelligence agencies that have infiltrated the group with their own spies should share information useful for disrupting the recruitment, mobilization, and training of potential ISIS militants.
- Press Saudi Arabia to stop exporting Salafist ideology. The Saudi religious establishment promotes a Wahhabi Islamic doctrine that inculcates hatred of other religious groups, including Christians, Jews, and non-Sunni Islamic sects. This intolerant Sunni chauvinism leaves young Saudis open to the hostile ideological propaganda disseminated by ISIS and al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states also need to do more to halt the funding of ISIS and al-Qaeda by Islamic charities and Islamist networks in their own countries.
- Encourage emergence of more inclusive governments in Syria and Iraq. ISIS flourished by tapping in to the fears of Sunni Arabs repressed by predominantly non-Sunni regimes in Damascus and Baghdad. Many Sunni Syrians and Iraqis were not attracted to the harsh Islamist ideology promulgated by ISIS, but supported it as a lesser evil, compared to the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus or the Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad. The U.S. and its allies need to press for the departure of Bashar al-Assad from Syria and the replacement of his regime with a coalition government that reflects the interests of all Syrians. Washington also needs to increase pressure on the Iraqi government to reach out to Iraqi Sunni Arabs and Kurds, offer them greater autonomy and guarantee them a fair share of Iraq’s oil wealth. Only then will they be willing to fight in a united front against ISIS.
- Increase intelligence sharing. The U.S. and the U.K. have one of the closest intelligence-sharing arrangements in the world. The U.S. also closely shares intelligence with the other members of NATO. However, many countries in the Balkans, South Caucasus, and Nordic region play a role in countering foreign fighter recruitment and transit but are not in NATO. The U.S. must ensure that information-sharing and intelligence-sharing arrangements are in place with these non-NATO countries.
- Press Europeans to share the military burden. France has carried out airstrikes against ISIS in Syria; and following a recent vote in the House of Commons, America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom, has also now done so. (The U.K.’s previous military strategy of only bombing ISIS targets in Iraq made little sense, especially considering that ISIS’s center of gravity is in Raqqa, Syria). The U.K. must now encourage other European nations to provide greater assistance in the military response to ISIS—including attacking its territory in Syria.
- Strengthen and expand the Visa Waiver Program. The VWP is a valuable tool supporting U.S. national security. Before joining the VWP, U.S. allies and partners must first meet strict security and immigration requirements. The VWP allows residents of member countries to visit the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days in exchange for security-cooperation and information-sharing arrangements and reciprocal travel privileges for U.S. residents. Under the VWP, countries share more information with the U.S. and increase their airport security for flights departing for American destinations. Congress and the Administration should continually seek to improve and oversee the information-sharing relationships that the U.S. has with other countries through the VWP to ensure that the U.S. receives as much relevant information as possible. Given the many benefits of the VWP, the U.S. should examine how to judiciously increase VWP membership to allies like Poland.
- Address assimilation problems. Prime Minister Cameron’s recent announcement of new plans to counter extremism are welcome and should be implemented. Other European countries also need to address issues of assimilation and integration.
- Expand support for democracy. Democracies are not immune to radicalization, but the ability to freely exercise one’s rights can ameliorate an environment conducive to radicalization. The United States has recently de-emphasized democracy promotion in the Middle East and North Africa. It should reverse course and reinvigorate its commitment to fostering freer societies with a particular focus on buttressing civil society—critical to a thriving democracy—that is often seen as a threat in the more authoritarian countries of North Africa.
- Increase regional cooperation. ISIS recruitment in North Africa is a regional problem requiring a regional response. Terrorists can too easily slip across the porous borders in the Maghreb, and the region is so vast that only by cooperating can countries hope to begin disrupting the foreign fighter pipeline. The relationship that Tunisia and Algeria have developed around border security is a good model for the entire region, but will require Morocco and Algeria, in particular, to patch up their contentious relationship.
- Address the Libya crisis. The ongoing dismemberment of Libya is destabilizing North Africa, the Middle East, and areas beyond. There are now thousands of ISIS fighters carving out a stronghold in the country. ISIS is also using its Libyan bases to train foreign fighters who then travel to Syria. The United States should rally concerned European countries, and allies in Africa and the Middle East, to create a strategy for bringing a measure of stability to Libya if it wishes to curb the foreign fighter phenomenon.
- Exploit the rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS. With 9,800 U.S. troops still deployed in Afghanistan, where the al-Qaeda-supported Taliban and ISIS have fought pitched battles against each other, the U.S. is well-placed to exploit the rivalry between the two organizations. The U.S. can also work closely with Pakistan to jointly counter ISIS in the region. Although Pakistan has been unreliable when it comes to fighting Islamist groups that help it deny India regional influence, the Pakistanis are almost certainly worried about ISIS gaining ground in the region. Al-Qaeda currently holds ideological sway with most Pakistan-based terrorist groups, but ISIS’s powerful narrative could potentially take hold in the future, posing an existential threat to Pakistan.
- Emphasize communal harmony in India. The Muslim minority community in India regularly participates in elections and freely practices Islam under the protection of a secular constitution that respects the rights of religious minorities. Recent incidents of communal violence and a general sense that the current Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing a Hindu-centric agenda, however, are causing unease among pockets of India’s Muslim population. Restoring communal harmony and acknowledging the important contributions of Islam in India’s history will help deny ISIS fertile recruiting ground.
- Pay more attention to Bangladesh. ISIS’s claims of responsibility for the recent assassinations of two international aid workers and the bombing of a procession commemorating the Shia holiday of Ashura have raised concern that ISIS may be gaining ground in the third-largest Muslim-majority nation. The U.S. must support the Bangladeshi authorities in dealing with the potential ISIS threat and insist on fully transparent and joint investigations of recent attacks to determine any potential global linkages. Washington must also take a more assertive role in encouraging political dialogue between the ruling party and opposition since the current political deadlock is opening the door for Islamist extremists to gain more recruits and influence.
Western Pacific Region
- Help Indonesia to improve its National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT). As detailed by Australian National University scholar Dr. Greg Fealy in his report for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), “Indonesian and Malaysian Support for the Islamic State,” the BNPT has been “disappointing.” The U.S. could help “lift the quality of its work” by helping with “analysis of terrorist ideological and organization trends, better prison de-radicalization programs…and more sophisticated anti-terrorism campaigns.”
- Promote religious liberty more vigorously in Indonesia and Malaysia. The above referenced report to USAID also cites the widely documented slide in religious tolerance in both countries over many years. Religious intolerance is fertile ground for extremism. Greater extremism means a larger pool for foreign fighter recruits.
- Support liberty-minded networks. The Administration and Congress should support counter-extremism programs by building and strengthening liberty-minded Muslim networks, media, and school curriculums, like those of the LibForAll Foundation, that are working actively to attack Islamism at its ideological roots.
- Plan for success in Syria and Iraq. The next iteration of the foreign fighter problem in the region will be a product of defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The fighters there now, particularly those committed to building and defending the Islamic State, will be heading home once the organization is defeated in the Middle East. Like returnees from Afghanistan in the 1990s, the problem these trained terrorists present to all concerned in the region will have lasting impact. Governments should expand current intelligence and law enforcement cooperation now, with an eye to preventing this development.
The U.S. must lead a multi-pronged global effort to defeat ISIS. This will necessarily involve denying ISIS territory, disrupting its recruitment efforts, and uprooting its destructive ideology through carefully tailored regional strategies carried out with local partners. Without U.S. leadership in the fight, ISIS will continue to make territorial gains throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia—raising the specter of terrorist attacks across the globe.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation. Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Davis Institute. David Inserra is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security and Cybersecurity in the Allison Center. Daniel Kochis is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Davis Institute. Walter Lohman is Director of the Asian Studies Center. Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Allison Center. James Phillips is Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Allison Center. Robin Simcox is Margaret Thatcher Fellow in the Thatcher Center.