Counter-terrorism - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Foreign Fighters

39. Citizens of western countries travelling abroad to take part in foreign conflicts has been an area of concern as far back as the 1590s, when Guy Fawkes returned from fighting with the Spanish in the Eighty Years' War. More recently, British citizens have participated in the Afghan and Bosnian wars. In his July 2013 report, David Anderson QC, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation highlighted the threat posed by British nationals joining extremist organisations abroad.

    The travel of UK nationals overseas to engage in jihad presents a number of potential threats to the UK, both while these fighters are overseas and on their return to the UK. The nature of these threats can differ, depending on the country in which they are fighting or the terrorist group which is hosting them, but there are a number of common themes. While overseas, these fighters can help terrorist groups develop their external attack capability by providing links with extremist networks in the UK and information about potential targets and the operating environment. In addition to English language skills which can help these groups with media outreach, some foreign fighters may also have other specialist skills (e.g. scientific, IT) that can help to strengthen the capability of these groups. The intelligence services have also seen foreign fighters attempt to direct operations against UK interests abroad.[20]

40. In September 2013, US Congressman Peter King, former Chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, highlighted the extent of the current problem and the reason it raised concern amongst Western security agencies in his evidence to this inquiry.

    As recent events have demonstrated, one of the most significant challenges facing Western states in the fight against al Qaeda is stemming the flow of foreign fighters who attempt to fight alongside al Qaeda's affiliates in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, and other parts of the world. ... The willingness to travel to terror safe havens and join violent Islamist extremist groups, even when these attempts are unsuccessful, should be considered an indicator that these individuals are capable of carrying out attacks in their home countries, as in the case of the Woolwich attackers, one of who reportedly attempted to join al Shabaab in 2010, and in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Some reports suggest that Tsarnaev's travel to Russia in early 2012 was an attempt to meet with violent extremists in the Caucuses. Both of these individuals would return home and subsequently murder innocent victims in the name of jihad.[21]

These concerns are corroborated by an analysis carried out by Dr Thomas Hegghammer which found that on average, one in nine foreign fighters returned home to take part in a domestic terror plot. He found that plots with foreign fighters are more likely to reach fruition and twice as likely to have a lethal impact. He noted that

    a one-in-nine radicalisation rate would make foreign fighter experience one of the strongest predictors of individual involvement in domestic operations that we know. The predictive power of other biographic variables—whether nationality, economic status, or any other biographical trait studied so far—does not come close.[22]

41. There is recent evidence of UK citizens having fought in both Somalia and Yemen as well as a number of nationals fighting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. David Anderson QC found that previous travel to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas for extremist training has been a feature of a number of terrorist plots in the UK, including four of the five plots disrupted in 2010-2012.[23] However, the numbers of foreigners fighting in each of these arenas has been dwarfed by those that are now travelling to take part in the Syrian civil war.

42. The uprising in Syria has involved many organisations with different political views and tactics; some are connected with and supported by Al Qa'ida. The conflict in Syria has drawn extremists on both sides; whilst instability across that region has provided new ungoverned spaces for terrorists to operate in. Trends in the conflict have reflected both diversification and profusion of armed groups and improvement in the size and capabilities of some actors relative to others. Many groups and units who claim to coordinate under various fronts and coalitions in fact appear to operate independently and reserve the right to change allegiances.[24] We took evidence from a broad range of people both inside and outside of the British Government on the threat from foreign fighters travelling to Syria.

43. Few, if any, Governments or Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) can accurately and independently verify the size, equipment, and current areas of operation of terrorist groups operating in Syria. While there is much good work going on both inside and outside of Government to understand the conflict dynamics and the implications for security in Syria, the region and more widely, we should be cautious in accepting hard numbers without appropriate evidence. A report by the Congressional Research Service suggests that:

    open source analysis of armed groups operating in Syria relies largely on the self-reporting of individual groups and coalitions. Information is not evenly and regularly available for all groups. Verification is imperfect and is based on independent analysis of self-reported and third party-reported information. Social media outlets and news reports can help verify information, but most analysts consider it to be very difficult to confirm data points.[25]

44. The sheer complexity of the security environment in Syria should not be underestimated. There are hundreds of active militia forces, ranging in size from a few dozen to thousands and organized around a wide variety of local communities, ethnic and religious identities, and political-religious ideologies. The size and relative strength of groups have varied and will continue to vary by location and time.[26]

45. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimates that-from late 2011 to 10 December 2013-between 3,300 and 11,000 individuals have gone to Syria to fight against the Assad government. Based on the credibility of various sources, and the think tank's own judgement, they believe the "true" figure to be above 8,500. A number of examples have been brought to our attention including:

    Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested in 2012 for gun possession... The one plot that has publicly emerged in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear that they had secured any weapons.[27]

The ICSR estimate that the number of fighters from Western Europe ranges from 396 to 1,937. Western Europeans now represent up to 18 per cent of the foreign fighter population in Syria, with most recruits coming from France (63-412), Britain (43-366), Germany, (34-240), Belgium (76-296), and the Netherlands (29-152). Adjusting for population size, the most heavily affected countries are Belgium (up to 27 foreign fighters per million), Denmark (15), the Netherlands (9), Sweden (9), Norway (8), and Austria (7).[28]

Estimates of Western European Foreign Fighters in Syria

UK nationals fighting in Syria

Numbers and the threat posed

46. Syria is an extremely attractive destination for foreign fighters. It is described as a 'perfect storm' in regards to foreign fighters as it is

·  easily accessible (via either a three-day drive across Europe and through Turkey to the northern Syria border or a low-cost flight to Turkey and then a short drive to the border);

·  has a sectarian element;

·  has a viable narrative in regards to fighting against a perceived tyrant, widely criticised by Western leaders: and,

·  is close to jihadist conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon which means that fighters are kept well-supplied.

47. It is not just European foreign fighters who are travelling to Syria to take part in the war. There are reports that foreign fighters from North Africa and the Middle East make up almost 70% of the up to 11,000 fighters which some estimate to be fighting on behalf of the opposition.[29]

Estimates of Middle Eastern Foreign Fighters in Syria

There are also believed to be close to 10,000 foreigners fighting on behalf of the Government although the majority of these are thought to have been sent by the regimes in Iran and Lebanon.[30]

48. When we questioned our witnesses about the motivation of those wishing to travel to Syria to fight the regime, humanitarian reasons were highlighted as a key motivator[31] as was the Muslim concept of 'ummah' which was described as

    the idea that all Muslims around the world are united through some kind of fraternity of the faithful and that Muslims from one part of the world owe duty, allegiance and loyalty to other Muslims, particularly in times of oppression or injustice.[32]

It was also emphasised that this conflict was viewed as a fight against a tyrant and therefore the actions of those fighting him were morally correct. This is a feeling that could well be reinforced by the attempts made by both the UK and US Governments to undertake military action against the Assad regime. Other witnesses ascribed less noble motivations towards those fighting in Syria with the EU Counter-Terrorism coordinator describing them as narcissists who wanted their picture taken with a Kalashnikov.[33] Another witness, Dr Thomas Hegghammer, told us that as well as those who travelled for humanitarian reasons, some had travelled primarily with the objective of wanting to build a sharia state whereas others might have travelled for the kind of social dimension which we might more readily associate with a gap year student than a fighter.

    [T]he search for camaraderie; the joy and excitement of adventure; the pleasure of doing something with your life; making a difference: all that kind of thing.[34]

49. Dr Hegghammer noted there were now more European foreign fighters in Syria than had fought in all previous conflict zones combined.[35] This in itself raised concerns as even if the rate of returning foreign fighters engaging in domestic terrorism was much less than he had previously estimated, the large number made it likely that such a threat was likely.[36] The threat posed by the British citizens or residents fighting in Syria was set out by Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism.

    Some of those people may pose a threat when—if I take Syria as an example—they get to Syria and they may, from their base in Syria, plot attacks back in the UK. Others may pose a threat to us when they travel back from Syria themselves and they plan attacks here, either under the instruction of people outside this country or at their own initiative. Foreign fighters, so called, in this particular case British residents or nationals, pose a threat in a variety of different ways to us.[37]

50. This was elaborated on by Gilles de Kerchove, who told us that the large number of jihadists travelling to Syria meant that the foreign fighters will now have had training in how to use a weapon or to build a bomb and also have contact points with other jihadists from around the world and even those travelling for humanitarian reasons were likely to be indoctrinated.[38] Shiraz Maher, senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation also highlighted the danger of the indoctrination of those with humanitarian motivations.

    People who may well go into Syria for all the right reasons, as you say, who are motivated by purely humanitarian intentions, are not just of course fighting 24 hours a day on the front lines. They spend a lot of time being indoctrinated and going to study groups and so on. What we find from the ones we are talking to is certainly that if they had not embraced what you might describe as a global jihadist ideology before arriving in the country, they are certainly beginning to embrace that while they are out there, so that encompasses a lot of ideas that I think do make them certainly more dangerous than they would have been.[39]

51. However, not everyone agreed that foreign fighters were as much as a threat as might have been suggested. Richard Barrett told us that some may have returned horrified by what they saw rather than with the intention of carrying an attack out on their own country-he suggested that a qualitative assessment would have to be carried out on returnees before such a judgement could be made about the threat that they posed.[40] It was also pointed out to us by several witnesses that the rate of attack upon return of foreign fighters varies across different conflicts. Foreign fighters who have trained in Afghanistan or Pakistan (where there are organisations with the stated objective of attacking the West) are much more likely to engage in planning an attack than those who travelled to Iraq where there was not the same degree of hostility against the West.[41] At present, the motivation of those fighting in the Syrian civil war is sectarian—Sunni against Shia—with no group openly advocating action against the West, although it was also noted that this could change in the future.[42]

52. Given the lack of perceived hostility against the West, many people have viewed those fighting in the Syrian Civil War as synonymous with those who travelled to take part in the Spanish Civil War. When we asked Dr Hegghammer why British citizens fighting in the Syrian civil war should be viewed differently to British citizens fighting in the Spanish Civil War he told us

    The difference between the Islamist foreign fighter phenomenon today and a war like the Spanish Civil War is that today there are many cases of people moving on from this foreign fighter activity to international terrorism involving attacks against civilians in western cities. You did not have that at the time. There was not this sort of frequent and smooth transition from guerrilla warfare within the conflict at stake to more transnational terrorist operations. Whatever we think about the moral justification behind the initial involvement in the war, I think the reality that a substantial number of people move on to international terrorism from this activity should merit certain policy measures to prevent just that kind of violence.[43]

The role of transnational terrorist operations in the war was also a point of concern for both Nigel Inkster of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (ISSD) and Shiraz Maher of the ICSR. Nigel Inkster told us that

    For me, the real worry about Syria is that it has the potential to become the crucible for a new generation of international jihadists, rather in the way as happened with those who took part in the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s, that they become a kind of band of brothers, united by shared experiences, shared outlooks, shared ideology, and that they then move on looking for new forms of jihad to undertake, one of which could well consist of attacks in countries such as the UK.[44]

Shiraz Maher described the effect of war in Syria being that the gains made in the battle against international terrorist groups following the 11 September attacks were being reversed. As a result of the Syrian battlefields acting as a permissive environment these organisations were able to repopulate their networks in ungoverned territory in a way that would have been unthinkable even two years prior.[45] Dr Hegghammer supported this concern, noting that there are now more jihadist groups across the Middle East than there were at the time of 9/11 and that we were seeing a new generation of militants being trained which would lead to the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism being extended by at least 15 to 20 years.[46]


53. The phenomenon of British foreign fighters in Syria has only recently begun to be perceived as major threat to the UK.[47] Indeed, it had not yet become significant enough to be included in the Home Office's submission to our call for evidence in October 2013 despite one of the terms of reference being 'the monitoring of those linked to terrorist activities, both at home and abroad'. By our first oral evidence session on 12 November, Charles Farr identified Syria as the most important area in terms of identifying and monitoring people who were travelling to fight in areas of jihad.[48] Both the Home Secretary and Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick highlighted the difficulty of identifying those who were travelling to engage in jihad as opposed to those who were travelling for humanitarian reasons[49] (although, as noted above, even those with humanitarian motivations may eventually become radicalised).

54. In the first fortnight of 2014, fourteen people were arrested in relation to Syrian-linked activities. This was in comparison to the 24 people arrested over the course of the preceding year. A month later, on 16 February 2014, The Sunday Times reported that as many as 250 individuals who had fought in Syria had now returned to the UK. In an interview later that day, the Immigration and Security Minister did not dispute the figure, stating that the security concern linked with Syria was likely to be an issue for the foreseeable future.[50]

55. In terms of preventing travel, the Immigration and Security Minister set out the range of legislative options that were available to the police and security service.

    Depending on the intelligence or evidential case there are existing laws that can assist in the prevention of travel. However, it is important to highlight that where intelligence is limited we may be unable to meet the required thresholds for exercising powers available to us. Clearly where there is strong intelligence or evidence, powers of arrest under TACT 2000 can be used in order to investigate terrorist offences and establish whether individuals are engaged in the commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism. In addition those seeking to travel may also reach the arrest threshold for criminal offences; such arrests may prevent or disrupt travel. In terms of specific legislation aimed at curbing travel the following are most relevant at this time; TPIMs, foreign travel restriction orders, the Royal Prerogative, deportation, exclusion and deprivation. TPIMs require a strong national security case. Foreign travel restriction orders are available in relation to convicted terrorists who have received a sentence of imprisonment of more than 12 months.[51]

However, he also noted that in terms of people returning from Syria, each case had to be considered individually as not everyone who returned will have been engaged with a terrorist organisation. He emphasised that in order for a case to be prosecuted, both sufficient evidence to convict and a public interest in the prosecution would be required.[52] The necessity of treating cases individually was also a point made by Gilles de Kerchove who told us that the EU was designing

    mechanisms to assess—and I think this will be necessary for each and every returnee—whether this person poses a threat, and whether they need psychological support, because many have been confronted with a really ugly war, or social support to help them get back to normal life, to find a job or to retrain for that.[53]

56. Gilles de Kerchove also set out the wider EU response to the concern which consisted of:

·  Collating information on those travelling to fight in an attempt to understand whether there were networks involved, who was travelling, what routes they were taking, how they were being funded and what their motivations were.

·  Trying to stem the flow of foreign fighters.

·  Ensuring that there is an adequate legal framework to investigate and prosecute those who have joined the most radical groups.

·  Maximising existing processes such as the Schengen Information System and exploring new processes such as passenger name records.

·  Engaging collectively with transit countries.

Using these objectives as a starting point, he told us that a 'concrete project' was being put together.[54]

57. A number of witnesses had other suggestions for dealing with the concern raised by the issue of foreign fighters. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police noted that in a number of cases the parents of those who had travelled to fight were unsure of where they could access advice or information to allow them to stop it. He also suggested that more work could be done with mosque leaders.[55] In his evidence before us, Gilles de Kerchove suggested that testimony of the returnees could be used to highlight the infighting between the groups and the terrible experiences of those who have fought in the war.[56] The Immigration and Security Minister made reference to the importance of emphasising the fact that the Free Syrian Army (and indeed the Syrian people) have said that they want humanitarian assistance rather than foreign fighters.[57] On a practical note, Dr Hegghammer suggested that external partners could work with Turkish authorities to increase their capacity at the border, a project which may be as simple as building a fence.[58]

58. The number of UK citizens and Westerners travelling to fight in foreign conflicts has reached alarming levels unlike anything seen in recent years. We require an immediate response targeted at dissuading and preventing those who wish to go to fight from going; helping countries who are key to intercepting those who are entering Syria, and ensuring those who return do not present a danger to the UK.

59. We are alarmed by the relative ease by which foreign fighters appear to be able to cross the border into Syria. It is the responsibility of the international community to assist transit countries, and the UK must offer practical support to those countries in securing their borders. We have been impressed by the efforts made to prevent football hooliganism in foreign countries by sending "spotters" to help pick out those at risk of committing criminal acts and believe similar practical help would be beneficial in the fight against terrorism. We recommend that the Government maintain representation from the UK Counter Terrorism command to help the Turkish authorities identify those who are at risk of crossing the border into Syria intending to fight and make available any relevant intelligence to the Turkish authorities that may be beneficial. The Government should also work with transit countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to better establish who is likely to be travelling for genuine humanitarian reasons.

60. The Government needs a clear strategy for dealing with foreign fighters on their return, which may include help to come to terms with the violence they have witnessed and participated in, as well as counter-radicalisation interventions. We are concerned that their experiences may well make them vulnerable to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder thereby increasing their vulnerability to radicalisation. We recommend that the Government implement a programme, similar to Channel, for everyone returning to Britain where there is evidence that they have fought in Syria. The engagement in this strategy should be linked to any legal penalties imposed on their return. In developing the strategy the Government must work with mental health practitioners and academia to ensure that the programme best integrates those returning from conflict zones such as Syria.

20, p29 Back

21   INQ0013 Back

22   Thomas Hegghammer 'Should I stay or should I go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting' American Political Science Review 107, February 2013 Back

23, p29 Back

24   Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service, January 15, 2014 Back

25   Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service, January 15, 2014 Back

26   Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, Congressional Research Service, January 15, 2014 Back

27 Back

28 Back

29  Back

30  Back

31   Q434; 470 Back

32   Q488 Back

33   Q516 Back

34   Q570 Back

35   Q554 Back

36   Q561 Back

37   Q187 Back

38   Q512 Back

39   Q484 Back

40   Q692 Back

41   Q473; 558 Back

42   Q568 Back

43   Q560 Back

44   Q473 Back

45   Q481 Back

46   Q574 Back

47 Back

48   Q186 Back

49   Oral evidence taken on 16 December 2013, The work of the Home Secretary, HC 235-iii (2013-14), Q204; Q365 Back

50 Back

51   CTE0032 Back

52   Q876 Back

53   Q512 Back

54   Q508-9 Back

55   Q368 Back

56   Q518 Back

57   Q873 Back

58   Q560 Back

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Prepared 9 May 2014