June 3, 2015

Foreign Fighters And The Security Risk

Armed fighters of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) gather on a street before fighting against Islamic State (IS) group on November 7, 2014 in the Syrian besieged border town of Ain al-Arab (known as Kobane by the Kurds).
Armed fighters of the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) gather on a street before fighting against Islamic State (IS) group on November 7, 2014 in the Syrian besieged border town of Ain al-Arab (known as Kobane by the Kurds).

The latest yearbook published by the Internal Security Service (ISS), Estonia’s counterintelligence agency, devotes a whole chapter to combating terrorism. The annual report states that while terrorism remains a distant problem for Estonia, the growing risk to other Western countries also hits home here. Individuals who fought in Syria or Iraq are seen increasingly as a risk vector. The report confirms that people have even travelled from Estonia to fight in the Middle East. This knowledge gives pause: what does it mean to Estonian security if people from Estonia have been fighting in foreign conflicts?

Foreign combatants pose a risk when they return home, as they may be striving to commit an act of terror, such as attacking a synagogue, café, bus or some other public place. All of the combatants who return are not under explicit orders from direct commanders to commit an act of terror, but some could also do so on their own initiative, as a sensed personal mission. By the same token, not all potential terrorists may have actually been to Syria or Iraq, but they may become radicalized after coming in contact with foreign fighters and thereafter stage an attack on some country in the West.

Estonia may seem an unlikely target for terrorism, but it should be remembered that many Estonians live abroad, including in London, Paris and Brussels, all cities attractive as targets. The Praxis Centre for Policy Studies estimates there are 150,000 to 200,000 Estonians living abroad – 15% of the world’s Estonians.1 The greatest numbers are in Russia, Finland, Sweden, the US and Canada; of these Sweden in particular stands out recently as a potential target. The problem is wider and we should consider that even if the foreign fighters who return do not plan to do anything on their home soil, they may always head to another country in Europe for this purpose.

The threat from foreign fighters should not be underestimated. Close to 20% of them die in battle or following a terrorist suicide attack. Of those who survive, some never return home, and remain in Syria or Iraq, or join the jihad in a third country, such as Somalia or Libya. Insofar as becoming a jihadi is something of a fad in some parts of Europe, many of these young people have not thought deeply about what jihad is and what ISIL is fighting for. Take for instance the two British 22-year-old men who left Birmingham for Syria – before their travel they bought the books Islam for Dummies2 and The Koran for Dummies. When reality does not line up with expectations, such men become disillusioned, and no longer want to have anything to do with jihad.3

The problem of foreign fighters is not new in Europe; the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts also saw European and American fighters, Security services have experience, now they just need to deal with larger numbers of people going and returning. An estimated 3,400 people from the West have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight.4 The ISS report shows that Estonia also keeps up to date with developments in Syria and Iraq. The work of security services is made easier by the fact that the people who leave Europe are in the habit of posting about their activities on social media, which can help later link them with some terrorist organization. The child of a foreign fighter named Sazanakov also appears in the propaganda video.

Yet the risks connected to the foreign fighters have not been effectively neutralized. European countries take a differing approach to the ones who return but an ideal solution has not yet been found. In Denmark, the aim is first and foremost rehabilitation: helping them to find employment and re-integrate with society. In France, supporting terrorism is a serious crime, punishable by imprisonment. It is an ironic fact that extremist ideas often spread in correctional institutions. In prison, radical Islamists meet criminals who are receptive to and help spread their ideas. In both Denmark and France, security institutions worry that they are not able to keep track of all of the foreign fighters and people the fighters have contact with when they return. Institutional capability has not kept up with the numbers of people leaving.

In addition, there are multiple terror organizations. Two of the organizers of the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Kouachi brothers, swore fealty to Al Qaeda, and the brothers’ driver, Amedy Coulibaly, to IS. In Syria alone, two extremist organizations operate side by side: Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Besides the foreign fighters, there are also less attractive but potentially dangerous organizations such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Ukraine conflict is different; its objectives and means cannot be compared to terrorism, but both sides of this conflict also draw foreign fighters from different European countries, and something must be done about it. In Spain, eight people who had fought on the separatist side in Ukraine were arrested in February.

Estonia has no prior experience dealing with foreign fighters, so it is high time to develop a system to counter the problem. Section 237 of the Penal Code pertains to terrorist crimes and preparation, inciting, funding and supporting such crimes as well as belonging to, establishing, leading or recruiting members to a terrorist organization. Terrorist crimes are very generally described in very general terms as commission of a criminal offence against international security, against the person or against the environment, against foreign states or international organisations or a criminal offence dangerous to the public posing a threat to life or health.5

It remains an open question what should be done with foreign fighters who did not fight in the ranks of ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra but took part in the activities of some smaller organization. In the case of Syria, a civil war is raging there, and it is difficult to determine which groups are terrorists and which are not. Estonia has provided government support to the regional government of Kurdistan in the form of ammunition and also allocated 70,000 euros in humanitarian air. Our ally and leader of the coalition against ISIL, the US, started training anti-Assad rebels in May. This makes it a good juncture to think about how to view the foreign fighters who have been taking part in the Syrian civil war – for instance on the Kurdish side or as a smaller group.

Even though the number of foreign fighters who came from Estonia is low, the motivations of people for leaving should be examined and various measures should be adopted. There should also be thorough consideration devoted to what to do with the fighters and their families when they return to Estonia. It is up in the air on what conditions, if at all, the participation in a third-country civil war is a crime. The whole set of problems related to the fighters has not been thought through in Estonia and considering the complicated political/security situation in a number of Middle Eastern and North African country, the security risk will not disappear anytime soon. It is essential to think now about how we will treat Estonian citizens who fight in foreign conflicts, when it is acceptable and when it is not, and what exactly is punishable on what grounds.
1 Kirss, Laura. 2014. “Välismaal elavad eestlased kui kasutamata tööjõuressurss?” (Estonians living abroad: an untapped workforce resource?” publication of Praxis Centre for Policy Studies. No. 1/2014, http://www.praxis.ee/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/diasporaapoliitika.pdf (last visited 24 April 2015)
2 Robinson, Martin. 2014. “British Terrorists from Birmingham bought ‘Islam for Dummies’ book before travelling to Syria”. Daily Mail. July 8, 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2684714/I-tell-I-m-going-jihad-Lol-I-ll-arrested-What-British-terrorist-Birmingham-told-childhoodfriend-travelled-Syria-join-rebel-fighters.html (last visited 24.04.2015)
3 Byman, Daniel; Shapiro, Jeremy. 2014. “Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq”. Foreign Policy at Brookings. Policy Paper No. 34.
November 2014, http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2014/11/western-foreign-fighters-in-syria-and-iraq-byman-shapiro/be-afraid–web.pdf (last visited 24 April 2015)
4 Rasmussen, Nicholas J. 2015. “Countering Violent Islamist Extremism: The Urgent Threat of Foreign Fighters and Homegrown Terror”. Hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security February 11, 2015, http://docs.house.gov/meetings/HM/HM00/20150211/102901/HHRG-114-HM00-Wstate-RasmussenN-20150211.pdf (last visited 24.04.2015)
5 Penal Code, https://www.riigiteataja.ee/en/eli/511032014001/consolide (last visited 04.05.2015