‘Former’ Foreign Fighters : Separating the Foes from Potential Assets

28 novembre 2014
By Romain Quivooij, graduated from IRIS Sup’, Associate Research Fellow at the Center of Excellence for National Security (CENS - Singapore)

The return of foreign fighters involved in the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi insurgency requires sound assessments of their levels of threat. Distinguishing between committed individuals and potential trustworthy partners is a crucial first step.

Prominent voices have called for a need to distinguish between ‘radical’ and ‘repentant’ foreign fighters. While the former raise security concerns, the latter are likely to provide valuable information on the internal dynamics of the conflicts and the jihadist groups they were associated with. More importantly, so-called ‘repentants’ could play an effective role as counter-radicalising agents.

Richard Barrett and Gilles de Kerchove, former Global Counter-terrorism Director of MI6 and EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator, respectively, have emphasized the merits of a differentiated counter-strategy. However, in order to be effective -and to avoid any mistake that could have dramatic consequences-, this approach should rely on a clear assessment methodology.


Foreign fighters are a heterogeneous group of individuals, the diversity of which has been reflected by several classifications. These typologies tend to draw a clear line between two broad segments of populations : the first encompasses ‘local Jihadists’/veterans targeting the ‘near enemy’, which may involve an exclusive focus on their homelands, and ‘terrorists’/‘global Jihadists’ planning confrontation with the ‘far enemy’ or Western countries. These divisions are based on different strategic perspectives, but they share the exportation of armed violence outside of the Syrian/Iraqi context as a common objective.

By contrast, the second group involves the so-called ‘tourists’ or ‘reintegrated’ foreign fighters, whose initial motivations may range from humanitarian concerns to adventure seeking. Their involvement is supposedly limited and would not carry major security implications. However, the psychological consequences of exposure to armed violence are unpredictable, particularly in the context of widespread violent extremism. The experience of war zones may have long-lasting effects, influencing potential reengagement.

An additional section is made up of ‘tribal’ links, defined on a socio-ethnic basis. Individuals belonging to this division are likely to join different sides of the two conflicts, contingent on the evolution of local allegiances and power relations. Tribal connections have a strong impact on the potential for survival and expansion of local insurgent groups. To a certain extent, members of the Kurdish diaspora who left their homeland/host country to assist Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Peshmerga forces can be classified under this sub-category.

Disengagement and Deradicalisation

Reports tend to corroborate that ‘one-time’ foreign fighters are likely to experience feelings of disillusionment and to undertake processes of disengagement or renunciation of physical involvement in armed violence. Yet, disengagement is not synonymous with deradicalisation, with the latter entailing a broad cognitive change. The pretext of disillusionment might just hide the phenomenon of ‘role change’, which would lead some foreign fighters to disengage formally, while maintaining ties with the group(s) or with whom they were previously involved.

Equally troubling is the potential dominance of ‘pull’ factors on ‘conditional’ disengagement. While ‘push’ factors refer to adverse drivers which may lead individuals to leave activism, ‘pull’ factors involve attractive elements, mainly linked with social reintegration. As an example, some foreign fighters might be more interested in the absence of prosecution than the genuine condemnation of violent extremism. ‘Selective’ disengagement based on ideological compromises is an additional source of concern. Most ‘disillusioned’ fighters have justified their decision to disengage by the sectarian killings involving Sunni groups and civilians. However, the targeting of groups and individuals belonging to other confessions was not mentioned, possibly indicating persistent discriminatory convictions.

These blurred boundaries match the interplay between extremism and violent extremism. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, Islamist activists threatened in their home countries found refuge in the United Kingdom, forming an influential hub of networks whose most radical fraction was referred to as the ‘Londonistan’. The ‘veteran effect’ associated with substantial experiences in battlefronts, especially in Afghanistan, allowed certain individuals to act as powerful catalysts of extremism, paving the way for a new generation of militants. This phenomenon proved that some disengaged foreign fighters could tactically relinquish violent methods, without giving up radical convictions.

Risk Management

It is both necessary to avoid the pitfalls of a counterproductive overreaction and to make the most effective use of constrained monitoring resources. This dilemma is particularly felt in some Western European countries, where, in the most critical cases, numbers of departing and returning foreign fighters reach several hundreds. The need for appropriate risk assessment procedures has never been greater, but the challenges are multifaceted. Threat assessment protocols involve different levels of analysis. Prior consensus on the definitions of potentially ‘dangerous’ and ‘useful’ foreign fighters is required, taking into account the schematic limits and the political implications of such a distinction.

The selection of ‘at risk’ individuals is hampered by the lack of reliable data, despite the unprecedented expansion of online jihad. Profiling attempts are based on comparative analysis of criteria related to foreign fighters’, personal backgrounds and the nature of their involvement in Syria/ or/and Iraq. Questions about the motives for joining and leaving an armed group over another may provide valuable interpretative elements, but this methodological approach errs on the side of approximation, as the insurgent organizational infrastructure is unclear. Additionally, local shifting of allegiances is common among foot soldiers and mid-level commanders, often for purely opportunistic motives.

Defining levels of threat on a case-by-case basis is a challenging task which requires a clear understanding of the broader picture. The focus on foreign fighters tends to push into the background the influence of ideologues/inspirers, recruiters/facilitators and active supporters. As these individuals feed the flow of insurgents, whether from or outside countries of recruitment, gauging their impact will provide valuable indicators. More problematic are cases of so-called ‘self-radicalisation’ in which pieces of the cognitive puzzle are harder to identify. Caution and discernment are thus needed in gathering and analyzing information related to ‘former’ foreign fighters, as genuine as their ‘disillusionment’ may seem.

Sur la même thématique