The Return of the Jihadi: Assessing the Foreign-Fighter Threat

The risk of attacks by terrorists returning from Syria and Iraq is real.

In congressional testimony on February 9, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper highlighted the threat that foreign fighters within the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pose to U.S. national security. These approximately 36,500 fighters—including 6,600 from the West—not only have potentially easier access to target countries through their national passports but could leverage the tactical skills they learned on the battlefield to increase the effectiveness of terrorist attacks. In a timely event moderated by Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, at the Center for the National Interest on February 16, Bruce Hoffman, the director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, and Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, discussed the true threat represented by foreign fighters, questioning many of the common assumptions held by academics, policy analysts and decision-makers alike.

Building off of his cover story in the January/February edition of the National Interest, “ISIS is Here: The Return of the Jihadi,” Hoffman noted that although he has previously highlighted the key role that religion plays in motivating terrorist organizations, it is important not to overstate the role of religion in ISIS’s recruitment and ideology. While religious belief often plays a role in radicalizing individuals to perform terrorist acts and to join a terrorist organization, equally important is how membership in such a group can serve as a form of catharsis or cleansing. This phenomena, most famously captured by Franz Fanon in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth, is predicated on the notion that the act of resistance to an adversary is purifying in its own right. Applied to the study of terrorism, this would mean that the particular ideology or goal of a terrorist organization is less important than the broader fact that belonging to such an organization allows individuals the opportunity—in the case of ISIS, terrorism—to vocalize opposition against a larger adversary.

Hoffman also pushed back against the popular notion that there is a stark difference between ISIS, Al Qaeda, Jabhat Al-Nusra and other Islamic terrorist organizations in terms of motivations, goals or tactics. Both ISIS and Al Qaeda, for instance, prophesize the formation of a new Islamic Caliphate and utilize terrorism to help achieve that goal. The primary difference is one of sequencing, in so far as ISIS declared a caliphate quickly, whereas Al Qaeda saw the caliphate as a more distant goal. Still, a captured 2005 Al Qaeda strategy document indicated the creation of the caliphate was intended to occur between 2013-2016, precisely the timeframe that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi selected for his own declaration. In so much as major differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda do exist, they can be traced to the eager and unilateral formation of the caliphate and subsequent enforcement of a brutal interpretation of Islamic law in the new state. The arrogant and aggressive personality of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as opposed to the more humble and calculating Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, helps explain this apparent divergence.

The assumption that strategic differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda would lead the former to eschew international terrorist attacks was bound to be disproven for a number of reasons. Firstly, as noted, the strategic goal of striking abroad might have already been hardwired into ISIS, meaning its apparent emphasis on the “near enemy” might have been a gross misinterpretation. Secondly, the rising stature of ISIS amongst the jihadist community meant that it would inevitably attract the interest of franchise groups (ISIS now possesses eight official branches and approximately 50 affiliates in 21 countries) that could launch attacks either directed by ISIS or inspired by their rhetoric. Similarly, individual terrorists could also launch such “inspiration” attacks without a direct connection to the group, as appears to have been the case in the recent shootings in San Bernardino, California. Finally, the sheer number of ISIS fighters, including the large number of foreign fighters, means that the probability that fighters might be directed to return to their home countries to launch attacks is much higher than with Al Qaeda.