Sunday, November 22nd 2015
In the nine lines of effort in the U.S. national strategy against ISIS, line 7 is “disrupting the flow of foreign fighters.” The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, reporting to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, plays a primary role.
John R. Deni, Research Professor of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) Security Studies at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, provided a useful review of the high level policy thinking on the foreign fighter threat by NATO, the European Union, and individual governments in an article, “Beyond Information Sharing: NATO and the Foreign Fighter Threat,” in the Summer, 2015, issue of Parameters.
The body of the article focused on intelligence sharing (spoiler: easier said than done), but Public Diplomacy people who are part of the effort to discourage the flow of foreign fighters – and to assure that returned foreign fighters do not bring jihad back home – will find Deni’s detailed summary useful. Also, his conclusions suggest parallel efforts by Public Diplomacy, especially with the smaller nations in the alliance.
Here are some other insights:
- Evidence . . . suggests many of those who travel to fight in foreign conflicts become disillusioned quickly. Many find the reality to be far different from what they were led to believe by recruiters, social media, or other propaganda.
- Others become disillusioned because they are prevented from engaging in actual fighting. There is evidence those who volunteer to fight abroad are viewed with suspicion by local fighters, who fear some have been sent by foreign intelligence services.
- As a result, some get turned down by Islamic extremist organizations while others spend weeks or months in menial tasks, unrelated to combat.
- . . . others are arrested or otherwise intercepted by intelligence services or border security personnel, either going to or coming back from Syria and Iraq. Recent reports indicate Turkish officials in particular have begun to gain better control of their lengthy borders with both Syria and Iraq.
- . . . some of the very tools foreign fighter networks rely upon for recruitment and inspiration – especially social media and the internet – provide an effective vehicle for intelligence services to learn about, track, and investigate foreign fighter activity in the West.
- . . . those who see the threat as significant maintain ISIS views the United States and the West as strategic enemies.
- AQAP’s online English-language magazine Inspire regularly encourages lone wolves to conduct attacks on Western targets. The March 2014 edition promoted the use of car bombs in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, specifically aimed at “sports events in which tens of thousands attend, election campaigns, festivals and other gathering [sic]. The important thing is that you target people and not buildings.”
- . . . NATO has struggled to master the speed, agility, and creativity necessary for successful information operations and strategic communications.
- If the alliance itself has difficulty mastering these skills, it seems unlikely it could play a leading role in helping its member states develop counter-narratives, which are collectively viewed as a primary center of gravity for ISIS and AQAP recruitment of European fighters.
- Should the alliance expand its role in this issue area? Probably not, especially again if the threat is not deemed particularly significant. NATO is already dealing with an array of security challenges, at least one of which is far more existential than that posed by foreign fighters returning to conduct attacks in Europe. Specifically, the Russian annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas . . . . NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland feel particularly threatened and vulnerable . . . . several allies in Southern Europe perceive migrant flows from North and Sub-Saharan Africa to be a growing threat . . . . the alliance is engaged in a counter-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa, a ballistic missile defense mission in Turkey, a counterterrorism mission in the Mediterranean Sea, and a training mission in Afghanistan. In short, NATO has its hands full with an array of issues and missions, all during a time when it is under pressure to contain costs and reduce personnel strength.
- Conversely, if the threat is determined to be significant, there may be some limited areas in which NATO can leverage its comparative advantages, including US membership.
- Within the United States, the US Army should continue to leverage initiatives such as the State Partnership Program (SPP). Through the SPP, the US reserve component – which is home to much of the US military’s expertise in civil affairs and military support to civil authorities – engages foreign counterparts through exchanges, familiarization events, and educational activities. Adding foreign-fighter threat scenarios and themes to the SPP agenda would be a wise step.
- Second, NATO needs to develop a better understanding of the philosophies and theologies of the various violent extremist organizations, since it appears that the blowback rate varies significantly depending on the foreign extremist group in question. Hundreds of Western foreign fighters went to fight in Somalia in the previous decade, but few of them returned to conduct terror attacks. In contrast, those who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan during the same period had a higher blowback rate.
- . . . the alliance can help here by leveraging its considerable convening power. Specifically, it can create forums, including formal “Article 4” political consultations, for the exchange of information and best practices among defense, security, and law enforcement agencies, to include those from the United States.
- This may be particularly valuable to smaller allies, which lack the intelligence gathering and analysis resources of larger allies like the United States, Germany, France, or the United Kingdom. The US Army can contribute here by reducing bureaucratic hindrances to multinational educational and professional collaboration and by incentivizing the sharing of best counterterrorism practices with and among NATO allies.