Combating the Foreign Fighter Problem
By: Meredith Boyle
Approximately 3,000 Western fighters from the United States and Europe have joined forces with terrorist groups in Syria. To combat this trend, the United States must adopt a two- pronged approach. First, partner nations must share terrorism- related information more robustly. Second, the United States and its European partners must undertake more focused efforts to counter the root causes of violent extremism.
In May 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche reportedly attacked a Jewish museum in Brussels, killing four. The same month, American Moner Mohammad Abu- Salha allegedly drove a truck full of explosives into a compound in Syria. Both examples are chilling tales of failed information sharing and lack of domestic “countering violent extremism” (CVE) policies.
Nemmouche, a French-Algerian extremist suspected of fighting with the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was placed on a European watch list before he traveled to Syria. When Nemmouche returned, German authorities alerted the French government, but that information went no further, allowing him to commit his attack in Belgium with ease.
Abu-Salha allegedly joined a different group—Jabhat al-Nusra—while in Syria. Shockingly, after training with the group, Abu-Salha successfully evaded detection and returned home to the United States, before leaving once again for Syria to execute a suicide mission. Both cases set a dangerous precedent for foreign fighters who may wish to attack Western countries.
The high number of foreign fighters in Syria has led governments to emphasize immediate, short-term fixes—like making it illegal to plan terrorist attacks—instead of developing solutions that address the root causes of violent extremism—like acknowledging community grievances and discrediting extremist narratives. This is evident in the United States, where the national CVE strategy has neither a lead agency nor seen any update since its release in 2011. The United States is not alone; many European governments have struggled with this set of domestic policies as well.
In the Nemmouche and Abu-Salha cases, radicalized individuals chose not to attack their home countries. Whether this choice was motivated by intent or limited by capability remains to be seen. It is clear, however, that existing mechanisms enabling information sharing must be reinforced. Furthermore, while it is crucial to counter the short-term threat of foreign fighters returning home, the United States and its European partners must also pursue long-term CVE solutions to stop the creation of foreign fighters in the first place.