In the last few years thousands of European citizens have travelled to Syria and other distant conflict zones. Many countries are worried about the potential negative consequences of this development. The worries mostly relate to the scenario of terrorist attacks by returning foreign fighters. In a new article in a special issue of Perspectives on Terrorism devoted to the jihadist threat to Europe, the potential fallout of the foreign fighter phenomenon is examined. The article shows why it is necessary to look beyond just the terrorist threat linked to foreign fighting if we wish to understand and respond to the potential fallout. It does so by also studying the societal and ideological dimensions of fallout.
The article provides a framework of fallout and applies these to three historical cases of foreign fighting: Afghanistan (1980s), Bosnia (1990s) and Somalia (2000s). The physical threat, the first of the three dimensions, was clearly present in the cases, despite the fact that the scenario of returning foreign fighters launching attacks does not appear to have featured very prominently. However, examples were found of foreign fighters who remained abroad and launched attacks, or who moved to a next conflict zone. Also, examples could be found of failed foreign fighters who instead opted to launch attacks at home.
When it comes to the ideological fallout, all three cases contributed to the strengthening of a foreign fighter legacy. The idea of fighting a “defensive jihad” to protect a transnational Muslim community still resonates today. In addition, spokesmen of foreign fighters managed to frame the conflict and their enemies in ways that boosted ideological impact. Returning fighters also played key roles in recruitment and managed to transform their real or alleged battlefield accomplishments into heroic stories about their jihadi experiences. Their street-credibility and status as returned foreign fighters should not be underestimated.
Regarding societal fallout, polarization and securitization in European home countries appeared to have been a relatively minor issue historically. Foreign fighters who went to Bosnia and Afghanistan could mostly count on support or passive tolerance within their home countries. The post-9/11 context of Somalia clearly differed. Societal fallout in the post-conflict country was most visible in the case of Bosnia, where foreign fighters were initially welcomed but later became unwanted elements. This was partially the result of securitization processes following the attacks on 9/11 when new views on jihadism and international pressure resulted in changed attitudes towards former foreign fighters. However, it was also partially the result of reintegration problems and tensions between the former foreign fighters and the local population in Bosnia itself.
What can we learn from this today, against the backdrop of large numbers of European citizens who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq? In essence, these three cases illustrate how the fallout of the foreign fighter phenomenon encompasses more than the possible terrorist threat posed to Western countries by returning foreign fighters. In the case of Syria and Iraq, we have already seen that this latter threat is real. However, the threat for the region itself, as well as the potential fallout related to the ideology and especially the societal dimensions need to be acknowledged. There are indications of a potentially substantial ideological and societal fallout from the wars currently raging in the Middle East. Whereas authorities are already devoting much of their attention to curbing the (potential) terrorist threat, it is as important to pay closer attention to the challenges that are linked to the other two dimensions of the fallout that we can expect.