Yesterday, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London held an event at Parliament about the phenomenon of Syrian Foreign Fighters, and hosted by Rehman Chishti MP. Professor Peter Neumann, ICSR’s Director, focused his speech on the motivation of Western fighters going to Syria to engage in Islamic jihad and how the British government needs to respond in order to tackle the threat these fighters pose to the national security of the country.

Neumann had two key points he set out right from the start: The phenomenon of foreign fighters is complex and diverse and not one monolithic entity. These fighters have different individual experiences and motivations for joining the jihad in Syria and therefore governments need to develop different responses to deal with the number of target groups effectively.

15000 foreign fighters have joined the jihad in Syria over the last three years, according to Neumann, of which 20% are from Europe. It is important to note that despite the media attention Britain receives due to the beheadings, the country that is affected the most by the foreign fighters phenomenon in relation to its population is Belgium.  Neumann emphasised that since 1945 only the Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s has mobilised more foreign fighters than this conflict and that was over a period of ten years so the Syrian conflict is likely to mobilise the greatest number of foreign fighters in modern history.

Neumann stressed that the networks being formed among these fighters now will be decisive for future terrorist attacks against Western countries, considering that the networks formed during the 1980s jihad in Afghanistan were vital for the attacks committed against the West in the early to mid-2000s.

Focusing on the motivational aspects of foreign fighters, Neumann emphasised the changing narratives that persuaded people to join fellow Muslims in Syria. While the first wave of foreign fighters went on humanitarian grounds due to the apparent genocide Assad was committing against Sunni Muslims, the second wave is convinced that they are part of the historical movement to establish an Islamic caliphate, and the most recent foreign fighters joining the jihad are persuaded by the Islam vs West narrative.

200-250 foreign fighters have returned to Britain already according to the Home Secretary, however the majority of them entered the country undetected. Referring to a study by Thomas Hegghammer, Neumann argues that although most foreign fighters do not pose an imminent danger to UK national security, 1 in 9 returning foreign fighters will become involved in terrorist activity. However, given the numbers of foreign fighters that have joined the jihad in Syria and the experiences they have gained, we need to have clear strategies to deal with this phenomenon.

Responding to this threat, he stressed that the current policy of the British government focusing on “hard” punishment is ineffective and counterproductive because it does not give the returning foreign fighters an incentive to come forward to the authorities, and the government often lacks sufficient evidence to convict them.

Neumann followed Quilliam in proposing an alternative strategy to deal with the different problems arising from the return of foreign fighters.

First, he argued for the importance of stopping Britons travelling to fight in Syria and Iraq by revoking their passports before they are able to leave the country, which will prevent them from radicalising further abroad and returning with comprehensive battle experience. He opposed the cancelling of passports when they are abroad already because this hinders them from returning and creates roving Islamic fighters forming an international group of terrorists as was witnessed after the 1980s conflict in Afghanistan.

Secondly, Neumann stressed the importance of assessing the different types of foreign fighters that return in order to respond to them in the most efficient way. He distinguishes them through three categories: the disturbed – fighters that pose a threat to society because they are mentally disturbed and traumatised from their experience abroad; the dangerous – fighters that return and plan to commit attacks and atrocities in their home county; and the disillusioned – fighters that are disappointed with the developments in Syria and were disillusioned by the reality of the jihad abroad. While the dangerous category should be imprisoned it is vital to provide the other two categories with psychological support and give them incentives to deradicalise. He clarified that rehabilitation does not imply amnesty, but is a comprehensive way of protecting British society in the long term.

Finally, he argued for the importance of prevention and the necessity to engage with extremist Muslim and non-Muslim communities at home.

Concluding, Neumann emphasised the need for evidence to guide counter-terrorism and counter-extremist policies and that diverting our attention from a solely punitive response would not mean “being soft but being smart.”

Quilliam welcomes ICSR echoing our recommendations, and thinks Neumann is right to identify that, even within the official governmental response to the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon, we must look beyond a punitive response. We urge that significant changes are made to our prison systems and deradicalisation programmes to deal with the current nature of the threat so that we can be thoroughly prepared for challenges posed by this conflict in Syria and Iraq.

This blog piece is by Charlotte Kathe, a researcher at Quilliam