Wei Meng Yeo For The Straits Times

Western militants raise risks back home

Kurdish fighters fire a mortar during clashes with Islamic State militants in the al-Zerga area near Tikrit city, in Salahuddin province on Oct 8, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Kurdish fighters fire a mortar during clashes with Islamic State militants in the al-Zerga area near Tikrit city, in Salahuddin province on Oct 8, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The arrest of four men by the British authorities on suspicion of orchestrating a terrorist attack once again highlights the threat of Western extremists in Iraq and Syria, and the risk they pose to their respective homelands.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, foreign militants from across the globe have travelled to Syria to fight the Assad regime.

According to a report authored by members of the 9/11 commission, the civil war in Syria has attracted around 10,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 countries. A growing number of these foreign fighter contingents have also returned to Iraq, determined to reignite sectarian tension in the region.

While the majority of foreign fighters are Arabs, the influx of Westerners and non-European Westerners (from Australia, Canada and the United States) is significant.

A study done by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London on the number of foreign fighters in Syria found that 10 to 15 per cent of the foreign fighters are from the West. Britons make up one of the biggest groups of Western fighters, with Danes, Italians and the French not far behind.

The news that American Douglas McCain was killed while fighting in Syria also indicates that there are Americans currently in Syria fighting against the Assad regime.

In February this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the US Congress that more than 50 Americans are thought to be fighting in Syria.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop estimates that 150 Australians have been or are currently overseas fighting with extremists in Iraq and Syria.

The influx of overseas extremists is unprecedented. The figures exceed the number of foreign militants involved in Afghanistan during its decade of war and its subsequent violent aftermath. Unlike in Afghanistan, many travelled overseas not to just train or provide financial or logistical support but to participate in the conflict directly.

There are many reasons why so many individuals have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight.

Many have been drawn in by predictions in a version of Islamic ideology that the apocalypse will take place in Greater Syria. Such narrative has been inflamed by stories of atrocities against Sunni Muslims alleged to be committed by the Alawite Assad regime.

Accessibility is also a factor. In contrast to other theatres such as in Afghanistan, Mali and Somalia, Iraq and Syria are much more logistically accessible.

Europol reports that many foreign militants interested in joining the fray have travelled through Turkey, a common vacation destination, which arouses no or limited suspicion.

Most of the foreign extremists have been assimilated into ISIL, also referred to as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), but not exclusively. Some have joined other rebel groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra (or al-Nusra Front) and Ahrar al-Sham.

These groups were founded by individuals who at one time were senior members of Al-Qaeda. They tend to be more inclusive, highly organised, and much better financed than their more moderate counterparts, such as the Free Syrian Army.

The foreign fighters are not only getting indoctrinated ideologically but are also given training on operational tactics. Many are instructed in the use of improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide attacks.

From a threat perspective, foreign militant involvement in both Iraq and Syria could impact the global terrorism risk landscape in multiple ways.

First, the returning fighters potentially could revitalise their cause in their homeland and act as a conduit reconnecting local groups to global extremism.

Second and more importantly, there is also a risk that some of these veterans may attempt a terrorist attack back in their homeland. While the majority of foreign fighters do not end up attacking their home countries, a small number do and they often prove more capable and proficient than those without any fighting experience.

Given the stronger counter-terrorism environment in the West, such attacks will more likely fall under the category of "lone wolf" terrorism attacks. These are individuals who work alone or in very small groups. "Lone wolf" terrorists do not seek any type of external assistance to execute their operation, thus making it difficult for the authorities to gather enough intelligence to thwart any potential attack.

Returning fighters with proficiency in the local language, and the ability to understand Western society, can execute and plan their terrorism plot without raising much suspicion.While these home-grown "lone wolf" plots are much harder to detect and stop, their attacks tend to be limited to smaller attack types.

Counter-terrorism practitioners assert that ISIS and its foreign contingent are interested in attacking Western cities but are sceptical whether they have the ability to orchestrate a large- scale attack, such as a car bombing in cities like Sydney and London.

If so, the current risk in Western countries will be mainly from smaller attack types such as beheadings, assassinations and kidnappings. While such attacks may be smaller scale in nature, they are also hard to detect and prevent.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a principal modeller on the Model Development team at Risk Management Solutions, a risk consultancy based in Newark, California.