‘Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Danger to the West?’


Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Danger to the West?’

 Thomas Hegghammer

SPEAKER: Dr Thomas Hegghammer, Director of Terrorism Research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment

TIME: 6 – 7pm, Tuesday 26th November 2013

VENUE: Committee Room 15, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA

To attend please RSVP to: researchassistant2@henryjacksonsociety.org

The conflict in Syria has led to thousands of foreign fighters streaming into the country attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. While not all foreign fighters are motivated by global jihadist ideology, the Syrian civil war has still reinvigorated al-Qaeda and potentially attracted a new generation of European recruits to the group’s worldview.

It is estimated that one in ten foreign fighters in Syria are European, with MI5 stating that there could be as many as 200 British citizens among them. The huge concern for Western security services now is what such fighters will do if they return to their homeland – and if the war in Syria could lead to greater terrorism on the streets of Europe.

By kind invitation of Brooks Newmark MP, The Henry Jackson Society is pleased to invite you to a discussion with Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, Director of Terrorism Research at the Norwegian Defence Research EstablishmentDr. Hegghammer will discuss the overall threat to Europe posed by fighters returning to Europe from Syria, and argue that policy-makers’ understanding of the threat remains incomplete and requires much greater attention.


Thomas Hegghammer (BA, MPhil Oxon, PhD Sciences-Po Paris) is Director of Terrorism Research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Oslo. A specialist on violent Islamism, Dr Hegghammer is the author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia (Cambridge 2010) and the co-author of Al-Qaida In Its Own Words (Harvard 2008) and The Meccan Rebellion (Amal Press 2011). His articles have appeared in journals such as The American Political Science Review and International Security, and he has contributed op-eds to the New York Times and al-Sharq al-Awsat. He recently testified in the U.S. Congress about the state of al-Qaida.


To read a summary of this event click here.

Full event transcript

by Jade Farhat and Alice Bexson

Brooks Newmark MP

Well, I would like to welcome you all once again to the House of Commons. I see a lot of familiar faces and a few new faces. No doubt you are here to hear our speaker today. The subject in case you are wondering, is Foreign Fighters in Syria: a Danger to the West?  Which I would agree with that question mark.

Our guest speaker today is Dr. Thomas Hegghammer, the director of Terrorism research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. He is a specialist on violent Islamism; he is also the author of Jihad in Saudi Arabia, and the co-author of Al Qaeda in its own words and The Meccan Rebellion.

His articles have appeared in journals such as The American Political Science Review and International Security and he has contributed to The New York Times and Al Sharq Al Awsat. He recently testified to the US Congress about the state of Al Qaeda.

And I am going to introduce you to Robin Simcox, the research fellow at the HJS who is going to go a little bit more in depth on Dr. Hegghammer’s work.

Robin Simcox, Research Fellow, Henry Jackson Society

Thank you and good evening to you all. I will keep my comments very brief. It is a great pleasure to open up for Thomas Hegghammer today.

I think it is important that we bear in mind when discussing the issue of foreign fighters returning to the West, that this is not a new phenomenon, it’s something that has been going on for decades. We have had Brits and other Europeans go to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Somalia and Iraq for decades now. Not all of them came back and became a threat to the West, so I think it’s important that, one of the things I think Dr. Hegghammer will elucidate on, and does so well, is why does this happen? Why do some become threats to the west and other not? Why did for example the threats from Iraq, veterans of Iraq back in the UK homeland, not transpire? Do some feel like they have done their duty, done their part by going to fight jihad abroad? And, of course, the key issue of the day, where does Syria fit in all this? Is it going to be a generation of new radicalized fighters? If so, what are our policy options? Are we well prepared? And how concerned should we be overall?

So there’s no one better prepared I think, or more worthy of discussing this subject than our guest speaker tonight. So Dr. Hegghammer I leave it to you.

Dr. Hegghammer

Thank you for the kind introduction, it is a great honor to be here and I am very thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on what I think is one of the most pressing challenges in the counter-terrorism arena in Europe today. I want to be as concise as possible as I understand I only have 20 minutes, is that right?

So I have organized my remarks into a list of ten key points, if any of you want more flesh on the bone I will be giving another talk on Thursday at the LSE where I will be going into more depth.

My ten points are organized around three themes. The first: the scale of the flow of Europeans to Syria. Second: the scale of the possible blowback from Syria. Third, possible counter-measures.

My first and most important point that I see this as an extremely significant development, one that will prolong the jihadism problem in Europe by perhaps as much as a couple of decades. I don’t think I have a reputation for hyping the threat for jihadi terrorism, but I really am quite concerned about this development, mainly because of its scale.

So what is the scale? The numbers that I have collected are remarkable; call them staggering, if you like. Of course, the issue of counting them is contested, but I will deal with this later.

The minimal estimate that I have collected, by now, is at least 1,200 Europeans that have gone to Syria since the start of the uprising. That is not just the largest contingent of European Muslims to any previous foreign fighter destination; I think it is probably more than the number of Europeans that have gone to all other destinations combined since the late 80s.

So what this means is that even if the blowback rate, meaning the proportion of outgoing foreign fighters that return and attack in the West, is very low, we are still talking about a substantial absolute number of attacks.

My third point is that the big countries, like the UK, France, and Germany seem to be providing the largest contingents of foreign fighters to Syria. But by some measure, it may be that some of the smaller countries like Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Austria have a bigger problem at their hands for reasons I will go into now.

Of course counting foreign fighters is a difficult exercise. It is not an exact science, but I would argue that the numbers, or the estimates that we can get to for Syria, are more reliable than those for any previous destinations for several reasons.

To begin with, there is a lot more media reporting in Syria and on foreign fighters; in particular, you have a lot more social media products coming out of Syria produced by militants themselves. And crucially the European security services were aware of these problems from the beginning of the conflict and have been paying attention since the start, which was not true in previous cases, at least not before 9/11. I believe they started counting from the beginning, which will, of course, give us better numbers.

Now there are different ways of counting of course—I don’t want to go into too much detail—but the simplest and most reliable way is to simply collect national estimates from the various European countries’ own intelligence services. Now these are not available in one single place, but every now and then an official from a country will mention an estimate, be it in an interview with journalists, or in a hearing or something, and if you collect these and aggregate them as I have done, you can get estimates that I think we could call semi-official, and they look like this [points to slide].

So in the left column, you have the estimate of the absolute numbers of foreign fighters, and in some cases you have ranges. In those cases I have kept the lowest, the minimum estimate and I put the maximum in parentheses. My guess is that the lower estimate is an approximation for the individuals that services know the identities of, or for the most part know the identities of. But they realize that they don’t know the identity of all of the people who have gone, so there is a margin of error.

I am relatively confident that for at least some of the countries with smaller numbers, the numbers are quite precise, meaning that most of the individuals have been identified. So, by looking at the left column, you might be a little worried seeing that your country is at the top. But I think it would be interesting to compare the numbers to the size of the population, because bigger countries will have more resources to throw at the problem. In this way, ten terrorists is a bigger problem for Luxembourg than it is for the US, for example.

So when you control for the size of the population, you get a number or an estimate that is per million inhabitants. When you do that, the UK doesn’t look so bad, instead countries like Denmark, Belgium and Norway are comparatively higher producers of foreign fighters.

So what does this tell us? This is basically a measure for the relative effort that a country will have to spend to deal with this phenomenon, to deal with the threat of returnees. So it means that Denmark will have to spend a comparatively larger amount of money monitoring the returnees than will Italy, for example.

Of course the Muslim population varies in these countries too, so what happens when we account for the size of the Muslim population? With Pew data from 2010 then you get another set of interesting numbers. And then of course Bosnia, which was high in the second column, drops down because it is a Muslim majority country. Instead you have countries like Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Austria with relatively high rates. I should add here that after I created this slide there was a new report from Denmark, with an official estimate of 80, which puts the number in the second column to 14 something, and the number in the third column to over 350.

So in Denmark, in particular, you are seeing a much larger proportion of Muslims going to Syria. This is one out of many possible measures of the extent of the radicalization problem in a Muslim population. It is not the only one, there are several others; there are network effects that probably account for these large numbers. But still, I think, officials in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Brussels should take notice.

Why are we seeing such large numbers? I think – and this is my fourth point – that the main reason is ease of access. This is a constraint issue. Syria is basically the easiest battlefront for a Muslim foreign fighter to access since the 1980s Afghanistan war. And this, of course, has to do with geopolitics; they are joining the side “we” are on, and the side that most of the neighboring countries are on.

It is politically difficult for most of the neighboring countries and European countries to crack down on the foreign fighter flow. This is the main reason, in my view, for the difference between Syria and Iraq. Iraq was very hard to get to compared to Syria because in Iraq they were fighting “us”, or mainly American troops, and the borders were carefully policed and people were prosecuted if they went there.

That’s not happening in Syria, and you have lots and lots of accounts about this from border areas with Turkey, for example. There are accounts of people showing up from flights from Tunisia wearing battle gear, with long beards, and lots of jihadi anasheed on their iPods, and not worrying at all about being detected or intercepted. You have not seen this for many destinations in the past decade, at least. Of course there are things happening on the motivation side, that are pushing people out, the fact that the scale of the suffering in theatre, the theological significance of the Levant, etc. etc. I doubt any of these factors would produce as many foreign fighters as there are if the constraints were high.

The fifth point is that we will see a blowback of sorts, that a proportion of these foreign fighters will come back and be involved in militancy on European soil. This has been the case historically with virtually all past foreign fighter contingents and the numbers being as large as they are here, I am fairly certain there will be some blowback. Of course it’s always just a small proportion of the outgoing fighters who go back and plot. This is one of the main findings in the study I made, that was published earlier this year, in the American Political Science Review, which showed that between 1990 and 2010, out of the outgoing foreign fighters from the west, on average 1 in 9 became involved in militancy at home. That, I think is a maximum estimate, the real ratio is probably lower, so we’re talking about a small proportion. But when the numbers are so large, even a small proportion will produce a large absolute number.

The point here is that to some extent it does not matter what intentions people leave with, because the experience in theatre changes some people, it doesn’t change all of them, but it does tend to change the intentions of some of them. In the same study that I mentioned I found that foreign fighters almost never leave with the intention to come back and attack; they always leave with the intention to help the local rebels fight an overwhelming enemy. They often have what might be called noble or altruistic intentions, but some of them, some of those people, change their intentions along the way. That may well happen here too.

My next point is that the scale of the blowback, the return rate, will depend mainly on the strategies pursued by the organizations in theatre. I mentioned that the blowback rate is always low, but it does seem to vary quite a bit. At one end we have AfPak, for example, where a relatively large proportion of people who go there come back and plot. The other end we have Somalia, where very few of the people who go there come back and plotted; I will show you some numbers later, but it varies a lot. The question is: will Syria be a high- or low-blowback destination? It’s of course impossible to tell at this point, but I think we can make some conjectures based on what happened in the past.

I tried to explore the determinants of the blowback rate variation,and here’s what I found. When you look at the estimated number of foreign fighters—from all countries, not just from Europe—that is to say the number of foreign fighters that have been involved in the various conflicts, and then the numbers of plots and individuals from the foreign fighter populations who got involved in attacks in the west, then you see that basically there have been two or three classes of conflicts: you have the “high rate destinations”: AfPak post 2001, Yemen, and Afghanistan in the late 90s, where the return rate is roughly one in the twenties. Contrast this with the low-blowback destinations, like Iraq or Bosnia or Afghanistan in the 1980s, where the rate is one in some thousands. Of course it’s not the specific number that matters, it is the orders of magnitude.

I tried to look at why we are seeing such different return rates, though more work should probably be done on this. Here is an easy, quick ‘back of the envelope’ way of doing it. Is it correlated with the Western military presence? Perhaps, but it doesn’t really work for Afghanistan in late 90s. Does geographic proximity have something to do with it? No, AfPak and Yemen are producing many. Does it matter whether they have al-Qaeda affiliates present? It seems to but then again you did have that in Iraq and yet you had low blowback.

The only thing that I find plausibly accountsfor those variations is whether or not you have an organization in theatre that has a declared strategy of attacking the West. That is what you had in Afghanistan before and after 9/11, and it’s what you have to some extent in Yemen. We didn’t see that in Iraq or in the other destinations, and fortunately we don’t have that in Syria today… yet. There are organizations on the ground that are very anti-western, that are openly  sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and who probably applaud attacks in the West, but who don’t have a declared strategy of attacking us. They are not devoting a substantial proportion of the resources to plotting in the West, yet, so at this point, my guess will be that the blowback rate will be low, but this could change.

This brings me to my seventh point. I’m worried about the emergence of this enclave in northern Syria where al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are establishing territorial control. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years’ time, there will be a confrontation between the international community and this enclave, that something will have to be done about this enclave; and if there is some kind of crackdown, if something is done forcefully against this enclave, that may make some of the organizations in theatre adopt a strategy of attacking the West. In which case they can make use of the many European foreign fighters in Syria to attack.

I have three broad basic suggestions; the first is to raise the constraints. We have to somehow make it more difficult to get there. I don’t have very specific proposals. I think it needs to be tailored to various departure countries and to the various border countries, in which… those cases where the measure is something that Turkey or Jordan should do. But some things we should consider are things at the borders, implementing tighter control of the flow of fighters across the Turkish, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi borders.

We may also need to consider some kinds of measures against those people who leave, whether it is withdrawal of passports, limited legal sanctions or something else to raise the constraints. How high these should be raised? I don’t know, I am certainly not advocating the aggressive prosecution of every single person who goes there, but a reasonably calibrated strategy to raise constraints is necessary here. One thing that we definitely should not do is close the door on the people who are out, something the Australians considered for a while, because this will basically create stateless citizens who have nothing else to do but to operate internationally.

The second main thing to do is to track the fighters. This is a network phenomenon and it is only by tracking the fighters that we have a chance of pre-empting attacks and of following the influence they will have on the local community when they return.

The third thing to do, a mission for intelligence analysts, is to carefully monitor the declared intentions of the organizations in Syria, from their public statements to their internal deliberations and so on, to catch early on any sign of an adoption of a strategy of attack in the West, because that will really be the game changer. I’ll end there. Thank you very much.

Brooks Newmark MP

We have time for some questions, and thank you sticking to time constraints. By the way, rule number one: speak up; and number two: don’t give speeches on the floor, in case anybody is thinking of that, keep your questions short and sharp so we give our guest speaker the time to speak.

Question 1

You touched briefly on intentions. I wonder if it is possible to aggregate the groups that the fighters have gone to. There is certainly a spectrum of groups on the opposition side, and related to that, is it possible for them to fight against jihadi tourists, those who have repeatedly gone to conflicts overseas?

Dr. Hegghammer

Yes that is possible. I think if we track the foreign fighters you will see a variety of motivations, from people who mainly want to provide some kind of humanitarian assistance via opportunistic jihad tourists to more ideologically determined individuals.

What I would say is that it seems to me that the number on the altruistic side is going down and the number of committed side is going up. So in the beginning we were seeing a lot more secular ‘humanitarian assistance minded’ recruits, whereas now you are increasingly seeing people with connections to established Islamist networks in Europe. I haven’t looked in detail at the UK contingent, but looking at the ones we have in Scandinavia, it is by no means a cross-section of the Muslim population. It is primarily people who are embedded in the most radical Islamist networks that we have. I should say that we don’t have jihadi communities that are as militant as some other European countries, but the majority of those people at least are coming from already quite ideologized communities.

To your question on if it matters where they go… I will say two things; one is that yes it matters hugely where they go and by joining one the most militant groups, the chances are much higher that you pursue that in the future. But the other point is that here, as in many previous conflicts, the recruit doesn’t always get to decide where he goes; there is an element of chance involved. Some of the people going don’t really know where they will end up and some people are channelled to groups that they did not originally intend to join, and in some cases this could lead them to a group that is more ideological than they are.

Question 2

Thank you very much indeed. Is there any link between the duration of the conflict, and perhaps indirectly the intensity or the level of fighting, and the level of blowback? It strikes me obviously that the longer the conflict, the numbers of people going are going to go up and I am just wondering if this is also happening in [inaudible]. Given your comments about the danger of jihadist groups in northern Syria perhaps coalescing [inaudible] and grouping in the future; that remark seems to be seriously inconsistent with the idea that the longer it goes on the bigger absolute problem and the bigger proportional problem.

Dr. Hegghammer

I can’t say for sure. There is certainly a minimal preparation period, and you tend not to get the blowback from the very beginning. There is a time lag there, AfPak for example began in 1996and we didn’t start getting blowback until around 2000. In Yemen, the current incarnation of AQAPemerged in 2006, and you started seeing plots in the West in 2009-2010. So you are talking about a few years of time lag.

That’s at the conflict unit level. At the individual level, once there is an established pattern of people returning, for example an organization there that has a strategy of attacking the West, then the time that goes from the arrival of the individual to the return and the involvement in a plot can be very short. In fact it may be more likely that the shorter the person is there, the higher the risk of return; the longer the person fights as a regular guerilla fighter in theatre, the more likely it is that he will develop links with regular militias and stay there. So that’s something also to consider, but we shouldn’t be expecting to see plots at this point in time, so we can’t use data from today to say anything about the scale of the future blowback.

Brooks Newmark MP

And also introduce yourselves, so when I point to you can you introduce yourself so the speaker knows who you are.

Question 3

Do you think the data you showed us on the numbers of foreign fighters per populations in each country, and seeing the pattern that it was Denmark, Belgium, Norway and Austria which seemed to have more of a problem, do you think integration and radicalization in the less integrated communities – those poor communities have less integrated communities than others – do you see a pattern there of that kind, to do with integration in those countries resulting in foreign fighters going, of them becoming more radicalized?

Dr. Hegghammer

I don’t know what accounts for this variation. My guess is no, my guess is that there isn’t a strong correlation. I would also find it hard to measure or to study— how do you measure integration, how do you find a value for integration as an independent variable? It is “very hard”, “soft” or “hard” or “multiculturalist”, or “integrationist”… these are very coarse measures and I don’t know if we could ever measure it. My suspicion though is that it is mainly network effects that account for this, that some countries just happen to have entrepreneurial individuals and in some circumstances, those individuals can recruit or mobilize a critical mass of people that sustain themselves because each new recruit can influence three or four others. And those effects can be extended by very proximate factors, not structural factors of the country.

Question 4- Lord Brook

What proportion of those going are going as individuals and what proportion are going on organized basis and what proportion have been trained before they go?

Dr. Hegghammer

I couldn’t give you precise proportions. I don’t have sufficiently detailed data for that, but anecdotally, it seems no one is getting trained beforehand. It’s very hard to train militarily if you’re in any way connected with an Islamist group in Europe. You can only go paintballing and things like that. I think very few train beforehand. I think also, based on anecdote, that most people go together with someone, this is generally the case with recruitment to any form of high risk activity, and in the case of previous foreign fighters. People go in groups.

Question 5

Do you know if the internet and the social networks like Twitter have helped the recruitment?

Dr. Hegghammer

Yes I think so. I didn’t mention that in the discussion of explaining scale, but I think it does increase the motivation by showing more people more graphics, and that increases motivation. It also helps to spread information about the low constraints. It certainly reduces the information problem that perspective foreign fighters have. Consider the pre-internet world; if there’s distant conflict somewhere and you’re based in Europe, how would you know how safe it is to go, how would you know that you wouldn’t be arrested along the way by an intelligence service that might torture you? How would you know that you wouldn’t be exploited by criminals and traffickers and things like that?

The information barrier was much higher before the internet, now with the media, and over time, the perspective recruits collect information about how you should go, there are a lot of testimonies of people who are there saying ‘oh it’s very easy, do it like this and like that, as long as you pay attention to this you stay out of trouble’ and they can also see that in a relatively broad range of people are going, very young people and very old people, men and women, so they assume that it must be very easy to go as well. It reduces the uncertainty. The value of such media is that it conveys information about the level of constraints. When you raise the constraints, that information also seeps into social media—people learn that it is dangerous and has implications for you.

Question 6- Frank Gardner, BBC Security Correspondent

Nice to see you again Thomas—glad they forced you to wear a suit this time! You didn’t mention the two biggest Jihadi groups in Syria; Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, the most obvious participants in any organized concerted attack on the West but they seem to be involved with each other [inaudible]. How do you see that playing out in terms of risks of blowback on the West and could they turn in on each other, could they consume each other or eat each other like two insects in a bucket?

Dr. Hegghammer

With regards to going global, it’s just really hard to predict.  You can look back and try to explain what happened in the cases where it went global but it’s really hard to predict. Sometimes it is a case of infighting, a case of two factions vying for power, dominance over a particular territory, or one trying to outbid the other by being more extreme, by showing more resolve, by gaining more support from radical communities’ outside. You saw this in Somalia for example, with some people raising the global jihad stakes a little bit more than the other faction. That’s conceivable in Syria, one group or faction tries to outbid the other by being basically the one able to carry out something that the other cannot.

But then again, it may not happen because these groups live with the knowledge that the moment they perpetrate something in the West, the West will impose heavy costs on them in the form of drone attacks and other measures. This is incidentally one of the reasons why not more al-Qaeda affiliates have attacked in the West in the past few years. They are deterred to some extent.

At this point I think that for the leaders of both Jabhat and ISIS, their political priorities lie in Syria. For them, attacking the West doesn’t help them. In fact it is detrimental to their struggle. There can always be a faction, or sub-group, that tries it on, typically by younger individuals who don’t have the historical memory of the older strategists; younger militants maybe less risk averse than the more senior ones, and it only takes a small faction to get an initiative like that. But personally I don’t see the big organizations as a whole taking the struggle out quite yet; I think, as I said, that the main factor that could change that is if there is any kind of international intervention against the jihadi enclave in Syria.

Question 7

[Inaudible period]. Turkey has strong border security, similar to France or Germany, but it’s significantly weaker in Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan and so on. What should be done to strengthen border controls, especially in these three countries? Secondly, what is the current UK counter-terrorism strategy? You mentioned, for example in Scandinavia, Austria, people are going to Syria, and no one else from the Norwegian government can know better who the most radicalized people are. What can European countries do for prevention, what measures can they use?

Dr. Heggammer

With regards to border security, I don’t really know. There are people who have better ideas and a better sense of the reality on the ground than myself, but anything that reduces the number of non-Syrian militants entering Syria is good enough for me.

And with regards to the second question, prevention can be many things. Prevention depends on whether you look at it from the motivation side or the constraint side. Are you hoping to prevent people from developing the motivation to go in the first place, an ideological aim? That is very hard, given the realities on the ground in Syria. The conflict is there, it’s awful, and it’s normal for young people to think about doing something about it. I think you can do something on the constraints side either by informing people about the risks involved, making it practically more difficult for them to go, or keeping them out of the reach of the more radical networks in the country, and the charismatic leaders and authority figures in the radical community.

Question 8

In terms of communication, given that we’ve actually identified some fighters, and the BBC in fact interviewed them last week, could it actually be a positive thing that we have some British citizens as part of these groups when it comes to establishing communications [with the rebels], based on this happening in the past?

Dr. Hegghammer

You mean that we will have more eyes and ears on the ground? Conceivably yes, but the problem is that many of these individuals wouldn’t cooperate with those institutions in this country, or in other countries, that make use of that information. So I think those benefits would be limited.

Question 9

I just wanted to ask you if you have researched into the background of the foreign fighters in Syria. For example, I understand that you’re talking about young men exclusively from a very specific age range, sort of early twenties. Is there any other criteria? For example, employment, unemployment, class background, that show up in people choosing to fight?

Dr. Hegghammer

I haven’t studied systematically the profile of foreign fighters in Syria yet. My impression though, from looking at a lot of reports, profiles and interviews and so on, is that this is a more heterogeneous contingent that we have seen in previous conflicts, the variation is larger, you have more very young, more older people, you have many more women. This supports my theory that it is a constraints issue. It is easy to go there, so people that would otherwise be not able to go, are able to go, including men and women, from as young as 16 to men as old as 50, and the largest number of women that we have seen in any previous conflict. The women are still a clear minority, but they are more numerous than before.

Question 10

Very interesting what you say. Take Syria, given the many different groupings there, most of the philosophies of which, actually all of their philosophies, are unpleasant to us in the West are our own values. What is the UK, your country, these countries, supposedly doing with regards to the threat you talk about in your preamble here from your lecture, then coming back, to this issue of blowback? What are governments doing about it? I hear nothing! I don’t know if we do or people in the room do… do they stop them from traveling again, do they take their passports? It’s great to talk about it but seems to me no one is doing anything about it, and this isn’t a new phenomenon, people have been going to fight all of these radicalized wars, not just in Syria, but since we’re talking about Syria, 200 Brits have gone there? Right, they are going to come back supposedly, what are we going to do about it, what is your country going to do about it? What is in train to deal with this before the infection flows in another direction? It is an infection in my opinion.

Dr. Hegghammer

Well I haven’t looked systematically at what has been done, I noticed in passing a few measures. I think in Belgium, or France, they have tried to withhold social security benefits for the people that left, and they have tried to withhold the passports. All countries are trying as hard as they can to track; I think some countries have community relations units in the police that are reaching out with the people that they know are considering going, talking about the risks involved etc.

Question 10-contd.

What about saying you can’t come back in again before they even go, you can’t go back to comfortable Britain or Norway where it’s all lovely, what about that?

Dr. Hegghammer

That’s the one measure I warned against; closing the door on them is very dangerous, because you create a class of stateless individuals. This is what happened after the Afghanistan war, the first one, lots of people went from Arab countries like Syria, Egypt etc. into Afghanistan. Their home countries said ‘no, you may never come back’, and these became stateless individuals, the founders of al-Qaeda, these are people who would have nothing else to do but to operate internationally.

Brook Newmark MP

Thank you for that, if I can sort of throw in your mind, to answer your question, people go on jihad for a whole host of reasons. There’s a doctor in prison in Damascus today who went over, and he went over to help, he brought over medical supplies, but he also had a gun when he was there, and he was carrying a gun, and he was fighting with the people who he was trying to heal, and he got shot and he got picked up and he is in prison and he is a British citizen.

The complexity of the reasons why people go over are problematic, their motivations aren’t necessarily to come back here and cause problems here in the UK; they feel a very strong obligation to go for two or three months, almost a part of the traditional word of jihad, do something to help their fellow men, and come back continue being doctors or teachers or whatever they want to do. From the intelligence service side, they will obviously track, it is much better to track and know where these people are, because that leads them most to probably more pernicious elements within our society that we can keep an eye on, and I think that’s from very pragmatic reasons we, here, take a less harsh direct approach to people who we know are going over.

I want to thank you Thomas for a very interesting talk, it is a very complex issue and we didn’t even touch on all the other foreign jihadists that are there, and the numbers that may or may not be there, but thank you very much for the interesting talk, and if you can all join me in a round of applause.


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