Over the course of 2013 the problem of foreign fighters emerged as one of the primary national security concerns among Western democracies. The first half of 2014 has provided evidence of some of these travellers, as Canadian authorities refer to them, returning to their homes and planning or conducting attacks.
In the United Kingdom, media reports of a thwarted plot that was described as a “Mumbai-style” armed assault appeared in late February. Early June saw the arrest of a French national who returned from Syria and conducted an attack in Belgium in May, killing three people at a Jewish museum. French police also thwarted a nail bomb attack near Cannes. And in Kosovo, arrests last November appear to have disrupted a cell planning the purchase of weapons for future operations.
Syria has become a magnet for foreign fighters with an estimated 3,000 individuals from Europe having traveled to the region. Canadian authorities report that over 130 Canadians are believed to be abroad in some role, with over 30 in Syria. South of the border, the U.S. reports dozens of their own nationals having traveled to Syria. Even in Australia the phenomenon has surprised the authorities.
The recent takeover of Iraqi cities by one of the most violent groups, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has heightened fears of both regional spillover and returnees turning against their homeland. One Canadian link to ISIS was revealed earlier this month, connected to a suicide bombing in November 2013 in Iraq.
Compounding the problem is the diversity of locations from which Canadian foreign fighters have originated. Back in the 1990s, Canadians involved in terrorism abroad or supporting terrorist or insurgent groups across the Middle East and through to Afghanistan were predominantly tied to the Montreal region and focused on conflicts in North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco), Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Over the late 1990s and post-9/11, the hotbed moved to the Greater Toronto Area and more diverse links across North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and lately Syria have been documented. This evolution in location of activity in Canada – from Montreal (pre-9/11) to the Greater Toronto Area (post-9/11) – has now spread across Canada to Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, as well as smaller metropolitan areas such as London, Timmins, Pembroke and Maskinongé.
Syria is considered by some experts as the incubator of a new wave of terrorists. Should we then expect a wave of attacks on Canada in the next few years from returnees? Probably not, but it is highly likely that there will be some attempts to attack Canada.
As Canadian authorities and others have been quick to point out, not all foreign fighters are involved in combat or violent activities; some are supporting groups and operations with logistical, financial, and propaganda roles; some are in training; and others are studying at establishments that have a radical vision and propagate what has become known as the al Qaeda narrative.
Historical experience, from Afghanistan in the 1980s and later, and recent evidence suggests that many foreign fighters do not return home. Of those that do, most pose no direct threat to their homeland. Indeed, one conservative estimate of the problem in a historical context suggests only one in nine returnees post some kind of threat. The question, of course, is which one?
In reality we are groping in the dark and making estimations based on imperfect knowledge and past experience. However, the intelligence and national security challenges foreign fighters or travellers pose are likely to be acute for a number of years. Moreover, as the location of individuals reported to have been killed or known to have gone abroad reveals a Canada-wide problem, metropolitan and municipal authorities who have little previous experience with the issue of terrorism are now potentially on the frontline.
Cooperation between various intelligence and security agencies will have to become both deeper and incorporate organizations and agencies who have little experience with security issues.
In essence, the foreign fighter phenomenon illustrates the blurring of boundaries in contemporary national security; issues abroad have resonance and implications at home, meaning there are very few challenges that are “over there” but not “here” and the authorities, agencies, and actors involved in reducing the threats are federal, provincial, municipal – government and non-government.
Canadian officials and the public are therefore going to have to speak more often and more openly about the threats that may emerge in order to respond to them in a holistic manner to anticipate and prevent attacks as much as is possible.
Jeremy Littlewood is an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. He is also the secretary of the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies. For more information about the Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies (CASIS), including its 2014 Symposium, visit www.casis-acers.ca