Conference Report

The Foreign Fighter Problem: Recent Trends and Case Studies

FPRI’s Program on National Security held a conference on the foreign fighter problem, September 27-28, 2010, in Washington, DC at the Reserve Officers Association, which cosponsored the conference. General William Ward, Commander of US Africa Command, delivered a videotaped message to the conferees, and Terence Ford, Director of Intelligence and Knowledge Development for US Africa Command, delivered the keynote. Audio and video files of the proceedings are posted on FPRI’s website at: /research/nationalsecurity/foreignfighters1009. Selected papers from the conference will be published in Orbis and other outlets. Samuel Helfont, Tally Helfont, Michael Horowitz, and Michael P. Noonan, served as panel moderators.  FPRI’s Program on National Security is supported by a contribution from  FPRI’s Vice Chairman John M. Templeton, Jr.

The views expressed herein are those of the speakers and should not be construed to represent any agency of the U.S. government or other institution. What follows is a summary of the keynote address, major panel presentations and discussions.


In a video message played at the outset of the conference, General William E. Ward, Commander of U.S. Africa Command, said he believed “very strongly that the foreign fighter phenomenon is a measurable threat to global peace and security.” He stressed that the degree to which these organizations operate globally is an important aspect of the current phenomenon. Through the “recruiting, indoctrinating, training, equipping, and employing individuals in different locations around the globe,” foreign fighters have been able to exploit “vulnerabilities in under-governed areas and even within relatively well-developed nations.” Gen. Ward cautioned that, “like many places, Africa is vulnerable” and referenced some of the dilemmas that have arisen in trying to stem the foreign fighter problem. In closing he applauded the aims of the conference, which he said “continues some of the important and insightful dialogue from last year’s [foreign fighter] conference,” and expressed his eagerness to hear its results.


Terrance Ford, Director of Intelligence and Knowledge Development for U.S. Africa Command, delivered the conference’s keynote address. Ford noted that “globalization has changed how foreign fighter networks operate throughout the world,” enabling these networks to be far more efficient, lethal, and clandestine. Likewise, Ford pointed out that foreign fighters “often see themselves—and are perceived by some others—as freedom fighters.” Motivated by ideology, religion, oppression and social injustice, these fighters take up arms to further what they consider a noble cause and “bring a fervor to the battlefield that is lacking in mercenaries and combatants.” He cautioned, “we should be mindful of these attributes as we craft anti-recruitment strategies” and “prepare operational plans to militarily defeat them.” Finally, Ford emphasized the need for countries to develop “self-sufficient security apparatuses capable of defending individual state borders.” He added that regional cooperation between stronger and weaker nations in defense of common borders would serve “to deny the safe havens on which the foreign fighter networks rely.”


Stephanie Kaplan, a Ph.D. candidate in MIT’s Political Science department and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offered three arguments for understanding the causes and consequences of the Muslim foreign fighter phenomenon.

First, Kaplan argued that “contemporary terrorism research is too terrorism-centric, and that war is the most profitable lens through which to view the global jihadist movement.” In support of this assertion, she referenced data suggesting, “more violent Islamic extremists participate in the movement through war than through terrorism.” Likewise, she added that information culled from the Harmony Documents[1] focused more “on concepts of guerrilla warfare, weapons and inventory”—traditional methods of armed conflict—than on terrorism.

In Kaplan’s second argument, she posited that the “foreign fighter problem is actually several problems … that mirror the life cycle of the foreign fighter phenomenon.” She explained that this cycle is comprised of the pre-war phase, the war phase, and the post-war phase and that each phase raises a host of disparate questions that would require unique treatment.

Third, she stressed the need for a conceptual framework to understand the problem across time and space. Kaplan explained that the discussion of this phenomenon has been focused for too long on ad hoc case study analysis, which she described as being “very descriptive and very reactionary,” rather than predictive. According to Kaplan, each war generates capabilities—operational, organizational, logistical—and by looking “at the problem through this framework, not only can we accurately assess what’s going to happen in wars” but come up with better preventative prescriptions.

Marc Sageman, an FPRI Senior Fellow and author of Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, focused on the phenomenon in terms of a potential “bleed-out” effect that may occur after foreign fighters take part in global jihadi conflicts. Sageman argued that acts of political violence carried out in the West by returned foreign fighters are an important measure of the threat posed by this group. Citing numerous examples, he concluded that the number of instances in which foreign fighters carried out such attacks in the West was limited, therefore refuting the concept of the “wandering mujahideen.”

Likewise, Sageman challenged the concept of foreign fighter groups, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as being franchises. “It’s a wrong metaphor,” and implies that the central organization is consciously setting up franchises. Rather, Sageman suggested that it is more aptly characterized as a phenomenon. Citing additional examples of terrorism, he illustrated that often the plots that succeed come together in an organic fashion and that the days of systematic, lengthy training and recruitment are gone.

Lorenzo Vidino, currently a visiting fellow at the RAND Corporation, built on Sageman’s point about the asystematic nature of the phenomenon. Based on his interviews in Italy of “former jihadis” regarding their experiences as foreign fighters, Vidino argued that the foreign fighter pipeline was very much “random.” “The whole experience of foreign fighters is often shaped by coincidences in advance largely beyond the control of the ‘wannabe’ foreign fighter,” said Vidino, adding that the locale often had nothing to do with the fighters themselves but rather with the handlers that they had come across.

Vidino also noted that, when looking at Europe, certain countries favor specific conflict arenas to channel their foreign fighters. For example, “In Spain, the pipeline really goes to mostly North Africa. It used to be Iraq. If we’re talking about Sweden, it’s largely Somalia. Germany, as we heard, is really Pakistan …” and so on. This point served to strengthen Vidino’s assertion that the foreign fighter pipeline can, in many instances, disregard personal preferences for certain conflict zones for the sake of supply and demand.

Vidino concluded with a point about American foreign fighters. For a long time, said Vidino, it has been a common understanding that the foreign fighter phenomenon was a European issue that it “did not really affect Muslims in the United States.” He explained that according to this view, “American Muslims are virtually immune to radicalization because they’re well integrated into society, while European Muslims have not well integrated, and hence more prone to radicalization.” Citing several well-publicized cases spanning back to the 1980s, Vidino maintained that the facts simply do not support this understanding.

Clinton Watts, a Managing Director for Innovative Analytics and Training (IAT), highlighted five points that he believed were critical to understanding the foreign fighter phenomenon from a global perspective. First, Watts noted that while the places change, the process stays the same. He posited that “most of the foreign fighter recruits come from maybe two dozen towns around the globe” and because these towns are known for terrorist recruitment, anti-radicalization and anti-recruitment tactics should be focused there.

Second, Watts dealt with the concept of “fighters versus martyrs.” Watts referred to the Sinjar Documents[2] where recruits themselves made the decision whether to be fighters or martyrs. Watts believes that choosing to be a fighter is significant because of the bleed out effect mentioned by Sageman.

Third, Watts argued that while both physical and virtual recruitment exists, the physical manifestation is much more powerful because of the personal trust that can be established. He pointed out that the old Marine adage, “The best recruiter of a Marine is a former Marine,” is also applicable in this phenomenon: “The best recruiter of a foreign fighter is a former foreign fighter.”

Fourth, Watts suggested that the foreign fighter model is more closely likened to “how ant colonies form to find food sources” as opposed to a strictly hierarchical model. According to this logic, would-be foreign fighters seek out their targets using varying methods. Once the target is found by an individual, signals are sent out to the colony—or the cell, in this case—to organize around that target. Understanding these networks as being ant-like can, according to Watts, facilitate the disruption of foreign fighter mobilization.

Finally, Watts suggested that a strategic approach to dealing with foreign fighters would be “to make villains, not martyrs.” In short, trying to create a local environment that looks upon the activities of returned foreign fighters as atrocities, rather than greeting them with a heroes’ welcome.


Ambassador (ret.) David Shinn, an Adjunct Professor of African Affairs at The George Washington University, focused his remarks exclusively on foreign fighters from the al-Shabaab movement, although he acknowledged that there are other foreign elements engaged in fighting in Somalia.

Shinn explained that initially, al Qaeda had a difficult time “recruiting Somalis to the jihadi cause,” despite the chaotic situation in the country during the 1990s. However by 2007, al-Shabaab, which came out of the fractured Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), began trying to establish closer links to al Qaeda. Shinn clarified that while “al-Shabaab is not under the operational control of al Qaeda” nevertheless, it still maintains very close links to the group.

According to Shinn, “al-Shabaab is organized into three layers,” and while the top layer is comprised of Somalis, “you have other layers in the leadership that are very, very critical to the organization,” which include “a significant and growing number of foreigners—either foreigners or Somalis from the diaspora with foreign passports.” He added that of “the 85 member executive council of Al-Shabaab today, 42 are Somalis and 43 are foreigners.” As such, “the hardliners led by the foreign jihadis wield enormous influence and have access to resources and the means to dictate their wishes to the less powerful factions.” Shinn also emphasized that “the foreign veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq play an important part of al-Shabaab Field Commanders because of their military experience,” teaching “techniques of suicide attacks, remote controlled roadside bombings, kidnappings and assassinations” to the rest of the group.

Shinn underscored that “al-Shabaab has developed one of the most effective media recruitment programs ever developed by a militant Islamist organization,” which has “been particularly successful in the Somali diaspora in Europe, North America, the Middle East, Africa and even Australia.” These recruitment efforts, he said, have “motivated a significant number of these people to go to Somalia” and join al-Shabaab.  (A write-up of Ambassador Shinn’s was published as an FPRI Enote, accessible at:  /enotes/201011.shinn.somalia.html.)

Ted Dagne, a specialist on East African affairs, noted that “of all the regions in Africa, it is the Horn of Africa that has emerged in the past 15 years as a region highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and a safe haven, not just for international organizations, but for local terrorist organizations as well.” Dagne stressed that while Somalia has been used as a terrorist safe haven in part due to its lack of central authority, the “emphasis on foreign fighters and foreign influence” frequently has been overstated given that the terror attacks “being carried out against Somalis is basically by Somalis, largely, with the help of some foreigners.”

He argued that “the Ethiopian invasion, with the support of the United States, is seen by many observers as contributing to the emergence of al-Shabaab and the proliferation of other extremist groups in Somalia.” Dagne also remarked that al-Shabaab’s ability to recruit and retain recruits has been reduced over the past year, “in large part because of their own misdoings—because of the attacks they’ve been carrying out, because of their affiliation … with foreign entities.”

Dagne added, “for the first time in the past several years, we have seen Somalia move beyond the clan politics.” Specifically “the leadership of Al-Shabaab, or the leadership of the ICU, it’s more inclusive than any time,” pointing to the new reality in which “religion is more important for Shabaab” than clanism.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, asked, “Why has Shabaab placed so much emphasis on foreign fighters from the West?” Drawing from some earlier comments made during the conference, Gartenstein-Ross noted that al-Shabaab’s active recruitment strategy stands out from foreign fighter recruitment tactics in other arenas. He suggested that active recruitment is likely a part of the group’s operational strategy to seek out individuals, who are technologically savvy and familiar with English (as opposed to recruits who are useful militarily). Gartenstein-Ross added that this strategy may also be “designed to expand Shabaab’s transnational reach.”

He highlighted the importance of the oft “neglected non-western foreign fighters” and specifically the “Somalis born in Kenya and Ethiopia” to al-Shabaab as an organization. From a threat standpoint, he argued that this group is problematic not only because of “what they do when they’re inside Somalia” but also for “what they do when they leave”—“whether they might carry out some sort of terrorist attack or some other kind of jihadi-related activity while they’re in the United States.”

Gartenstein-Ross also posed the question, “why Shabaab is not an al Qaeda affiliate?” According to its public messaging and public addresses, it is clear that al-Shabaab holds al Qaeda in high regard, “and likewise, al Qaeda leaders, who don’t always embrace any jihadist group out there, have also issued a number of statements favorable of Shabaab.” Gartenstein-Ross therefore suggested that al Qaeda has yet to give al-Shabaab its official imprimatur because “perhaps Somalia is actually being seen as a real possible base of strength,” and it “doesn’t want to attract greater U.S. attention to that theater of war,” in case things go poorly for the group in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ken Menkhaus, a professor of Political Science at Davidson College, situated the “question of foreign fighters in Somalia, foreign fighters for that matter in Africa in broader context”—namely, “an African context of political weakness.” He charged that “Africa is the theater for other people to play out their wars,” explaining that “what’s happening in places like Somalia and elsewhere is very much a function of a political vacuum.”

Menkhaus identified an additional factor as to why the Somali diaspora supported al-Shabaab (not only financially or morally, but also physically by going to Somalia to join the group): Somalia “was a perfect fit for the al Qaeda meta-narrative.” Specifically, the Ethiopian intervention in 2006 was seen as “a Christian-dominated government of Ethiopia coming in a crushing and oppressing Muslims with the backing of the evil empire, the United States.” This, Menkhaus said, made it “relatively easy for some to be convinced that this was the next great front in their struggle.”

Menkhaus added that the poor state of the Somali economy and the country’s dependence on remittances from abroad have acted to constrain the influence of al-Shabaab to an extent. Menkhaus explained that the diaspora is the lifeline of the Somali people, and “if they start engaging in terrorist attacks in the United States, elsewhere, they run the risk of a law enforcement clamp-down … jeopardizing the remittance system itself.”


J. Peter Pham, the Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and an Associate Professor at James Madison University, remarked that prior to the establishment of al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Maghrebis—that is, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and others—made up a significant percentage of the suicide bombers “in the al Qaeda led insurgency in Iraq.” This participation “helped facilitate, if you will, the building of the trust networks” between al Qaeda central and the Maghreb-based combatants, culminating in the announcement in 2007 “by the GSPC [Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, GSPC] that it had become al Qaeda in the land of the Islamic Maghreb.”

Because some of those sent to fight in Iraq returned to the Maghreb and joined AQIM, Pham argued that it may be more appropriate to label these combatants “as foreign trained, rather than as foreign fighters.” Moreover, these foreign-trained fighters brought back new terrorist techniques that had not been used previously in the Maghreb, effectively broadening the scope of AQIM’s capabilities in terms of casualty rate, lethality, and the execution of multiple, coordinated attacks.

Pham observed that “robust action on the part of Algerian government has largely changed the nature of the [AQIM] campaign,” in effect, defeating the guerrilla war or counterinsurgency centered in Kabylia in the North. He said that “the nature of the organization is also changed because of the defeats,” in which AQIM has less of a “hierarchical structure, and now the former zone commanders have a great deal of autonomy.”

Lianne Kennedy Boudali, an International Policy Analyst with the RAND Corporation, suggested that “regional foreign fighter incidence is on the rise in the Maghreb,” or to be exact, “increasing numbers of fighters from states in Africa are participating with AQIM activities.” Boudali attributed AQIM’s need “to expand its activities into the Sahel” to its “inability to sustain itself through recruitment.” However, she clarified that AQIM’s “increased cooperation with fighters, who are from Mauritania, from Mali, from Niger, has allowed them to expand their support networks,” including social support for recruitment, financial support, and the use of criminal networks. She assessed that while AQIM is not “in a position to destabilize any of the states in the region,” the fact “that they are able to draw [in] these additional populations” poses some threat to regional security.

Boudali cautioned that “the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan serve to socialize a young generation of potential recruits, both in North Africa and in the Sahel states, making them perhaps more susceptible to AQIM’s recruitment messages.” However, she made the distinction that recruits from the Sahel countries are often in “units where you see more criminal activity taking place; … they’re more in the mold of the guerrilla fighter than what we think of as a ‘foreign fighter’ seeking martyrdom.” Therefore, “their utility to AQIM may derive more from their social, tribal, or in fact their criminal connections” than from their ideological or martyrdom aspirations. She noted that “the criminal activity … gives the United States an interesting angle to increase its collaboration in the area,” perhaps diffusing some of the skepticism of American involvement on the continent.

Boudali suggested that “AQIM’s activities in the Sahel have caused economic harm to some of the disadvantaged populations in the Sahel”—the Tuareg, the Berbers, and others. Those groups “being harmed by the loss of the tourism, income and so forth from AQIM’s activities” have less of an incentive to cooperate with AQIM, said Boudali.

Audra K. Grant, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, explained that the organizational make-up of AQIM, which is comprised of mostly “Algerians, and has substantially fewer Moroccans, Libyans and Tunisians … is partly due to effective counterterrorism efforts in those countries, but also to weaknesses in the jihadi movements in these countries.”

Grant listed some of the “conditions that have made this sort of [jihadi] activity permissive, particularly in the Sahel region, where al Qaeda has had more success in extending its outreach.” Specifically, she noted that the existence of “huge swaths of remote, difficult to govern territory” along with extremely porous borders makes the Sahel region extremely vulnerable to AQIM’s network operations.

When looking at the North African fighters who returned from Afghanistan, Grant pointed to an alarming number coming “specifically from two cities—Darnah and Benghazi [Libya].” These cities “are revered among local residents for their historic resistance and rebellion, being former sites of Islamic rebellion.” Grant added that, in her view, “urban settings are important for playing a role in terms of foreign fighter recruitment” due to factors like a lack of “economic opportunity, high levels of unemployment, anti-Western sentiment, frustration with governments, lack of political opportunity,” among others. Grant also said that the Internet “has a function in radicalizing individuals who do end up becoming foreign fighters,” which she believes “was the case for those who went to Iraq, at least for some Maghrebi countries.”

John Entelis, a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at Fordham University, raised the notion that “AQIM, in its new manifestation, is a manifestation of decline, not a manifestation of strength or empowerment.” According to Entelis, there are five factors associated with the AQIM decline theory. The first factor is the national reconciliation effort in Algeria promoted by Abdelaziz Bouteflika that resulted “in more and more jihadis turning themselves in” and the defection of GSPC founder, Hassan Hattab, himself.

A second factor is “the success of [the] splits within AQIM.” “The reconciliation processes formed division among AQIM fighters” who were unsure “whether or not members should accept the government’s amnesty offer.” Entelis explained that on the one hand, “Hattab has been particularly vocal in calling for AQIM members to lay down their arms.” On the other hand, “it inspired AQIM leader [Abdelmalek] Droukdel to provide religious justification for suicide attacks”— a relatively new phenomenon in the Algerian context.

A third factor is AQIM’s “stance towards the parent organization” regarding “division between locally focused objectives and more global ones,” in which “certain GSPC members resent having been reduced to mere agents of al Qaeda.”

A fourth factor relates to intellectual figures—such as Sayyed Imam Al-Sharif (aka Dr. Fadl), a known source of al Qaeda’s philosophy—who challenged the legitimacy of AQIM and declared GSPC’s jihad to be illegitimate.

The fifth factor affecting the weakness in AQIM is “the changing international stance and shrinking sources of aid.” Entelis elaborated, stating “since September 11th, a global response to terrorism has seriously interrupted operations, including the sources of funding.” This “can help explain this wave of kidnapping and ransom that is to make up for this loss,” he said.

Challenges to the decline theory, according to Entelis, are based on five alternative factors, including 1) the absence of political freedoms, 2) the crisis itself in civil society throughout North Africa, 3) regional instability and a climate of conflict, 4) weak regional cooperation, and 5) a hopeless socioeconomic environment.


Christopher Boucek, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East Program, stressed that when “talking about Yemen, especially in the last year or so, the issue has been all about terrorism and security, and terrorism and security is not Yemen’s biggest problem.” Rather, according to Boucek, “Yemen is facing a number of challenges, and terrorism and security are just one of these challenges.” If Yemen is in danger of becoming a collapsed state, it is first and foremost because of “issues like the economy, governance, corruption, subsidies—a whole range of larger systemic issues, including resource depletion, but primarily focused on the economy.” However, there is a correlation between these factors, as the latter are “the conditions that lead to instability and the foreign fighter issue.”

He suggested that there are three separate groups currently active in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen:  1) Yemenis, who are focused on Yemen’s domestic issues, 2) Saudis, who are uninterested in what goes on inside Yemen but rather are focused on “going back to Saudi Arabia and fixing what they got wrong the last time around,” and 3) the third-country nationals, including Pakistanis, Egyptians, and others. In light of this breakdown, “what can be done about the foreigners who are active in al Qaeda?” In Boucek’s estimation, “you might be able to get someone to turn out the foreigners—the Saudis and the Pakistanis—but not the Yemenis.” Boucek posited that this “raises some interesting questions for counterterrorism policy and how we deal with Yemen looking forward.”

Boucek warned that released Yemeni Guantanamo detainees, both those who have already returned to Yemen and the 90 or so that will eventually be released and return, pose a significant threat to the country’s stability. He explained that “Yemen doesn’t have an adequate system in place now for dealing with this and they won’t have an adequate system in place for dealing with other returnees.” Furthermore, Boucek said that Guantanamo detainees often keep in touch with one another after their release, coordinating their activities to travel to Yemen and engage in jihad, “not only amongst themselves but with other third country returnees.”

Brian O’Neill, a freelance writer and blogger focusing on Yemen and U.S. foreign policy towards the country, challenged the assertion commonly found in the media that explains Yemen’s “jihadi problem” as resulting from al Qaeda being beaten in the AfPak region and therefore seeking out new territory. He suggested instead that these fighters are “there because they want to be there, because AQAP is strong and it’s a viable franchise, and the conditions in Yemen seem profitable.” O’Neill added that “AQAP doesn’t exist because of these foreign fighters—it’s an organic, homegrown organization.”

O’Neill noted that AQAP “has done a really excellent job of beginning to insinuate themselves into the tribal system through marriage and through recruitment … creating these safe havens, but safe havens with an element of control to them,” which he thought was “a much more profitable venue for jihad than say, the chaos of Somalia.” Therefore, dealing with this problem, he said, becomes more difficult as lines between AQAP and Yemeni society “begin to blend and blur.”

O’Neill acknowledged that Yemen provided a disproportionate number of people going to wage jihad abroad, and that, as was mentioned by one of the webcast participants, those who returned took up leadership positions and shared their expertise with local combatants in AQAP.

Barak Salmoni, a visiting defense fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, pointed out that although there is a great “need to reform Yemen’s sociopolitical structures,” this does not imply “that there were coherent structures to begin with.” It is important to remember that “there has not been a unitary Yemen ever, governed from Sanaa, where the ruler was able to reign throughout the land,” and that it has “frequently been the site of political and armed contestation based upon ideology.”

Salmoni suggested that, in Yemen, a “hyper-local identity” exists, which includes “an enduring north-south gulf” and “an enduring sense of Yemeni-ness—often opposed to outsiders.” This is important because “the notion of foreign control, the hidden hand, has been a leitmotif both to the opposition to the Yemeni regime, as well as on the part of the Yemeni regime itself.” The Saleh regime has been known for playing different factions off one another and using “irregular, often tribal, auxiliaries” that are seen as foreign to fight “out of region.” Salmoni said that this tactic “reignites notions of who is from here and who is foreign—and can work against even the sub-regional community.” Understanding these notions of foreign and non-foreign is “significant to understanding the challenges Yemen will face.”

Salmoni also emphasized the role of diaspora communities in financing violent elements within Yemen and how this affects efforts to combat violence and terrorism in the country. He explained, “There are legal networks of commercial exchange that go from the northern highlands down through Sanaa or through Aden, and then pass internationally into the Gulf sheikdoms and even into Iran.” These financial exchanges then can make their “way back into Yemen in terms of funds which can be used locally—locally to acquire weapons, locally to buy loyalty of tribes in a temporary way …” In essence, this cycle which includes the participation of diaspora communities serves as fuel to perpetuate violent activities within Yemen.


Brian Glyn Williams, an Associate Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, provided a review of the history of jihadi foreign fighters in Afghanistan over the last 30 years. He discussed the post-9/11 period and the invasion of Afghanistan by American forces in detail, focusing specifically on the ethnic origin of the foreign fighters and how different groups engaged in different aspect of the conflict. Moreover, Williams explained that while the foreign fighters who came to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan included, among others, Uzbekistanis (not Afghan Uzbeks), Tajiks, and Arabs, there was also a massive force of Pakistanis—of both Pashtun and Punjabi origins—that joined, “bolstering the Taliban army.”

Williams described the extremely high casualty rate among foreign fighters, adding that in certain instances, cadres of fighters were deliberately used as cannon fodder. “Fortunately for the foreign fighters,” Williams said “in 2002, the Bush administration sort of turned its back on Afghanistan. There was no interest in doing nation building.” Accordingly, due to the low levels of American troops in Afghanistan at the time and the administration’s shift to Operation Iraqi Freedom, foreign fighters and al Qaeda were able to regroup and to re-infiltrate their previous strongholds in Afghanistan. Williams explained that “al Qaeda began teaching the Taliban how to use IEDs from Iraq, how to use suicide bombings,” despite the fact that “suicide bombings had always been taboo in Afghan culture.” In short, during this period of limited American activity in the country, foreign fighters learned new techniques from other conflict zones and began applying them locally.

Sameer Lalwani, a Research Fellow with the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at MIT, discussed the concept of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan through the lens of civil war and insurgency. Lalwani noted that while the foreign fighter phenomenon has been examined from two perspectives—“the inflow of foreign fighters into a civil war insurgency or the outflow of foreign fighters to engage in acts of terrorism”— in the AfPak arena, “we’re interested in the first category but obviously it has implications for the second.”

Lalwani underscored the need to examine “the definition of what it means to be ‘foreign’ or a ‘foreign fighter’” and suggested thinking about the foreignness of the combatant “in terms of nationality and political boundaries, ethnicity, regional identity,” and “…whether or not these fighters are governmental or non-governmental forces.” He provided an example in Afghanistan where, “The Afghan national police in some particular areas of Afghanistan are seen as tremendously foreign and hostile, corrupt, invading the role of locals and in other places they are deeply integrated with local communities and command structures of local forces.” This factor is important because in the latter scenario, these forces often have a difficult time “combating insurgents within their territory because they’re seen to be of the same ethnic stock or tribal background.”

Additionally, Lalwani raised the point about the role of states in the foreign fighter phenomenon. He argued that “neighboring states play a major role in backing transnational rebels; whether it’s through sanctuaries, as Pakistan has done with Afghanistan, or even through tacit sanctuaries or tacit displacements of foreign forces …” Therefore, state “policies are chief determinants of the role of foreign fighters” and thus a point of leverage.

Bruce Riedel, a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, commented that the number of foreign fighters that exist in any given arena is “very, very murky,” raising “a definitional question… what is an al Qaeda fighter? Is he signed up for the al Qaeda pension plan? Does he have the al Qaeda secret handshake?” Riedel suggested that figures relating to organizational numbers connote “that we know exactly how big the al Qaeda problem is” and in his view, we simply do not. He added, however, “al Qaeda and the foreign fighters, whatever their numbers are, have acted as a force multiplier in Afghanistan,” and “have provided the cutting edge of training” and propaganda development in theater.

He discussed the role of American foreign fighters in the AfPak arena, pointing to “an increasing tendency of American citizens—usually of Afghan or Pakistani origin—to go to Afghanistan and Pakistan where they are now being trained by al Qaeda.” Riedel emphasized that “in terms of counterterrorism, this is probably the single most important problem we’re facing today.”

Riedel suggested, in conclusion, that “… the only serious way to control this foreign fighter problem is with the assistance of the government of Pakistan. And at the end of the day, that comes down to the assistance of the Pakistani Intelligence Service—the ISI.”

Stephen Tankel, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s South Asia Program, focused his remarks around two concepts: “why foreign fighters were drawn to conflicts,” and “the idea of foreign fighters as force multipliers.”

Tankel suggested looking at these questions “through the prism of Punjabi militant groups.” According to Tankel, “Punjabis occupy a very specific place in the jihadi milieu,” because they are not far at all from Pakistan and yet are “considered to be foreign fighters in Afghanistan and also potentially in the tribal areas as well.” He added that while they “were foreign fighters in terms of ethnicity,” it was their “identity that drew them together,” since “the Taliban was Deobandi as were many of these Pakistani Punjabi militant organizations.” In effect, he suggested that over time, “while those foreign fighters still count as ‘foreign’ in Afghanistan,” the relationships have moved away from being simply “a marriage of convenience” to more of “a strategic alliance.”

Regarding foreign fighters as force multipliers, Tankel suggested that “the destabilization in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] has been very troublesome for Pakistan” and “these Punjabis, who are to a degree foreigners in the FATA … have been able to contribute to the insurgency” in three ways: 1) their networks reach “into the heartland, which can be used to launch terrorist strikes into Islamabad and Rawalpindi and Lahore,” 2) they engage, promote, and foster the idea of sectarianism within tribal Pashtuns, and 3) they bring expertise from their training under the Pakistani Army and the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence). In short, “a very small number of people can have a very disproportionate impact.”


Michael Noonan, the Managing Director of FPRI’s Program on National Security and organizer of both Foreign Fighter Conferences, summarized the major themes covered in the panels. Noonan noted that a common thread throughout the conference, particularly in the cases of Yemen and Somalia, was the extent to which local politics colored the regional manifestation of the foreign fighter problem and how indirect strategies probably served as the best way to deal with them. He concluded by remarking that however “elastic or inelastic you want to use the term ‘foreign fighters,’ I think we can all agree that it is a serious strategic international issue in terms of terrorism, but also a very important issue tactically on the ground.”


[1]The Harmony Documents were captured by the United States Military during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, which include correspondence by al Qaeda operatives in the 1990s. The declassified documents are currently part of the Defense Department’s Harmony Database, administered by The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. <>

[2] The Sinjar Records refers to a subsection of the Harmony Documents that were captured by coalition forces in October 2007 in a raid near Sinjar, along Iraq’s Syrian border. These records contain a collection of more than 600 foreign fighter personal records collected by al Qaeda in Iraq. The Records are publically available through The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point: English‐Bios‐Trans.pdf>, Arabic: <‐Orig.pdf>

The Foreign Fighter Problem: A Conference Report

FPRI’s Program on National Security held a conference on the foreign fighter problem, July 14-15, 2009, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Michael Horowitz, Michael P. Noonan, Mackubin T. Owens, Harvey Sicherman, and Stephanie Kaplan served as panel moderators. Nearly 100 individuals from academia, government, NGOs, the media, the military, and the public attended, and another 180 individuals from around the world participated by webcast. Audio and video files of the proceedings are posted on FPRI’s website at:


The papers presented at the conference will be published in Orbis and other outlets.

The Program on National Security thanks W.W. Keen Butcher, Robert L. Freedman, Hon. John Hillen, Bruce H. Hooper, Dr. John M. Templeton, Jr., and others for their support of its activities and this conference.

The views expressed herein are those of the speakers and should not be construed to represent any agency of the U.S. government or other institution. What follows is a summary of the keynote address, major panel presentations and discussions.



Former Ambassador Dell L. Dailey (Lt. Gen. U.S. Army Ret.), the U.S. Department of State’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism (2007-09), delivered the conference’s keynote address. Ambassador Dailey opened by emphasizing two themes:  global partnership and global engagement. He noted that, “our challenge is to overcome cultural and political differences to inspire a sincere commitment to end a threat that we all share.” He reviewed various aspects of the problems that would be the topics for panel discussion, emphasizing in particular the requirements for successful collective action. Amb. Dailey closed by urging participants to use the conference as a “launching pad for regional and state dialogue.”


PANEL 1: The Foreign Fighter Phenomenon

David Malet, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University–Pueblo, cited four diverse examples, historical and contemporary, of the phenomenon to support his assertion that “not all foreign fighters are Islamic Fundatmentalists, and also foreign fighters are not a new phenomenon.”  Malet argued that current recruitment mechanisms of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are not unique to those specific conflicts, but rather stem from a combination of established messaging practices and targeted appeals by transnational groups.

Malet explained that local insurgents, typically the weaker party in civil conflicts, attempt to recruit foreign fighters in order to “broaden the scope of conflict” and to maximize their chance of victory by garnering outside support in the form of manpower and specialists. He provided a formula for transnational recruitment based on his review of records from a spectrum of different historical cases. He argued that insurgents recruit foreign fighters by framing distant civil conflicts as posing a direct threat to the transnational community to which the recruit is closely affiliated. This affiliation, whether ethnic, religious, or otherwise, ties directly into the recruitment messaging because it emphasizes the necessity of defensive mobilization and action in order to preserve the affiliated community. Malet notes that foreign fighter types are often quite active in institutions of that community, but tend to be “marginalized within their broader polities.” These social structures make them more susceptible to selective targeting by recruiters.

Malet made clear that the foreign fighters are cause for serious concern for three key reasons: (1) they have been increasing in relative numbers, (2) they learn from one another, gaining tactical expertise with every passing conflict and are becoming more dangerous, and (3) transnational foreign fighter movements tend to be more successful.

Malet concluded by offering specific policy suggestions. Malet cautioned that threatening foreign fighters with violence would be inherently ineffective considering their call to arms already stemmed from a perceived existential threat to their in-group. He suggested instead that preventing recruitment would be a matter of marginalizing the centrality of the transnational group’s social structure and narrative. He also stressed the importance of encouraging the reintegration of potential foreign fighters into their home society by bolstering civic identity institutions and establishing alternate identities for them as citizens, therefore removing the rationale for their participation in foreign conflicts.

Mary R. Habeck, an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), agreed with many of Malet’s remarks, finding the recommendations for preventing recruitment specifically compelling. Habeck, however, contended that there was a distinction between recruitment based on ethnicity or political views and recruitment based on religion. She argued that the latter is often more difficult for governments to deal with, specifically because they lack the legitimacy to challenge religiously-sanctioned behavior. Habeck noted that this is a particular problem in non-Muslim majority governments today.

Citing what she referred to as a “fight over authenticity in religion,” Habeck argued that competing groups in the Middle East are engaged in a struggle to define the “true, authentic Islam.” She explained that this struggle is not about something new, but rather about calling believers back to their true roots, to the old, established tradition. She said that “the fight uses words that many Muslims find appealing” and that resonate with the community including jihad, muhajiroon, ansar and that these terms have been rebranded to suit the recruitment needs of these groups.

Habeck further suggested that the current Islamic foreign fighter phenomenon is distinct from other conflicts because the major appeal is in the next life by means of martyrdom.  As opposed to seeking out real gains in the current struggle, it is enough to have participated and died in doing so. She continued that when the primary motivators are avoiding hell and attaining paradise, it becomes more difficult to combat.

Erin Simpson, formerly on the faculty of the Marine Corps’ Command and Staff College, found that many of Malet’s conclusions illustrated the need for additional research on the subject. She raised some specific questions and highlighted key arenas in which additional data would be pertinent. Simpson suggested that governments should interview detainees in systematic fashion in order to better understand the motivations of foreign fighters and the nature of the networks that gained them passage to the conflict zones.

Simpson raised the question of whether foreign fighters change the character of the insurgency. Specifically, she asked: (1) “What is the relationship between those foreign fighters and the local civilian population?” (2) “Do we have reason to believe that foreign fighters interact with that local civilian population in a different manner than local fighters,” both generally speaking and in Iraq specifically?, and, (3) Are foreign fighters more effective?

Simpson suggested that in certain instances, as was the case with the Sahwa or “awakening” in Iraq’s Anbar Province, foreign fighters are more effective in the conflict’s beginning but that their relationship with the local population erodes over time, causing the latter group to rise up against the former. Simpson argued that this may be a potential crack to be exploited by altering the messaging in a way that the local conflict is delegitimized by the presence of foreign fighters.

Clinton Watts, a consultant for Innovative Analytics and Training, agreed with most of Malet’s remarks and spoke specifically about the issue of recruitment tactics. Malet argued that foreign fighter recruitment techniques are not so different from ours. Watts described the parallels between the stock footage of al-Qaida training exercises featured on American television ad naseum in 2003 and the U.S. Army’s “Be All You Can Be” recruitment videos. He said that the video featured “totally different ideology” but “mirrored what they thought it was to be a fighter.” He explained that the combination of familial – social promotion of such conflicts coupled with the saliency of these recruitment tactics has proven to be a successful formula worldwide. Watts said that just as the best recruiter of a Marine is a former Marine, the same goes for foreign fighters. He reiterated Malet’s assertion that messaging is extremely important and can be consistent even when ideology differs in disparate conflicts.

Watts used a compelling analogy to emphasize the importance of transnational, community-based affiliations in which he argued that one would be more likely to support a fellow sports team supporter encountered abroad than one’s own neighbor with whom one has spoken with only on occasion. Owing to the strength of such ties, Watts argued that it is crucial for policy makers to neutralize the family and social network influence, specifically in areas known to generate high numbers of recruits.


PANEL 2: Foreign Fighters and Sovereignty

Major Ian Bryan of the Air National Guard and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, argued that while sovereignty creates a serious obstacle to reducing the foreign fighter problem, it also provides great value to the United States and her allies. He went on to say that disregarding sovereignty not only has the potential to degrade U.S. legitimacy but also to chip away at that pillar of the international system.

Bryan provided a definition of what he considered to be foreign fighters, including in this group their logistical support, such as financiers and facilitators. In arguing that interdicting foreign fighters before they reach the battlefield is of the highest priority, Bryan conceded that this feat posed a sticky set of implications for sovereignty. He then expounded on the origins of sovereignty as an international norm, tracing it back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Bryan explained that respecting sovereignty is intimately tied into a country’s perceived legitimacy and as Bryan said, “perception matters.” One of the most obvious reasons to preserve legitimacy is because “a foreign policy perceived as legitimate is usually the best way for America to get what it wants from the world.” Another, and perhaps more nuanced reason, to preserve legitimacy is in order to prevent the corrosion of international law, norms, structures and institutions that otherwise serve U.S. interests.

Bryan employed two examples in which sovereignty had been transgressed, yet yielded polar results. The first set related to operations conducted by the United States in Pakistan, which arguably diminished Pakistan’s ability to deal with the transnational threat and cooperate with the United States. The second related to NATO and its involvement in the Kosovo conflict; a case is which sovereignty was disregarded yet yielded more favorable results. Bryan’s conclusions:  not all means of transgressing sovereignty are equal and like-minded governments might bind together again, as was the case with NATO in Kosova, but the result may be unfavorable to the broader international community.

In light of these assessments, Bryan suggested that effective long-tem action against foreign fighters, terrorist, and a host of emerging transnational problems requires both international cooperation and a set of suitable legal doctrines. He urged that the international community work to amend legal doctrine in order to adapt to issues like the foreign fighter problem.

Colonel Mackubin Owens, USMCR (ret.), Editor of Orbis and Associate Dean of the U.S. Naval War College, agreed with much of Bryan’s remarks, touching specifically on “the need to balance the requirement to respond to threats from foreign fighters who seek sanctuary or transit through states” and to maintain “the very cornerstone of the international order which is sovereignty.” Owens concluded from Bryan’s comments that a new geopolitical reality has emerged and therefore argued that “we need to change strategy.”

Owens offered that, in light of the current foreign fighter threat, perhaps it should “be our policy to respect the sovereignty only of those states that can govern legitimately and effectively.” As for “ungoverned spaces,” Owens suggested that “it is sometimes necessary to intervene; to violate what otherwise [can] be seen as the source of problems hiding behind this issue of sovereignty.”

Jakub Grygiel, an Associate Professor at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at The Johns Hopkins University, agreed with some of Bryan’s remarks but stressed that a “clear operational urgency to break the sovereignty of another state in order to eradicate or perhaps mitigate the flow of foreign fighters” exists. He acknowledged, however, that, as Bryan mentioned, there are serious, long-term repercussions and implications of doing so.

Grygiel suggested that there are three different types of sovereign actors:  (a) those who support foreign fighters, like Iran, (b) those who oppose foreign fighters and will kill them, like China, and (c) those who are weak and have little or no control over their own territory, like Pakistan and Somalia. He followed that “just making that distinction … changes and alters our calculation of the costs and benefits of breaking sovereignty because they will be different in the different cases.” Grygiel also noted that, as in the case of Russia issuing Russian passports to South Ossetian citizens in 2008, there are instances in which countries deliberately undermine sovereignty.

Grygiel also made the point that while as Bryan suggested, there are “clear costs of violating sovereignty,” “there are also clear costs of not breaking sovereignty—the clear costs of an overly respectful attitude towards sovereignty.” Grygiel explained that “respecting sovereignty too often could also erode our legitimacy” and that since foreign fighters do not accept sovereignty, it may hinder our ability to defend ourselves and to understand the problem if we cling to this concept too much. He also commented that perhaps “our defense of sovereignty is not always why people support us.”

Michael Noonan, Managing Director of FPRI’s Program on National Security and moderator of this panel, raised the point that holding the actual country that hosts foreign fighters accountable for what occurs within its borders could ameliorate part of the problem. While Noonan conceded that foreign fighters are indeed difficult to coerce, he suggested that since states are easier to coerce, it could prove prudent to correlate the two in order to exert pressure.


PANEL 3: Foreign Fighters and their Economic Impact

Matthew Levitt, Director of the Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence and Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, addressed the topic of foreign fighters and their economic impact through a detailed case study of Syria and al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Levitt began by stating a simple fact that “running an insurgency is an expensive endeavor” and that a significant infrastructure is required in order to sustain an international terrorist network. He further noted that “The foreign fighters’ use of third-party countries for training and fundraising and transit is not merely an operational phenomenon—it’s an economic one as well.” Syria, according to Levitt, is a classic example of such a country and AQI has long benefited from a network of associates operating within its borders.

Levitt explained that in Syria, foreign fighters do not enjoy state sponsorship in the classical sense, but that the Syrian Government’s refusal to eradicate their activities and their presence has given de facto support. In fact, Levitt asserted that the local Syrian economy along its Iraqi border has not only been bolstered but is completely entwined with foreign fighter activities and the revenues they generate. Likewise, Levitt asserted that “the foreign fighter pipeline in Syria is believed to have benefited the local populations on both sides of the Syria/Iraqi border in the form of jobs, increased cash flow into the local economy [through the] purchase of supplies, staples and rents.” Because Syria does not have the economic means currently to replace the financial padding provided by foreign fighter smuggling and bribes, he explained that it is unlikely to stamp out the foreign fighters lest it cause serious economic unrest within its own territory. Further, if Syria were to crack down decisively on foreign fighters, it would likely have to defend itself against a now angry, trained, and armed group residing within its borders.

Levitt added that aside from the economic benefits that Syria enjoys by hosting foreign fighters, it also uses the phenomenon to generate political clout.  According to Levitt, Syria’s tolerance of foreign fighters can be seen as an extension of its foreign policy and is intended to further its interest in Iraq. He noted that for every example of Syrian assistance in policing the borders, there is another example of how it has hindered it. During much of the Bush Administration, Syria’s support of foreign fighters or its turn-a-blind-eye policy was intended to undermine Coalition efforts in Iraq. Likewise, Syria’s oft criticized relationship with Iran and its surrogates has been somewhat offset by its support of the Iraqi insurgency. Nevertheless, Levitt emphasized economic considerations dominate Syria’s tolerance of foreign fighter infrastructures existing within its borders.

In light of these conclusions, Levitt offered several policy suggestions on how to combat this threat. He suggested that a key element would be to create “a plan to backfill the local economies with jobs and services to replace the losses sure to follow the shuttering of the smuggling economy.” He added that an anti-corruption and civil society campaign could be beneficial in breaking the traditional, deeply ingrained culture of bribing. He also suggested that diplomatic efforts be made to address the underlying policy concerns that have led Syria to support insurgents and the like in the first place. Levitt’s final caveat was that any efforts made on the Syrian side would only bear fruit if they were duplicated on the Iraqi side.

Brian Fishman, a Fellow with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, agreed with many of Levitt’s remarks. He provided a relevant historical precedent for Syria’s current stance vis-à-vis border smuggling, reminding the audience that during the Saddam-era, he too overlooked smuggling along the Iraqi–Syrian border in order to curry favor with the local tribes. Fishman explained that there are different kinds of smuggling that need to be addressed; official borders are different from the un-policed borders. In the former case, as Levitt asserted, bribing government officials is the main way to conduct business. In the latter case, smugglers have to deal with local tribes.  As for AQI, Fishman explained that initially the group stepped on some toes, but eventually learned to work with the locals to take advantage of their well tried avenues of smuggling. He suggested that this is a potential crack to exploit.

Fishman sought to make additional distinctions relevant to the foreign fighter phenomenon. He referred to the fact that foreign fighter smuggling and other activities occur regularly on multiple borders, citing not only the Syrian–Iraqi border but also the very critical Saudi–Jordanian and Libyan–Egyptian borders. Additionally, Fishman sought to clarify that “there have been at least two waves of foreign fighters in Iraq,” the former of which was more experienced than the latter. The oft-referenced Sinjar records, which have offered a rare glimpse into this issue, refer only to the second wave. Fishman deduced from this shift that the conflict has diminished the quality— if not the quantity—of foreign fighters.

Christopher Hewitt, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, took issue with some of Levitt’s assertions, beginning with his emphasis on funding as being of primary importance to the foreign fighter phenomenon. “I’ve been looking at terrorist campaigns for a long time,” Hewitt averred, “and I would argue that the most important factor for a terrorist group is social support. If you have social support, you can get funding.”

He also argued against the portrayal of the insurgency in Iraq as homogeneous, which, in his view, ignored the ethnic, religious, and ideological differences.  He explained that while a Sunni nationalist insurgency was the original incarnation of fighting against the U.S. invasion, it became a religious, sectarian fight under Zarqawi. He asserted that although there was a tactical alliance between the two groups, it later fell apart because the foreign fighters tried to impose their view of correct Muslim practice on the local Iraqi Sunnis.  Hewitt added that this very sentiment, to an extent, contributed to the Anbar Awakening.

Lastly, Hewitt clarified that AQI is to be held responsible first and foremost, not the Syrian networks. He said that, contrary to Levitt’s portrayal of the relationship, the former creates the need for the latter. He ended by strongly rejecting the assertion, which he attributed to Levitt’s paper, that “if only the Syrians would behave properly and tighten up border security, all would be well– that would be the end of the foreign fighter problem.”

Lieutenant Colonel Basheer Ilyas, USA, the Joint Staff Action Officer for Counter Threat Finance (CFT), strongly agreed with Levitt’s remarks, specifically commending him on his emphasis on “the impacts on the populace, the impacts on the fighters themselves, and also the political leadership.” He drew a parallel between organized crime and terrorist groups, arguing that both raise, store and transfer money in a similar fashion. However, Ilyas explained that while “the illicit financial networks represent a significant strength” they “equally represent a critical vulnerability to exploit.”

Ilyas agreed with Levitt that targeted financial sanctions are highly beneficial but conceded that the tool is often compromised by the simple fact that the people who are sanctioned are in the best position to evade them. “As we designate one entity, another pops up under a different name with the same nefarious characters behind the wheel,” warned Ilyas. Nevertheless, he added, “the importance and relevance of targeted financial sanctions… remains significant.” Publicizing the names and transgressions of certain individuals, otherwise known as the “name and shame tactic,” is effective in discouraging others from doing business with designees for fear of repercussions. “Public designations cause targets to resort to other less secure, costly mechanisms for moving assets globally.”

Ilyas concluded by saying that “We may not be able to destroy their [foreign fighter] pipeline, but maybe we can seriously damage it and force our adversaries to spend financial and human resources to defend themselves.”


PANEL 4: Case Study: Syria and the Foreign Fighter Problem

David Lesch, a Professor of Middle East History and Chair of the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, continued the discussion on Syria and the foreign fighter problem, albeit from the perspective of Syria’s foreign policy considerations. Lesch, who has interviewed President Bashar al-Assad on several occasions, offered unique insight into Syria’s behavior regarding foreign fighter activities taking place within its borders.

In order to understand Syria’s motivations, Lesch urged the audience to consider things from the Syrian perspective, beginning first with the reminder that Syria has been “virtually surrounded—after of course, the U.S. invasion in 2003—by actual or potential hostile forces.” Lesch recounted that the Bush administration had been angered, to say the least, about Syria’s lack of “cooperation in stemming the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.” On the heels of 9/11, Lesch recapped, the Bush administration gave the Assad regime an ultimatum, compelling it to choose sides. Lesch explained that Syria had a practiced history of walking a fine line between the West and the rest, teetering in one direction or another as it fit its foreign policy needs. Lesch conceded that Assad “did not adequately adjust to the important underlying changes in American foreign policy after 9/11,” and assumed the same old rules still applied. These misunderstandings, he said, led the Bush administration to step up its anti-Syria rhetoric and led Syria to go further in its defiance of the Bush policies.

The line was, therefore, drawn in the proverbial sand and Syria sought to counter U.S. efforts in Iraq. Lesch explained that Syria went about this strategy “in an asymmetrical fashion that foiled perceived U.S. threats yet did not incur the wrath of the United States in the form of a full-fledged military response.”  Syria also had additional cause to turn a blind eye to foreign fighter activities due to the domestic constituency in the country that “identified strongly with the Iraqi insurgency.” Likewise, Lesch pointed out that Assad’s then weak grip on power prevented him from doing Bush’s bidding and that by not doing so, he was able to take advantage of a threatening climate to consolidate his power and crack down on civil society and democracy activists. Assad also wanted to avoid the “possibility of insurgent/jihadist blowback from Iraq into Syria” similar to what happened following the Afghan mujahideen resistance in the 1980s.

In short, Lesch argued, Syria was motivated by a series of strategic considerations that led it to behave the way that it did. He therefore suggested that it would be in the United States’ best interest to create a climate in which it is strategically beneficial for Syria to work with us rather than against us. He also stressed the prudency of assessing Syria’s capability to fulfill the extent of American demands prior to making them, citing specifically the plausibility of Syria reigning in Hizballah, reconciling Hamas and Fatah, helping vis-à-vis Iran, stabilizing the situation in Iraq, and preventing foreign fighters from entering Iraq via Syria.

Murhaf Jouejati, a Professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, agreed with many of Lesch’s remarks. He sought to underline two major points regarding Syria’s character: “Syria is a rational actor” and “Syria does not fear democracy.” Jouejati offered additional strategic motivations for Syrian behavior, however, this time, to explain why Syria’s tacit cooperation with foreign fighters was not more overt. For example, he explained that it has been in Syria’s interest to have a whole and stable Iraq on its border for several reasons, including the negative impact the alternative would have on Syria’s Kurdish population. Likewise, Jouejati suggested that, overall, “U.S. and Syrian interests on Iraq converge far more so than Syrian-Iranian interests although Syria and Iran have a strategic relationship.” Because of this, he surmised, the current status quo is flexible. Jouejati echoed Lesch’s sentiment that Syria can either be brought into the fold, in which case it could help the United States achieve some of its goals in the region, or Syria can be pushed out, in which case it could cause many additional problems for the United States.

Andrew Tabler, a Soref Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed with some of Lesch’s remarks but also noted that there is “a tendency, especially early on in the rule of Bashar al-Assad, to frame U.S.-Syrian relations under the Bush Administration as a sort of neocon plot to overthrow the regime.” Tabler explained that the hard line taken by the U.S. administration was “in response to what they saw as Syria’s troubling behavior against U.S. interests in the Middle East.” He made reference to several of Syria’s violations of UN sanctions on Iraq at the start of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in order to remind the audience of the original source of the strain. He described the Bush-Assad relationship as a Cold War.

While Tabler agreed with Lesch’s assertion that Damascus was guilty for selectively hearing what the United States considered to be support for terrorism and that it also misread U.S. intentions, he contended that Assad was completely in control of Syria when he consolidated power. Assad was, therefore, responsible for all of Syrian behavior and ostensibly lost all plausible deniability.

Tabler concluded by saying that Syria has controlled the flow of foreign fighters as a means to gain leverage in the region. The Obama Administration’s overtures to the Syrian government, including the return of an American ambassador to Syria, have the potential to entice Assad to stem this flow. Conversely, if these overtures are unsuccessful, we are likely to see the pipeline turned back on at a time where the U.S. is drawing is troops down in Iraq.


PANEL 5: Disrupting the Foreign Fighter Flow

The fifth and final panel of the conference focused on policy prescriptions for “Disrupting the Foreign Fighter Flow.” Barak Mendelsohn, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Haverford College and a new Senior Fellow at FPRI, began the discussion by citing a major difference in today’s foreign fighters seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. He said that while foreign fighter have often upgraded “local groups by adding commanding skills, by bringing technical, tactical and strategic knowledge and through assistance in training….What is new that we didn’t see in the first wave, in the 1980s or 1990s, is today foreign fighters often are suicide bombers. And that’s a new phenomenon.”

The recognition of this development led Mendelsohn to ask about the importance of foreign fighters to the overall war on terror. Could the role they play be served by locals in their stead? Mendelsohn pointed out that severe “information gaps” exist in our understanding of this phenomenon. Among the questions he asked were: “How many foreign fighters are there?” “How are they divided… between the different jihad arenas?” “Is there any central mechanism that helps to disperse those Jihadis or is it just a matter of opportunity? It depends on the particular local connections, on financial conditions, the ease of travel?” 

Nonetheless, Mendelsohn offered a few policy prescriptions. He touched on the need “to find ways to counter the appeal of external causes” and more specifically, “to find ways to offer competing narratives to events in which Muslims are presented as being victimized.” He elaborated that there is also a “need to create alternatives for Muslims that want to help their fellow Muslims that they think are oppressed.” On the regional level, Mendelsohn cited “the privatization of violence” as a condition that facilitates the foreign fighter institution.  He posited, therefore, that “re-establish[ing] the position of the state as an institution that actually serves the interest of the people” would be one way to undermine this institution.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Mackey, USA (ret.), who served as a counterterrorism planner at the National Counterterrorism Center and now works as a freelance writer and organizational historian, continued the discussion from a slightly different perspective. Mackey began by asking rhetorically “what’s next five, ten, fifteen years from now?” He then answered that “we need to start looking at the outflow from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from the next battlefield and start trying to get ahead of that power curve to some extent.” Referencing some of the Arab foreign fighters in Afghanistan who were later repurposed, he cautioned about the potential for this to happen with this generation’s fighter and to plan against it. Mackey therefore pointed out the need to “integrate these people back into those societies in a peaceful way, to reduce the foreign fighter flow before it’s ever an outflow.” Mackey argued that for the long run, a military solution is not necessarily the solution to stemming the flow and later tracking the outflow of foreign fighters.

Mackey concluded by stressing “conflict management,” stating that “the best way to not generate foreign fighters is not to have wars….” He explained that war “gives these people an opportunity to fight.  It gives them expertise in their field.  It gives them an ability to practice.  It’s their training center for the next fight.” Mackey advocated that “The United States and its coalition partners really need to start working with the partner nations more.  To give them the tools they need to fight their internal fight.” In his view, “that is the best solution.” 

Dan Green, a Visiting Fellow at the Terrorism Research Center, touched on yet another aspect of the discussion, focusing not only on how we deal with disrupting the foreign fighter flow but who deals with it. He said one of the first questions we must ask ourselves is, “informed by our experiences in these different wars of counterinsurgency and with foreign fighters, how might we go about reforming the U.S. government … to deal with this in a sustained way for the long haul?” According to Green, one of the most important steps is to find “the right kind of people who are armed with the right perspective to do this in a sustained way.” Green perceived that the short stints in-country of those assigned to counter this problem hinders the capacity to get the job done. Harkening back to the British experience in which individuals spent many, many years abroad, Green argued for abandoning the “mindset of short-term rotations and short-term deployments and really focusing and creating almost a career track, if you will, for people who are armed with political skills.” This, in short, will provide us with an enduring capability to counter these types of threats and perhaps prevent them before they fully develop.

Michael Doran, a Visiting Professor at New York University and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense and Senior Director at the National Security Council, began his remarks by relating that the biggest thing he took away from his time in government was the existence of “bureaucratic gaps and seams … between [the] bureaucratic mission and challenge that we actually face out in the field.” He went on to argue that the foreign fighter problem, among other things, has led to the militarization of our foreign policy, but only because the gaps and seams caused ownership problems over policy areas. Furthermore, Doran explicitly noted that we lack “the capacity to do political warfare” and that agency roles become blurred when moving from hot wars to situations, as in Syria, requiring similar tactics but more political and diplomatic sensitivities.


FPRI president Harvey Sicherman summarized the major themes covered in the panels. He recounted that in terms of the foreign fighter phenomenon, the conference addressed “where they came from, how they get there, what they do when they get there, what they do after they leave, and tried to figure out—given the limitations of each of those areas—what might be done about it, including the limitations of the United States government.” The conference could not always offer definitive solutions but its work pointed out broad areas of agreement on what we know now and more importantly, what we need to know if we are to grapple successfully with these issues.

Welcoming Remarks for Teaching the Nuclear Age

This will be an intense but very exciting institute, as all of our institutes are. I liken them to intellectual Superbowls, and have taken to numbering my files for them with Roman numerals. So this is XXIV for me personally.

This morning, another analogy occurred to me for these very intense intellectual feasts, and that is a data dump. The telemetry on satellites, especially those with sensitive information — spy satellites and what have you — have the capability of storing up all of the data they’re gathering until they get to a point above presumably a secret receiving station. Then, in a highly intense, very short, hyper-energetic burst, they can dump all of the data that’s been collected down to the receiving station. That’s sort of what these 24-hour periods are.

My first duty is to thank the people who made this possible. First and foremost, the Annenberg Foundation, our core sponsor; and indeed I personally would like to dedicate this weekend to the memory of Lenore Annenberg, who recently passed away; also, the American Academy of Diplomacy and the staff of FPRI’s Wachman Center; and finally Troy Wade and the Atomic Test Museum. We are deeply grateful that you have agreed to host us, even though you may not have been sure exactly what you were getting into. Not only has the Museum provided for us the most fitting site for a conference on the nuclear age, it of course also gave us an excuse to visit Las Vegas.

My airplane reading yesterday was a short history of Las Vegas I checked out of Penn’s library. I learned from it that the Flamingo, the first glitzy casino hotel in Las Vegas itself as opposed to outside of town, the one that was built by the mobster Bugsy Siegel, opened its doors in December 1946, the same month I was born. So my lifetime and that of the strip coincide exactly.

I already knew of another coincidence. That is that my birth date coincided with another event even more relevant to our topic. It was in December 1946 that the U.S. plan for UN control of atomic energy was at last voted on and vetoed by Andrei Gromyko. The U.S. plan called for all nations to share their atomic secrets and fissionable material under inspection by a UN agency, to ensure that nuclear energy, atomic power, would always be used for peaceful purposes. But the Soviets insisted that the U.S. unilaterally disarm before they would agree to any regime. And the Soviet Union flatly prohibited or refused to permit any inspections on their own soil. As a result, the nuclear arms race was also born the same month as I was.

For all of us whose lives coincided with the Cold War, our hope was that someday the balance of terror and perhaps all nuclear weapons would disappear. Thanks perhaps to defensive technologies like SDI combined with agreements to build down offensive forces until the threat had been eliminated, or perhaps through the collapse of the Soviet Union or some other end to the Cold War.

Well, the Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union is gone. But alas, the nukes are still with us. The risk of humanity’s blowing up the world may have been sharply reduced, but the risk that nukes may get used again has increased with proliferation and the advent of militant non-state terrorist movements that are presumably undeterrable.

So even though students today are not made to crawl under their desks in air raid drills, we still need to raise up a nuclear-literate generation. Indeed, as much as when we were the students. To help us do that, we’ve assembled an outstanding roster of experts, beginning with Jeremy Bernstein

Welcoming Remarks for Teaching the History of Innovation

This weekend’s subject, teaching the history of innovation, struck me and perhaps some of my colleagues as itself embarrassingly innovative. We Americans take for granted a frantic pace of change in our material culture. But despite the tremendous and ongoing technological revolutions that we’ve all lived through and take for granted, few of us who teach in the humanities or the social sciences know or even think a whole lot about the process or even the definition of innovation. Or perhaps few of us—or not enough of us—stimulate our students to question our civilization’s faith in “progress.”

The histories of science and technology are very recent subdisciplines in history, really becoming self-conscious, institutionalized disciplines of history right around the time of the shock of Sputnik in 1957. Indeed, it wasn’t until I began researching my own book on the history of the Cold War space race that I began to learn and to meditate on the processes of, in that case, public and private research and development. But how naive I was, as late as the early 1980s, to think that the nuclear and space flight technologies born in WWII and so seemingly important during the Cold War represented the futuristic, technological late 20th-century era. Just right around the corner, of course, the digital computer and information technology revolutions would stand forth as the real breakthroughs, the real world-transforming technologies of our lifetimes.

Moreover, my baby boom generation grew up in an America accustomed to celebrate the wonders of science and technology. I remember as a boy being taken by my parents or on a school field trip to the wonderful Museum of Science and Technology in Chicago. We all took for granted, of course, that America was and would remain the world’s leader. We believed in continual improvement of our own steadily lengthening lives. As General Electric boasted, “Progress is our most important product.”

But at some point over the ensuing 50-odd years, we discovered to our dismay that innovation also conduces to growing anxiety—not only among us old folk who have to learn every new twist and turn of classroom or computer technology, but even younger generations of Americans have become conscious of the anxiety caused by innovation. Let me illustrate that quickly with two anecdotes from my own teaching.

First, about two or three years ago, after the final lecture in my course on the history of American foreign policy since 1776, a very bright student came up to me in the hall sheepishly and said, “Not until now have I really understood, thanks to your course, how extraordinarily rapid the rise of the U.S. was from a string of weak colonies to the greatest global superpower history has ever known.” Then she asked, “How long do you think it will last?”

I was taken aback at first, silent. I didn’t want to encourage complacency and triumphalism in the student, but neither did I want to breed pessimism in a young American, either. Then an answer came to me, I hope a good one. I said, “Well, if the U.S. follows the same pattern as previous world leaders, great powers, great empires, then I’d give us maybe 50-75 more years. But if Americans really are exceptional, as they like to believe—exceptional in their ability to self-reinvent, to attract new blood and ideas from abroad, to keep their economy and their institutions open to constant innovation, then maybe the U.S. can remain in the global vanguard for a very long time.”

The second anecdote emerged from my introductory survey course in modern European history, since the Renaissance. This time a student asked, having summarized how we’d seen so many great powers and empires rise and fall just over this brief span of 500 years, “Tell me, professor, has any great nation, empire, or civilization, having once lost its leadership or competitive edge, ever regained it at a later date?” I had to quickly scroll through and process about 3,000 years of history in my head. Then I answered, “No, I guess not. Except for China, which has come back at least twice before and may be doing so a third time today.

But of course, innovation is not only or primarily a factor in military and economic competition and the ultimately banal story of the rise and fall of the great powers. Innovation may in our own time not only transform international politics and economics to the point where merely national measures of power and wealth will become passé, but innovation in our time may indeed be fundamentally altering the relationship of the human species to time, space and our host planet. Such concerns as the origins, causes and consequences of human creativity take us far beyond the expertise of conventional historians such as myself. But happily we have with us a roster of unconventional, brilliant speakers who promise to make this conference an intellectual feast.

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