Hidden Within: Foreign Fighters & the National Threat

To many citizens in liberal democracies, particularly in the West, there is a perception that their societies are under assault from radical Islamic extremists.  The savage beheading of American journalist James Foley on 19 August 2014, by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) extremists proved to be a catalyst for Western outrage and action.  The fact that the brutal execution was carried out by a British ex-patriot who converted to Islam and joined the extremist jihadist organization was equally concerning.  That atrocity was only the first of several that followed.

Then, early in January 2015, extremists attacked the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, murdering 12 people, two of which were police officers, and wounding another 10.  That action triggered another 48 hours of violence, which ended in the killing of three extremists, but not before another five innocent individuals were killed.  Unlike the victims who were beheaded, however, the murder victims of the Paris attacks had not ventured into hazardous, war torn countries where risks are elevated.  Rather, they were living their daily lives.  Notably, the common denominator was the fact that many, if not all, of those responsible for the killings were foreign fighters who had trained abroad and / or who had rallied to wage global jihad.

Although not a new phenomenon, the current wave of foreign fighters is of great trepidation to governments.  Globalization combined with the ability of terrorist organizations to use the internet and social media to attract, seduce and subsequently radicalize individuals to join “the cause” and wage jihad, or to support any other extremist action, exponentially increases the threat and effects of terrorism. Simply put, foreign fighters who are recruited to terrorist organizations expand the international reach of transnational insurgencies, as well as religious and ideological conflicts.

Perhaps most concerning is the fact that due to globalization and the reach of the internet and social media, foreign fighters, the causes and terrorist organizations they often support, and the savage actions undertaken in their name, transcend borders.   Of great alarm is the fact that foreign fighters tend to perpetuate the conflict they have joined.  Indeed, they are reported to be responsible for higher levels of violence, largely because they have no personal equity or families to protect in the same way that local insurgents do.

For Western governments, foreign fighters also represent a hidden threat.  Once they return home, or are ordered home by their respective organizations to carry on the fight, foreign fighters represent a cohort that is more experienced, more lethal and more dangerous and sophisticated than many of their domestic counterparts.  They now represent a substantive menace, either as a group or as individuals acting in a “Lone Wolf” capacity.

Canada is not immune. Government sources concede there are in excess of 130 known Canadian cases of individuals who have left the country to participate in training and / or actual operations with terrorist organizations.  In addition, there are 80 known Canadian former foreign fighters who have returned home and are currently residing in Canada.  The government’s apprehension is that these foreign fighters exacerbate the potential for, and the effectiveness of, homegrown terrorism.  The threat is even more ominous since identifying and tracking individuals leaving the country for nefarious purposes is not always easily accomplished as those radicalized and spurred to action do not fall under a single identifiable profile.  As they travel with Canadian, or other mainstream Western national passports, they can easily flow across international borders without being subject to the restrictions and visa requirements that are placed on many non-Western citizens.

In the end, foreign fighters represent a growing threat that has implications for global stability as well as for domestic security.  The solutions are far from simple and require a comprehensive global and domestic approach.  As the barbarity and savageness of the Islamic State terrorist organization has shown, turning a blind eye to the cancer of foreign fighters and the organizations they support is an approach fraught with peril.  Foreign fighters, although not all rallying to jihad or Islamic organizations, still represent a hidden peril that feeds transnational insurgencies, as well as a skulking national threat and, as such, they cannot be ignored.

What is a Foreign Fighter?

So what exactly constitutes a foreign fighter.  Dr. David Malet, an internationally recognized expert on the subject, characterizes foreign fighters as simply “non-citizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflict.”1  Similarly, scholar Barak Mendelsohn describes them as “Volunteers [who] leave their homes and intervene in a clash taking place in a foreign location.”2

Professor Thomas Hegghammer takes a more complex approach.  He classifies them as, “an agent who (1) has joined, and operates within the confines of, an insurgency, (2) lacks citizenship of the conflict state or kinship links to its warring factions, (3) lacks affiliation to an official military organization, and (4) is unpaid.3 His more detailed definition is structured to exclude mercenaries, returning diaspora members, or exiled rebels, who, as he describes, “have a pre-existing stake in the conflict.”  In addition, he distinguishes foreign fighters from international terrorists, who specialize in out-of-area violence against non-combatants.4 In sum, however, all share the same basic tenant – they are individuals who leave their home country to participate in conflict in another state.

The desire to travel to foreign lands to fight for a “righteous cause,” or simply adventure and thrills is not a new phenomenon.  Yet, the current wave of foreign fighters has triggered concern, new legislation and increased law enforcement initiatives worldwide.  The question becomes why is there so much fear?

The answer appears easy to comprehend.  Most governments, analysts and scholars share a similar view that foreign fighters are a significant threat because:

  1. They perpetuate the conflict in which they are participating;
  2. They act as inspiration to other vulnerable individuals;
  3. They create a “Blowback effect” – i.e. they return home, or travel to a third country and commit violent acts, often in the name of jihad;5 and
  4. They are more lethal, dangerous and sophisticated then their domestic counterparts.6


The rationale provided underscores valid concerns.  Conflicts worldwide have shown that foreign fighters are responsible for higher levels of indiscriminate violence.  Experts believe this increase is due to the belief of foreign fighters that they must fight more aggressively because they perceive that they are in a losing struggle for survival of their cause.  In addition, they can be more brutal, savage and indiscriminate because they have no equity or families to protect in the same manner that local insurgents do.7  Furthermore, their “apparent” religious zealousness often promotes sectarian violence.8  Indeed, Dr. Malet observed that “Transnational recruits are responsible for higher levels of violence than are local insurgents and insurgencies that manage to recruit foreign fighters are disproportionately successful as compared to other rebel groups.”9

Recent events in Iraq and Syria underline these points.  The series of beheadings conducted by IS were executed by a British foreign fighter.  Videos depicting the mass murder of Syrian soldiers taken prisoner by IS, the reports of ultimatums to convert to Islam or face death by those who fell under IS control, as well as the litany of stories of captured Kurdish and Yazidis villages and the subsequent killings, rape and kidnapping of men, women and children; as well as the accounts of brutal imprisonment by hostages that were later ransomed, all speak to the savagery of the IS terrorist organization.  Undeniably, IS has been profoundly successful in its military campaigns to defeat rival forces and capture territory.  It has also proven to be immensely capable of attracting a large proportion of foreign fighter recruits.  In fact, 40 per cent of those in the Islamic State organization are foreign fighters.10  Equally disturbing, many analyst believe that up to 80 per cent of the foreign fighters travelling to fight in Syria and Iraq aspire to join the IS organization.11

Importantly to extremists organizations the recruitment of foreign fighters is advantageous.   After all, they often bring a heightened skill set.  For example, foreigners who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have used tactics, techniques, and procedures that demonstrate greater skill, and often greater lethality (e.g. deployment of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)) than those used by local insurgents.  General Stanley McChrystal, a former theatre commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan assessed, “foreign fighters provide materiel, expertise, and ideological commitment.”12

In fact, according to Clint Watts, a former Army officer and special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI):

Left unchecked, the Second Foreign Fighter Glut will produce the next generation of terrorist organizations and attacks much as the First Foreign Fighter Glut fueled [Al Qaeda].”13 While they might not be as numerous as those that participated in the 1980s jihad, which was in many cases sanctioned by regional governments, they have learned skills that far outweigh those of the original jihadis. Their understanding and employment of urban tactics, weaponry and advanced technology make them far more lethal than their predecessors. In Iraq, for instance, while such fighters have accounted for less than 5 percent of insurgents they were estimated at producing over 90 percent of high lethality attacks.14

The concern with foreign fighters also revolves around their experience and ideological commitment.  Many volunteer to fight for what they see as a “righteous cause.”  Although radicalized through the internet, social media or local mentors, they are often indoctrinated to a deeper jihadist ideology as a result of their training and combat experience.  As Professor Hegghammer explained, “more importantly they empower transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, because volunteering for war is the principal stepping-stone for individual involvement in more extreme forms of militancy.”15  As an example, the London 7/7 bombers originally travelled to Afghanistan to fight.  However, after having attended a training camp in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for a week, their al Qaeda instructors directed them to take the fight to England with catastrophic results for British citizens.16  Similarly, at least one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers trained at an AQ camp in Yemen.17

The concern with their training and experience, and the implication for source nations has not gone unnoticed.  European Union (EU) Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström warned:

Europeans who travel abroad to train and to fight in combat zones, become more radicalised in the process. Some of these young men have joined groups with terrorist agendas, they have been trained and hardened in war, and could pose a threat to our security upon their return from a conflict zone. In the longer term they could act as catalysts for terrorism.18

The spectre of individual foreign fighters returning home, further radicalized, potentially traumatized by their combat experience, and committed to conducting attacks in their home country, or other Western countries make them formidable threats. Furthermore, they have learned new skills and have a knowledge and understanding of their own native culture and landscape.  One group of scholars recognized, “With sophisticated tradecraft and the potential to train others, this group is all the more dangerous.”19

The danger posed by these fighters is beyond theoretical.  A research report noted that between 1990 to 2010, one-in-nine returned foreign fighters were involved in domestic plots.  The study revealed that “these plots tended to be more effective and lethal, thanks both to the skills learned and the indoctrinated zeal provided at radical training camps.”20  Currently, in the United Kingdom (UK) “more than half of MI5’s [national Security Service] anti-terror investigations involve Britons who have traveled to Syria.”21


Experts have identified that “most foreign fighters were not remotely touched by events in the countries to which they traveled.”  Moreover, they also ascertained that “public goods offered by local insurgents would not benefit foreigners.”  Finally, in many cases there was also no likelihood of pay, loot or power.22  So, the question becomes, how do terrorist organizations attract, recruit and convince individuals to die for their cause?

Not surprisingly media acts as a catalyst.  Graphic, if not often sensationalized coverage of conflict, particularly emphasizing suffering, carnage and apparent excessive force by the targeted enemy engages human emotion and appeals to an individual’s sense of obligation to assist in the same manner that recruiters attempt to harness emotional appeal in their propaganda.  In this vein, globalization has made the recruiter’s function arguably simple.  The internet and social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, have created the ability to send messages and graphic images worldwide in mere seconds. In fact, “viral” is now an internationally understood term that describes videos that have captured a large global audience in a relatively short span of time.23 Not surprisingly, the internet and social media play a significant role in the recruitment of foreign fighters by extremist groups. In fact, law enforcement agencies in Canada, the US and Europe have reported that many of the foreigner fighters in Syria have been inspired by online media they have seen from extremist organizations and jihadists.  Consequently, through the medium of chat rooms, e-mails and text messages, the groups arrange for the recruitment and travel to Syria to train and fight for the cause.24

For example, the IS has been immensely successful in targeting and attracting Western recruits with social-media campaigns.  They have produced slick, engaging videos and English-language publications.  A number of videos have been produced “starring” Canadian foreign fighters who had joined the jihadist extremist organization.  Specifically, on 4 July 2014, IS released a high-quality English-language video called “Al-Ghuraba: The Chosen Few,” which focused on a Canadian fighter, Abu Muslim al-Kanadi (Abu Muslim the Canadian, originally Andre Poulin from Timmins, Ontario) who was killed in August 2013, during the final assault on a Syrian air base.   In the video, Poulin is portrayed as a heroic warrior and a pious Muslim, “a brother with excellent character: truthfulness, dedication, selflessness and steadfastness.”  Poulin is also presented as having been an every-day Canadian.  He actually states:

Before Islam I was like any other regular Canadian. I watched hockey. I went to the cottage in the summertime. I loved to fish…It’s not like I was some social outcast. Or some anarchist. Or somebody who just wanted to destroy the world and kill everybody…Life in Canada was good. But at the end of the day, it’s still Dar al Kufr [Land of Disbelief].25

In the video Poulin asserts that he left the “Land of Disbelievers” for the honourable and obligatory duty of fighting holy war in the name of Islam. He proclaims, in doing so, he became “one of the few,” turning himself from an average Muslim living in a society at war with Islam to a holy warrior fighting to establish a state built on Islamist tenants.

Analysts believe featuring a Canadian was a conscious choice for the IS. Since they were looking to consolidate their gains, they required more fighters, engineers, professionals and money.  Poulin, an English speaking representative who emanated from a country “respected both for its friendliness and its high standard of living,” clearly held a powerful underlying message, namely, if “Poulin could leave his comfortable life for his religious calling, other Muslims from Western countries can too. Better to die in the service of Islam, so the argument goes, than to live under the rule of a secular and anti-Muslim government.”26

Another manner the new technologies are leveraged to attract recruits is through “disseminators,” who are “unaffiliated but broadly sympathetic individuals who can sometimes appear to offer moral and intellectual support to jihadist opposition groups.”27 Disseminators rely heavily on the use of Twitter and are “driven by a strong sense of Muslim identity and the fact that they believe there is a lot of anti-Muslim propaganda being promulgated.”28

As powerful as the new information technologies are, not all foreign fighters are recruited through the internet or social media.  One study revealed that many volunteers were actually recruited by returning foreign fighters or local religious leaders.29 Scholars consider foreign fighters essential to mobilization of volunteers as they can provide a first-hand narrative that can glorify the act of volunteering and fighting, as well as guidance on how to travel, routes to use and contacts to seek out on arrival.   “During the 1990s,” Professor Mendelsohn described, “former foreign fighters were crucial elements in the recruitment of the next generation of foreign fighters, serving as contacts for attracting disaffected youth, seeking purpose and excited by the  recruiters’ stories of glory and comradery.”   He noted that “such recruiters were able to gain large numbers [of volunteers].”30

Not surprisingly, there appears to be a very local nature to radicalization (defined as the process by which individuals acquire the motivation to use violence)31 and recruitment.  Common “breeding” grounds include:

  1. Religious sites;
  2. Certain neighbourhoods;
  3. Cafés;
  4. Student associations (which serve as “radicalization incubators’ where anti-West messages and jihadist calls to action are common); and
  5. Prisons (which are fertile ground for extremist thinking and both trigger and reinforce the radicalization process. This venue is not hard to understand as recruits are surrounded by a large population of disaffected young men; inmates whose feeling of frustration and alienation is hardened and easily transformed into a desire for revenge).32


The use of social group networks for recruitment is a logical choice.  It allows recruiters to use social pressure to get individuals to join.  Analysts and scholars have determined that recruiters engage in displacement, broadening the definition of the involved group (i.e. that target group that is perceived to be victimized or under threat of survival) to a wider pool of potential recruits, thereby enlarging the scope of conflict.  They aim to “identify a target audience, create emotive responses over matters that may have previously seemed of little import and reframe the message when initial approaches do not meet goals.”   Dr. Malet uses an excellent example from Morocco.  He explains:

Islamist groups recruiting foreign fighters maintained “watchers” at radical mosques and other places where people express anger about Iraq and Palestinians…The watchers discussed social justice and duty to intervene on behalf of fellow Muslims with the likely prospects, and then subjected them to background checks and psychological assessments.  Those who passed were assigned a handler who smuggled them out of the country on false passports to a training and indoctrination centre abroad prior to entering the conflict. 33

Whether by internet, social media, religious mentor, returning foreign fighter, or other medium, extremist organizations require a compelling message and / or “hook” to recruit volunteers for their cause.  Interestingly, the pitch is seldom based on deep theological or philosophical arguments.  Rather, it is normally focused on appealing to an individual’s selflessness and sense of community.  Professor Hegghammer asserted, “those seeking to prevent foreign fighter recruitment need to recognize that the recruitment message relies not primarily on complex theological arguments, but on simple, visceral appeals to people’s sense of solidarity and altruism.”  As a result, some scholars suggest “Western governments should therefore worry less about the spread of ultra-conservative Salafism than about populist anti-Western reporting by the television network al-Jazeera and the rapid spread of audiovisual propaganda on the internet.”34

In essence, recruiters consistently frame distant conflicts as threats that are, or should be, of importance to the targeted recruits.  As such, rather than try to recruit on the basis of opportunities for personal reward or gain, they emphasize in their messaging the requirement to take strong defensive action to save and preserve the survival, if not existence, of a specific “community.”  Therefore, the recruiting message is often in the form of “the Muslim nation (umma) faces an existential external threat [and] the conflict for which volunteers are sought is but the latest and direst in a series of occupations of Muslim territory and massacres of Muslims.”  As various scholars underline, the rationale then becomes very clearly, namely that all able bodied Muslim men must join the fight because Islamic law requires it.  The message is pervasive and very convincing.  After all, it emphasizes the concept of a unified Muslim nation.  Importantly, the message also consistently refers to the victims as “our brothers/sisters/mothers/children in the sense they are all blood relations.”35 Furthermore, the appeal to arms also raises the obligation of Islamic law, specifically the religious duty of all Muslims to fight for the umma.36

Interestingly, scholars have observed that insurgencies use the same type of messaging, namely defensive mobilization, to attract foreign fighters regardless of whether they share the same ethnicity or some other affiliation and regardless of the war’s root cause(s) or issues of dispute.  Not surprisingly, recruiters strategically employ emotive imagery and narratives that are designed to stimulate outrage and fear.  What scholars note is important is the shared “identity communities,” whether religious, ideological or nationalistic.  It is through these shared communities that volunteers identify with distant struggles and insurgents.  It is also the mechanism, namely the provision of social structures, by which the dissemination of recruitment messages and the mobilization of foreign fighters are enabled.37

Importantly, most foreign fighter recruits are normally already active members of these community / religious institutions, but are normally marginalized within their broader society.  As a result, scholars emphasize that “these shared transnational identities, and the duties that come with roles as members of the community, are therefore highly salient to the recruits, more so than ties of national citizenship.”  Simply put, foreign fighter recruits “tend to be active in sub-cultures and are willing to fight for them because they identify more closely with other members abroad than they do with fellow citizens of the state in which they reside.”38

So, who exactly are these willing recruits to fight and die for the apparent cause(s) of others?  A well researched 2007 New York Police Department (NYPD) report on radicalization concluded, “the transformation of a Western-based individual to a terrorist is not triggered by oppression, suffering, revenge or desperation.  Rather, it is a phenomenon that occurs because the individual is looking for an identity and a cause and unfortunately, often finds them in extremist Islam.  There is no useful profile to assist law enforcement or intelligence to predict who will follow this trajectory of radicalization. The radicalization process is accelerating in terms of how long it takes and the individuals are continuing to get younger.”39

Despite this finding, the NYPD, as well as MI5, the British Security Service, both observed that most individuals “had some vulnerability in their background and [that] made them receptive to extremist ideology and that it was always influenced by others.”40  Numerous other studies have shown foreign fighters tended to be impressionable, young males who were students or unemployed, lacking purpose and looking for an identity.  French authorities categorize volunteers from France as disaffected, aimless and lacking a sense of identity or belonging. Scholars tend to agree that this appears to be common across most nationalities and fits with the high number of converts, presumably people who are seeking a greater sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.  Alienation from mainstream society also played a central role.  The typical age for recruits averaged from 18 to 29 years old, with some as young as 15 to 17 years old.  As noted by the NYPD research, the trend since the mid-2000s is for recruits to extremism becoming younger.41

Dr. Malet also underlined that “transnational ideological affiliation provides a highly salient identity because immigration and modernization had destroyed other communal ties and produced isolated, embattled individuals ripe for recruitment by movements that spoke to their particular fears.”  He underscored his notion with a quote from a former jihadi who described his old colleagues as “Men who had no home. Men reviled in the West because they were not white and Christian and reviled at home because they no longer dressed and spoke like Muslims.”42

Foreign Fighters – The Canadian Nexus

Many experts argue that the issue of foreign fighters is a real danger to the nation.  University of Waterloo professor Lorne Dawson, co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, asserts that the foreign fighter issue is the “Most serious threat Canada has faced.”  He explained, individuals return who are trained and experienced.  He added, they may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and lash out at society.43  It is significant then, that the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) estimated at the end of 2013 that up to 100 Canadians may have been involved in the conflict in Syria.44  By February 2014, the director of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), Michel Coulombe, testified in front of the Senate National Security and Defence Committee that as many as 130 Canadians had gone overseas to fight in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa; a number which also included 30 individuals who are, or have fought, in Syria.

Importantly, security agencies readily admit that it is highly probable, in fact likely, that there are even more Canadians who are travelling overseas to engage in terrorist activity that they are not even aware of.  “The phenomenon of Canadians participating in extremist activities abroad,” voiced Tahera Mufti, a CSIS spokeswoman, “is a serious one.”45 Her statement is not surprising.  Within the last few years alone, Canadian terrorists have been implicated in attacks in Algeria, Bulgaria and Somalia, as well as Syria and Iraq.46 Specifically, Hassan El Hajj Hassan is wanted by Bulgarian authorities in connection with a bomb attack, on behalf of Hizballah, on a bus that killed six people and injured 35 in July 2012. In addition, two Canadian extremists participated in the January 2013 terrorist attack on the Algerian gas plant near In Amenas, Algeria; a Canadian was involved in the April 2013 attack on the Supreme Court of Somalia, which killed more than 35 people and injured dozens more 47 and a Calgarian, Salman Ashrafi, conducted a suicide bomb attack in an IS operation in Iraq in November 2013 that killed 46 people.48

Disconcerting for Canadian authorities is the diversity of locations from which Canadian foreign fighters have originated.  In the 1990s, Canadians involved in terrorism abroad, or supporting terrorist or insurgent groups across the Middle East and Afghanistan were predominantly tied to the Montreal region and focused on conflicts in North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco), Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan.  From the late 1990s and through the post-9/11 period, the hotbed of foreign fighter sourcing was found in the Greater Toronto Area with more diverse links into North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and recently Syria.  However, this documented evolution in source locations of foreign fighter recruitment (i.e. from Montreal (pre-9/11) to the Greater Toronto Area (post-9/11)) has now apparently spread across Canada to Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg, as well as smaller metropolitan areas such as London, Timmins, Pembroke and Maskinongé.49

The result is that Canadians are now well known jihadi fighters in Syria. Although numbers vary, Government estimates and others who track jihadi fighters put the figure at a range of anywhere from a few dozen to as many as 100 Canadians fighting in Syria and Iraq at the current moment.  Experts indicate this should cause alarm since the number of Americans fighting there, despite their disproportionally larger population compared to Canada, is much smaller.  Therefore, it appears that Canadians are overrepresented as a foreign fighter element.50

So what?  Should the nation be concerned if some of its people decide to venture overseas and fight for the cause of others?  The issue becomes, as noted earlier, the “blow back” effect.  If even one-in-nine foreign fighters decide to, or are ordered to, return to the West and continue the fight, the issue becomes one of national security.  In April 2014, the Islamic State released a video depicting foreign jihadists ripping up their passports and pledging allegiance to the cause of IS.  With a background of intense music accompanied by masked, chanting, heavily armed fighters clad in black, it showed a number of foreign fighters apparently destroying their passports.  Of interest, one fighter, believed to be a Canadian, addresses the camera and proclaims, “This is a message to Canada and all the American tyrants: We are coming and we will destroy you, with permission from Allah the almighty.”  He then rips up his passport and throws it into a burning fire.51

Similarly, on 7 December 2014, John Douglas Maguire, a Canadian citizen who took up the nom de guerre Abu Anwar al-Kanadi was featured on an IS video disseminated on social media.  Maguire called upon Canadian Muslims to either emigrate to IS controlled territory or to conduct attacks in Canada.  He went so far as to suggest the use of vehicles, knives or explosive devices.  More recently, another Canadian fighting with IS posted on Twitter under the name Abu Turaab al-Kanadi, calling for attacks within Canada and justifying the action based on the Government’s decision to commit CF-18 Fighters to the campaign against IS in Iraq.  For some, if not most, of the foreign fighters, the inhibition to strike out against their “home” or other western countries, is apparently non-existent.  Currently, the Government is aware of about 80 individuals who have returned to Canada after extremist travel abroad.52

The Homegrown Nexus

Predictably, for Western governments, as well as Canada, foreign fighters represent a hidden threat, whether as a group or as individuals acting in a “Lone Wolf” capacity.  The danger they pose is not merely theoretical.  As mentioned earlier, a research study revealed that between 1990 to 2010, one-in-nine returned foreign fighters were involved in domestic terrorist plots.  The study concluded that “these plots tended to be more effective and lethal, thanks both to the skills learned and the indoctrinated zeal provided at radical training camps.”53

Richard Fadden, a former director of CSIS testified to a Senate Committee that the shift to the more difficult to detect “sole-actor” or “lone wolf” style attacks is a pressing problem for Western counter-terrorist agencies. He conceded that “this makes things very complicated for us [CSIS].”  He elaborated that the lone-wolf approach tends to attract individuals driven by ideology as well as serious personal problems, a combination that makes them more unpredictable.”54 He explained that the larger group activity or plots allowed security agencies more margin for success.  After all, for the plotters to achieve their objective of launching an attack, they had a requirement to plan and communicate.  This provided scope, some possibility of intercepting communications.  The fact that there were more players and more moving parts also meant that there was greater likelihood of someone making an error.  However, when it is only a single conspirator, when there is only one person not talking to anyone, then as Fadden conceded, “you have to be really lucky.”55

Similarly, former National Security Agency Director Lieutenant-General Michael Hayden also underlined the concern about the “new” recruits extremist organizations were training and unleashing back on the Western countries.  He described:

These Western recruits were reputed to speak multiple languages. They were technologically savvy. They understood Western culture and knew how to blend in. Some of the recruits were of Pakistani descent and were part of the huge diaspora that now lived in Britain.  But others were Caucasian.  Al Qaeda was bringing more and more people into the tribal region, people who wouldn’t draw undue attention if they were next to you at the passport line at Dulles Airport.56

Similarly, the problem was succinctly described by Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence.  He acknowledged:

We have a good capability to detect and disrupt these sorts of multipurpose [terrorist] teams that take months to plan, rehearse, fund, provide the logistics support for an attack.  But we are not as capable as we should be of carrying out the much more difficult task of detecting these self-radicalized citizens of the United States, Europe, other countries like Nigeria, who are given a very simple mission – with an advanced bomb to carry it out – or who plan their own attacks, inspired by Al Qaeda’s message but not directed by Al Qaeda.57

In essence, “inspired attacks”  are described by government security agencies as “self-directed, lone-actor/small scale attacks undertaken in support of principles and objectives of a terrorist group without prior specific direction, financing or even knowledge by the inspiring group.”   Lone Wolf terrorism then is simply individuals who commit, or are prepared to commit, violent terrorist acts on their own, external to, although perhaps loosely affiliated with a recognized terrorist group, in support of a particular ideology or movement.  Predictably, the difficulty of identifying these individuals, as discussed earlier, has made “lone wolf” terrorism an increasingly evolving trend in terror tactics.  The lethal effects were clearly shown in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh killed over 150 people and injured in excess of 500 hundred more in his lone wolf attack on a Federal building in Oklahoma City, as well as in August 2011, when Anders Breivik murdered 77 individuals in a bombing and shooting spree in Norway.  Not surprisingly then, that a 2009 United States Department of Homeland Security Assessment concluded that lone wolf terrorists “are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States…because of their low profile and autonomy.”58 According to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) lone wolf terrorism expert Jeffery D. Simon:

What makes lone wolves so dangerous is their ability to think outside the box. Since they operate by themselves, there is no group pressure or decision-making process that might stifle creativity. Lone wolves are free to act upon any scenario they can dream up. This freedom has resulted in some of the most imaginative terrorist attacks in history. For example, lone wolves were responsible for the first vehicle bombing (1920), major midair plane bombing (1955), hijacking (1961), and product tampering (1982), as well as the anthrax letter attacks in the United States (2001).59

The prospect of foreign fighters returning home or to other Western countries undetected using their Western passports and then carrying out lone wolf attacks has panicked many, including senior politicians.  “This [foreign fighter / IS threat] is a turning point in the war on terror,” asserted South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham to Fox News. He demanded the US President to deploy thousands of ground troops to Iraq, “before we all get killed back here at home.”  He was not alone.  “They intend to kill us,” warned House Speaker John Boehner, “And if we don’t destroy them first, we’re going to pay the price.”60

Their concerns, although on the surface appear a tad overdramatic, are rooted in reality. Some recent examples make the point.  For instance, the 7 July 2005 (7/7) suicide bombings in London, England, although directed, were homegrown attacks.61 Two of the four 7/7 bombers, all of whom were British Muslims, had trained in the FATA region of Pakistan and rather than fight in Afghanistan as they had originally intended were sent back to London by their AQ handlers to conduct a series of coordinated suicide attacks in central London that targeted the public transport system during the morning rush hour.  They used organic peroxide-based explosive devices that were packed in rucksacks.  Three of the bombs were detonated in London Underground subway trains.  The fourth bomb was detonated on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square.  The four bombers killed themselves and 52 civilians and in excess of 700 others were injured.

British authorities also thwarted a plot that was described as a “Mumbai-style” armed assault in late February 2014.  In June of the same year, French authorities arrested a French national who returned from Syria and conducted an attack in Belgium in May, which killed three people at a Jewish museum.  French police also thwarted a nail bomb attack near Cannes.62 More recently, France endured almost 72 hours of terror between 7-9 January 2015, as they deployed 10,000 troops and security personnel to track down and capture / kill a trio of terrorists, brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, as well as co-conspirator Amedy Coulibaly, who attacked the Charlie Hebdo office and a kosher grocery store respectively in Paris.63

Australia has also felt the specter of foreign fighters and homegrown activities.  David Irvine, the director general of Australia’s spy agency, indicated that dozens of Australian foreign fighters have already returned home and he conceded, “a good number of these” remained a concern to the authorities.  He also revealed that a 100 or more people in Australia were “actively supporting” militant groups by recruiting new fighters, grooming suicide-bombing candidates, and providing funds and equipment.64

Not surprisingly then, on 18 September 2014, Australian police carried out anti-terrorism raids in Sydney sparked by intelligence reports that Islamist extremists were planning random killings in Australia.  The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, announced that a senior Australian Islamic State militant had called for “demonstration killings,” reportedly including a public beheading.  As a result, raids by approximately 800 heavily armed officers were conducted leading to 15 arrests.  A 22 year old Australian, Omarjan Azari, is currently accused of conspiring with Mohammad Ali Baryalei, who is believed to be the most senior Australian member of IS, as well as several others between May and September, to abduct members of the public and behead them on film.  Authorities confirmed that “Direct exhortations were coming from an Australian who is apparently quite senior in [IS] to networks of support back in Australia to conduct demonstration killings here in this country.” Prosecutor Michael Allnutt stated:

Mr. Azari had planned to commit “extremely serious” offences that involved “an usual level of fanaticism” and were “clearly designed to shock, horrify and terrify” the public. The plot involved the “random selection of persons to rather gruesomely execute”, and those involved had an “irrational determination” to carry it out even though they knew they were under surveillance.65

Despite the raids, on 15 December 2014, gunman Mohammad Hassan Manteghi conducted an inspired attack.  He held several people hostage at the Lindt Café in Sydney. Manteghi and two hostages were eventually killed when police stormed the Café.

The United States has also been impacted by the peril of homegrown attacks.  Since 9/11 there have been in excess of 40 terrorist plots in the US involving American citizens or permanent residents.66 Some examples provide the severity of the threat.  Najibullah Zazi, a 24 year old coffee cart vendor in Manhattan, who later became a shuttle bus driver at Denver international airport, flew to Peshawar in 2008 with two high school friends eager to join the fight in Afghanistan.  While in Pakistan, three senior AQ leaders persuaded them that they could optimize their assistance to the jihadist cause by returning to New York and conducting a terrorist attack.  As such, Zazi plotted to explode a suicide bomb in the New York subway system in a coordinated “Martyrdom” attack with two others in September 2009.67

In addition, on 5 November 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a serving member in the US military went on a shooting spree killing 13 in Fort Hood.  Also, Faisal Shahzad, a financial analyst at Elizabeth Arden, travelled to a Taliban training camp in the FATA where he learned to make bombs.  As was the case with others, Taliban leaders requested Shahzad to return to the US to conduct a terrorist attack.  As a result, he planted a car bomb in Times Square, New York, on 1 May 2010.  Fortuitously, the bomb failed to go off and two alert street vendors noticed smoke coming from a car and upon investigation spotted the bomb and alerted the New York police department.68

Further American homegrown attack examples, however, which do not stem from foreign fighters but rather radicalized individuals who lashed out are the case of the 19 year old Somali-born US citizen who tried to detonate what he thought was a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland Oregon on 26 November 2010.  Ten thousand people had gathered for the ceremony and had the FBI not thwarted the plot, many would have been killed or injured. Also is the case of a Baltimore construction worker who plotted to blow up a military recruiting station in Maryland; and a 34 year old naturalized American born in Pakistan who was charged with plotting to bomb the Washington Metro; and finally the case of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnayev, two brothers who lived in the Boston area for several years and used two homemade pressure cooker bombs, which they placed at the finishing line of the Boston marathon on 15 April 2013, killing three people and injuring more than 200.  The subsequent manhunt paralyzed Boston.  It ended in a gunfight that killed Tamerlan and led to the capture of Dzhokhar.69

More recently, on 23 October 2014, Zale Thompson attacked and injured two police officers with hatchet in New York City.  This inspired attack highlighted an ominous trend in North America, the use of easily attained weaponry to commit an attack.

Canada has not been immune to the homegrown threat.  In 2006, Canadian homegrown terrorists, who the police labeled the “Toronto 18” wanted to prod the Canadian government into rethinking its involvement in Afghanistan.  They plotted to target the Toronto area with a view to destabilizing the economy through attacks on the Toronto Stock Exchange by way of three truck bombs set off over three consecutive days, which they hoped would paralyze Canadians with fear and keep them at home.  They believed that the attacks would be bigger than the London 7/7 subway bombings.  In addition, they also planned to attack CSIS Headquarters in Toronto and an unspecified military base off of Highway 401 between Ottawa and Toronto.

CSIS and law enforcement discovered the plot through an informant who assisted them in making the case.  As such, police found plans and materials at the homes of the plotters.  A test of the terrorist plans demonstrated “the blast effect from the bomb was equivalent to 768 kilograms of TNT, and would have caused catastrophic damage to a multi-story glass and steel frame building 35 metres from the bomb site, as well as killing or causing serious injuries to people in the path of the blast waves and force.”70

All members of the group were arrested prior to enacting the plan, however, only four were actually charged with the bomb plot itself as the others were not fully implicated in what the four were planning.  As such, the other 14 were charged with a variety of terrorist charges.  Although the plot was not activated, all was in place with the exception of the last component, the delivery of three tonnes of highly combustible ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which was unknowingly to the conspirators, being handled by a Muslim businessman turned informant who was working with CSIS and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).71 Upon delivery of the explosive fertilizer the police swooped in and arrested the extremists.  Fortunately the plan never came to fruition.  The judge hearing the case concluded that the plot “would have resulted in the most horrific crime Canada has ever seen.”72

More recently, in April 2013, “Project Smooth Arrests,” resulted in the apprehension of two Canadians who conspired to attack a VIA Rail passenger train travelling between New York and Toronto.  Chiheb Esseghaier and Raed Jaser were arrested and charged.  In addition, in July 2013, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody were charged with conspiring to use improvised explosives built using pressure cookers to bomb the British Columbia legislature building during Canada Day festivities.73

The homegrown threat is exacerbated by the insidious reach of social media and the internet.  Organizations such as IS, which employ thousands of foreign fighters that can be unleashed on the West, also employ savvy cyber skills that allow them to penetrate countries from afar.  Michel Juneau-Katsuya, a former Canadian intelligence officer who now heads up an Ottawa cybersecurity company observed, “They [IS] have been capable (of recruiting) young people without speaking directly to them face to face.” He noted, “If they’ve been capable through the media — through the Internet — to reach them, I wouldn’t be surprised that they convince some of these people that instead of travelling to the Middle East, to stay here and simply attack us here.”74

In fact, the Prime Minister’s warning was only too real.  On 20 October 2014, Martin Rouleau, a 25 year-old radicalized Muslim convert, ran over two military personnel with his car as they walked across a parking lot, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent and seriously injuring another.  The RCMP had identified Rouleau a “high-risk” traveller and he was arrested at the airport in July as he was leaving for Turkey and his passport was seized.  Then, on 22 October 2014, another radicalized Muslim convert, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, struck in the nation’s capital.  He first shot to death Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was standing guard at the National War Memorial, with a hunting rifle.  Subsequently, Zehaf-Bibeau left the scene and quickly moved to Parliament Hill where he entered the House of Commons, penetrating deep inside until he reached the party Caucus rooms, which were in session.  However, before he could do anymore damage, he was gunned down by Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms, and unidentified RCMP personnel.  The attack put Ottawa on lock-down and the prompted the Canadian Armed Forces to institute higher security measures since its members had become the target of radicalized individuals.

And so, the homegrown threat becomes even greater, whether through the medium of social media and the internet, or with the possibility of foreign fighters returning with their new found skills, experience and potentially fanaticism turning to attacks in their homelands.  Both represent an enhanced hidden threat that is not easily detected or necessarily thwarted.

Solving the Foreign fighter Issue

With the clear and present danger that foreign fighters, the organizations they support and the homegrown plots they may inspire, support or initiate, represents, the over-riding question then becomes, how does one stop them?  Predictably, the government has taken numerous steps toward tackling the problem and its associated issues.  For instance, the RCMP leads a High Risk Travel Case Management Group, which involves a number of other government departments (OGDs) and law enforcement agencies.  The group examines cases of extremist travellers and works to find the best tailored response to the most pressing cases through a continuum of actions.

The government also works with international organizations, such as the UN, NATO, G-7, the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum and Interpol, as well as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to counter terrorism (CT).  In addition, the government has also taken action through the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) and has released more than 200 financial intelligence disclosures to authorities relating to terrorist financing.

Moreover, in 2012, then-Public Safety Minister Vic Towes unveiled Canada’s first comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, which includes response plans in the event of a major attack and strategies for de-radicalizing homegrown terrorists. Known as Building Resistance Against Terrorism, the strategy encompasses a four step methodology that includes preventing, detecting, denying, and responding to possible threats.75  As part of the government’s strategy they also implemented Bill S-7, the Combating Terrorism Act, which came into force in July 2013. This legislation created four new offences intended to prevent and deter persons from leaving Canada for certain terrorism-related purposes.  Specifically, an individual commits an offence by leaving or attempting to leave Canada for the purpose of:

  1. Knowingly participating in or contributing to any activity of a terrorist group for the purpose of enhancing the ability of any terrorist group to commit a terrorist activity. This includes providing training, receiving training, or recruiting a person to receive training;
  2. Knowingly facilitating a terrorist activity;
  3. Committing an indictable offence on behalf of, at the direction of or in association with a terrorist group; and
  4. Committing an indictable offence that constitutes a terrorist activity.


The offences described in the first bullet carry a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment. The remaining offences carry a maximum penalty of 14 years.76

More recently, in January 2015, the Harper Government tabled the Anti-Terrorism Act (C-51) that  proposes to amend existing laws, including changing the Criminal Code, to provide law enforcement agencies with broader powers to make arrests if they suspect terrorist activity “may be carried out.”  The change is quite significant as it changes the “trip wire” from the words “will” to “may.”  In addition, the new legislation increases the period of preventative detention to seven days from three. The bill also expands the no-fly list, augments the abilities of CSIS to “disrupt” suspected terrorist activities online, and makes it illegal to “promote” terrorism.77

Other foreign governments (e.g. Australia, UK, US) have similarly made it a criminal offence to leave the country to engage in terrorist activities or fight in foreign conflicts.  In addition, the UN Security Council, at a meeting chaired by President Barack Obama, unanimously passed a resolution on 23 September 2014 specifically designed to plugging the flow of foreign fighters to militant organizations such as IS.  In fact, the Security Council voted 15-0 to compel countries to make it a crime for their citizens to travel abroad to fight with militants or recruit other people to do it.78

Although the efforts are laudable, there is one major problem.  Experts point out that repression, criminalization and prosecution can be counterproductive as these measures increase the “victimization” narrative.  The EU commission established the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), which clearly cautioned:

Only repression …will not solve the problem. Prevention, signalling and providing programmes to help (potential) foreign fighters to leave the path of violent extremism are necessary as well. These actions are often organised on a local level. For instance, first line practitioners such as teachers and youth workers, can be trained to recognise and refer those who are being influenced to go on jihad.  Also, families can be partners in both detecting potential fighters and convincing them to deploy their engagement in a non-violent way. Finally, exit-programmes that have proven to be effective, can be tailored to the target group, for instance by employing formers or practitioners as acceptable intermediaries or coaches.79

The reality is that many of those who become foreign fighters and join extremist groups do so because they feel alienated or disassociated with their society and / or are looking for meaning / a cause to guide their existence.  For many Islam and the call to defend the “umma” fills that void.  As the RAN notes, further sanctions and threats simply reinforce the narrative of Western victimization of Muslims.  Unfortunately to date the West offers no clear anti-jihadist message to the many who are drawn to the call to defend Islam.  One study identified a wide range of motivations, including “the horrific images of the conflict, stories about atrocities committed by Governmental forces, and the perceived lack of support from Western and Arab countries.” As one analyst noted, “Such motivations not only speak to fellow Muslims, but also to secular-minded people who wish to defend the “widow and the orphan.” He concluded. “There is no effective message to deter them from joining the ranks of or falling prey to the most brutal and radicalized groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS / ISIL) or Jabhat al-Nusra (JN).80

As such, cooperation between various intelligence and security agencies, as well as local law enforcement and community groups, will have to become closer.  This entails working with organizations and agencies who may have little to no experience dealing with security issues.  In essence, the foreign fighter phenomenon underscores the blurring of boundaries in contemporary national security issues.  Simply put, it is a borderless world and issues abroad have resonance and implications domestically.  In the end, it would seem that there are very few challenges “over there” that do not have a nexus with “over here.”  Therefore, authorities and agencies at every level, i.e. municipal, provincial and federal, both governmental and non-governmental, must be involved and work cooperatively.  As Senior Research Analyst at the NATO Council of Canada, Alexander Corbeil, concluded:

The solutions to these issues are varied, but all include the input and collaboration between Canada’s Muslim community and their leaders, private industry and government institutions beyond the narrow law enforcement focuses of CSIS and the RCMP.  Those at risk of joining these groups or being influenced to carry out plots at home must be convinced of their place in Canadian society and the error of those who have already gone to fight overseas. In short, a new narrative must be created using a comprehensive approach, one which competes with the flashy propaganda machine of the IS and other terrorist groups.81

As such, Professor Hegghammer argues part of any long-term policy to combat foreign fighter recruitment “must include strategies to undermine pan-Islamism, by spreading awareness of factual errors in the pan-Islamist victim narrative and by promoting state nationalisms and other local forms of identification.”82 In addition, rather than attempt to suppress the appeal of other groups or causes, a concerted effort must be made to emphasize the importance and inclusion of national civil and military institutions.  The concept is to generate greater identification with the state and the individual’s own society.


As indicated throughout the text, foreign fighters and the organizations and causes they support represent a very real domestic and international threat.  Their ability to travel, often relatively undetected due to their Western passports and cultural acuity, make them arguably a hidden menace. Trained, experienced and potentially more radicalized and/or traumatized by their experiences, they pose the potential to carry out terrorist attacks, either in groups or as a “lone wolf” attack at home or in other Western nations.  Studies have shown that one-in-nine foreign fighter will participate in a terrorist assault at home or in a Western nation.  Moreover, the same studies have shown that foreign fighters are more lethal, skilled and successful than their domestic counterparts.

In the end, concerted action must be taken to deter, detect, track, disrupt and stop those who would do us harm.  However, intelligence operations, law enforcement and increased legislation are but one line of operation.  Equal effort must be placed into preventing radicalization at home.  In addition, effort must also be placed into disrupting and destroying extremist organizations and their leadership that create instability in the world.  As President Obama explained, “Resolutions alone will not be enough. Promises on paper can’t keep us safe …Lofty rhetoric and good intentions will not stop a single terrorist attack. The words spoken here today must be matched and translated into action. Into deeds.”83


  1. David S. Malet, “Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts,” PhD Dissertation, George Washington University, 2009, 9.
  2. Barak Mendelsohn, “Foreign Fighters – Recent Trends,” Orbis, Spring 2011, 193. Mendelsohn clarifies that a distinction must be drawn between a foreign fighter in a local conflict that is not his own country’s war and “a foreign trained fighter, a local who goes to another area, receives training only, and comes back to carry out attacks elsewhere, normally in his own country.
  3. Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters. Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” International Security, Vol 35, Vol. 3 (Winter 2010/11), 57-58.
  4. Ibid., 57-58.
  5. As most left to fight jihad, which identifies the West as an enemy, they therefore return home and are potentially motivated to continue the struggle.
  6. J. Skidmore, “Foreign Fighter Involvement in Syria,” International Institute for Counterterrorism, 2014, 9; and Center for Security Studies (CSS), “Foreign Fighters: An Overview of Responses in Eleven Countries,” CSS Study, Zurich, March 2014, 4.
  7. David Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? Historical Perspectives and Solutions,” Orbis, Winter 2010, 114. Dr. Malet noted, “It’s no accident that most suicide missions in Afghanistan and Iraq were carried out by foreign fighters rather than local militants. Fighting for what is often an abstract ideal, without having to worry about direct retaliation against their families, the foreign fighters need not show mercy. Some insurgent groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, have taken advantage of this dynamic by using foreigners to target civilians when the local combatants will not. David Malet, “In Depth: Foreign Fighters Playbook,” Foreign Affairs, 8 April 2014., accessed 28 July 2014.
  8. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 53.
  9. Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? 97.
  10. Skidmore, 33. The Islamic State (IS) is a Sunni jihadist organization that was originally called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) depending on which version of translation is used. The confusion revolves around the interpretation of the word “Levant,” which in Arabic is al-sham, which can mean the Levant, Syria or even Damascus in some circumstances. The name was changed to IS in 2013.
  11. Ben Winsor, “Where They Came From,” Business Insider, 27 August 2014, accessed 29 August 2014.
  12. Quoted in Michael P. Noonan, “Disrupting the Foreign Fighter Flow,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, accessed 28 July 2014.
  13. “First Glut” of foreign fighters refers to the Mujaheedin that fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation 1979-1989. Many chose not to return to their homelands and many were barred from returning.
  14. Noonan.
  15. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 53.
  16. Skidmore, 15. 7/7 refers to the suicide bombings by four British Islamist men on 7 July 2005.
  17. Leela Jacinto, “Charlie Hebdo suspects follow familiar radicalisation path,” France 24, 8 January 2015. accessed 8 January 2015.
  18. Center for Security Studies (CSS), “Foreign Fighters: An Overview of Responses in Eleven Countries,” CSS Study, Zurich, March 2014, 4.
  19. Sharon L. Cardash, Frank J. Cilluffo and Jean-Luc Marret, “Foreign Fighters in Syria: Still Doing Battle, Still a Multidimensional Danger, Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique, note No. 24/13, August 2013, 2.
  20. Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review, February 2013, 10; and Alexander Corbeil, “Why Canada must address its foreign-fighter problem, The Globe and Mail, 16 July 2014, problem/article19631289/ accessed 24 July 2014.
  21. Quoted in Jez Littlewood, “Foreign Fighters: what to read to grasp the key issues,” accessed 28 July 2014.
  22. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 63.
  23. One definition of viral is five million views, in a 3-7 day period. However, the reality is often much greater. The Kony 2012 video by Invisible Children, Inc, had over 34,000,000 views on the first day it was uploaded on the internet on 5 March 2012. In another example of the pervasive impact of the internet, The Gangnam Style video, as of June 2014, has been watched over two billion times on You Tube.
  24. Michael S. Schmidt, “Canadian Killed in Syria Lives On as Pitchman for Jihadis,” New York Times, 15 July 2014, accessed 28 July 2014.
  25. Corbeil; and Colin Freeze, “Canadian killed in Syria shown in new propaganda video,” The Globe and Mail, 11 July 2014, accessed 24 July 2014.
  26. Corbeil; and Freeze.
  27. Carter and Neumann, Greenbirds, 7.
  28. Ibid., 18.
  29. Skidmore, 8.
  30. Mendelsohn, 198.
  31. Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? 2.
  32. Skidmore, 14.
  33. Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters?101. Malet points out that ironically, historically, it is the same process as used by communist and Zionist recruiters decades prior.
  34. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 90. See also Kevin E. Klein, From Assassins to Al-Qaeda. Understanding and Responding to Religious Terrorism (Kingston: CANSOFCOM PDC, 2013).
  35. See Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 73; and Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? 100.
  36. Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? 100.
  37. Former FBI agent Clint Watts asserts that the foreign fighter pipeline has three phases: (1) source country/flashpoint, (2) safe havens and the transit network, and (3) target locations. Others suggest that a fourth phase, outflow destinations, is important as well.
  38. Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? 112.
  39. Quoted in Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, Counter Strike. The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda (New York: Times Book, 2011), 213. See also Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win. The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2006), 16-24. In Pape’s specific study of suicide terrorism, he concluded, “Few suicide attackers are social misfits, criminally insane, or professional losers. Most fit a nearly opposite profile: typically they are psychologically normal, have better than average econ9mic prospects for their communities, and are deeply integrated into social networks and emotionally attached to their national communities.”
  40. Skidmore, 18.
  41. See Richard Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” The Soufan Group, June 2014, 16; and Skidmore, 18.
  42. David Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters? Historical Perspectives and Solutions,” Orbis, Winter 2010, 109.
  43. CBC News, “What’s Behind Homegrown Extremism,” 3 September 2014.
    video/?videoid=cbcc2014-0309-1409-0015-250595555400 accessed 3 September 2014.
  44. Canada, 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada (Ottawa: Public Safety Canada, 2014), 3; and Corbeil. Former CSIS Director, Richard Fadden, also testified to a Senate Committee in 2012 that as many as 60 Canadians at that time had ventured overseas to train as al-Qaeda terrorists. He warned, “These individuals represent a threat both to the international community and to Canada, as some have returned, or may, eventually, return to Canada after having acquired terrorist training, or even having engaged directly in acts of terrorism.” Steve Chase, “Al-Qaeda switching tactics, CSIS warns,” 23 April 2012, Globe and Mail.
  45. Stewart Bell, “As Many As 100 Canadians Could Be Fighting In Syria Against Assad Regime, Think Tank Says,”17 December 2013, accessed 28 July 2014.
  46. Ibid. Among Canadians in Syria was Ali Dirie, who travelled there once he was done a prison sentence for his role in the Toronto 18 plot. He reportedly joined the Al Nusrah Front until his death in August 2014.
  47. Canada, 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, 27.
  48. Nadim Roberts, “Gregory and Collin Gordon, Calgary brothers, join ranks of Canadians fighting for ISIS,” CBC News, 28 August 2014, accessed 2 September 2014.
  49. Bell, “As Many As 100 Canadians Could Be Fighting In Syria.”
  50. CBC News, “Syria conflict attracts Canadians to fight on front line. Estimates of Canadian jihadi fighters in Syria range from a few dozen to as many as 100,” 4 September 2013, accessed 28 July 2014.
  51. Ben Makuch, “A Chat with the Canadian ISIS Member Who Burned His Passport on YouTube,” 23 June 2014, accessed 28 July 2014.
  52. Canada, 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada,14.
  53. Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? 10.
  54. Steve Chase, “Al-Qaeda switching tactics, CSIS warns,” 23 April 2012, Globe and Mail.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Schmitt and Shanker, 108.
  57. Quoted in Ibid., 214.
  58. U.S. Government. “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” Office of Intelligence and Analysis, IA-0257-09 (Washington: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, April 2009), 7. The autonomy of lone wolves is a key threat point. Individuals such as Theodore Kaczynski, more widely known as the “Unabomber,” remained undetected for 17 years because he was able to work in isolation and take the necessary time he felt he needed.
  59. “What Makes Lone-Wolf Terrorists so Dangerous?” Jeffery D. Simon, UCLA Newsroom, 18 April 2013, accessed 3 October 2014.
  60. Luiza Ch. Savage, “The return of fear on the U.S.-Canada border,” Macleans, 5 October 2014. accessed 5 October 2014. Much of the fear stemmed from the threat that an IS spokesman issued against western countries including Canada, the U.S. and Europe. In a 42 minute audio recording distributed on social media, Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani, called on Muslims everywhere to kill anyone whose country takes part in an attack on IS. Canadian Press, “ISIL puts Canadians on global hit list,” 22 September 2014. accessed 22 September 2014.
  61. A directed attack is defined by the Government as “an attack planned and undertaken on the instructions of the leadership of a terrorist group. The central planning can include some or all details of the target, financing, attack vector / methodology.”
  62. Jeremy Littlewood, “Foreign fighters: The Canadian Connection,” 16 July 2014, 28 July 2014.
  63. "France deploys 10,000 troops amid hunt for attack accomplices,” France 24, 12 January 2015. accessed 12 January 2015.
  64. BBC News, “Australia puts counter-terrorism units in airports,” 27 August 2014, accessed 18 September 2014.
  65. BBC News, “Australia raids over ‘Islamic State plot to behead,’” 18 September 2014, accessed 18 September 2014.
  66. Schmitt and Shanker, 112.
  67. Quoted in Ibid., 217. On his way to the target he became spooked by surveillance by US agents and he was warned by an Imam that Federal authorities had been asking question about him. As a result, Zazi dumped his explosives and flew back home to Colorado. He was arrested several days later with the other plotters.
  68. Quoted in Ibid., 221. In all of these cases, terrorist groups attempted to use the foreign fighters to return home and conduct attacks because of their US passports and their understanding of American culture and residency, which would allow them “to fly unimpeded below the radar.”
  69. The Tsarnaev brothers built their homemade pressure cooker bombs by using instructions they downloaded from an online jihadist magazine.
  70. Romina Maurino, “Foiled terrorism plot targeted TSX, CSIS,” Globe and Mail. Https:// accessed 6 January 2010.
  71. Michael Friscolanti, “The merciless and meticulous Toronto 18 ringleader goes to prison for life,” Macleans, 18 January 2010. accessed 1 October 2014.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Canada, 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, 31.
  74. Canadian Press, “ISIL puts Canadians on global hit list,” 22 September 2014. accessed 22 September 2014. He noted, “Like our allies we will not be cowed by threats while innocent children, women, men and religious minorities live in fear of these terrorists.”
  75. See Canada, Building Resilience Against Terrorism. Canada’s Counter-Terrorism Strategy (Ottawa:Public Safety Canada, 2013), 4, 13-26; Canada, 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, 35.
  76. Canada, 2014 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada, 13.
  77. Rachel Browne, “Critics fear Bill C-51 could lead to unintended consequences,” Maclean’s, 30 January 2015. accessed 31 January 2015.
  78. U.N. Security Council Cracks Down on Terrorists,” 24 September 2014. accessed 24 September 2014.
  79. Center for Security Studies (CSS), “Foreign Fighters: An Overview of Responses in Eleven Countries,” CSS Study, Zurich, March 2014, 6.
  80. Pascale Siegel, “Why Should We Be Worried?” accessed 28 July 2014.
  81. Corbeil.
  82. Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 90.
  83. U.N. Security Council Cracks Down on Terrorists,” 24 September 2014. accessed 24 September 2014.
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Col. Bernd Horn
Col. Bernd Horn is a retired Regular Force infantry officer. Dr. Horn is also an adjunct professor of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, as well as an adjunct professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada. He is also a Fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.