Hidden Within: Foreign Fighters & the National Threat

Posted By June 3, 2015 No Comments

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