Foreign Fighters in Syria: A Western Intelligence Perspective

By Dan Martinez, M.A. Candidate in Intelligence & National Security, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

Very recently, American Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the US Senate Intelligence Committee and made some incredibly important statements, bringing to mind an even more important contemporary issue in international security.

The American intelligence community, Clapper said, now estimates that there are over 7,000 foreign individuals in Syria, from approximately 50 different countries, taking part in the conflict alongside rebel forces. This assessment doubles the previous estimate of 3,000-4,000 (taking 3,500 as an average). Furthermore, of the approximately 75,000-110,000 fighters within Syria, the American intelligence community further estimates that about 26,000 are what they would call “extremists”—that’s somewhere between 24-35% for those of you who prefer to think in percentage terms. These individuals, furthermore, make up approximately 1,600 different militant groups. Clapper went on to add, finally, that certain groups are not focusing their attention exclusively on Syria but that some, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, are developing aspirations to attack the US homeland—even if they currently have a limited capability to do so.

Foreign fighters—non-citizens of conflict states that join an insurgency during a period of civil conflict—are not a new phenomenon. Generations of extremists have taken up the jihadist cause by flooding to conflicts in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, Somalia, Iraq, and now Syria and various parts of North Africa. Each one of these conflicts involves unique dynamics and provides us with different insights. So while the issue is not new, I raise it here and highlight DNI Clapper’s statements because these latest numbers are very significant from a Western intelligence perspective. This is because, as part of the relatively conservative figures given above (non-governmental sources have tended to estimate much larger numbers), the Syrian conflict has now drawn in more Westerners as foreign fighters than any other conflict.

This view has also been shared by intelligence officials across the Atlantic. European intelligence officials, quoting their own estimates that are largely in line with American assessments, have stated that approximately 1,200-1,700 Europeans are currently in Syria fighting alongside various rebel groups. Plainly stated, that’s 1,200-1,700 experienced, trained militants with European and/or EU passports that will potentially return from Syria.

What is being done?
There is good reason to think that American and European intelligence agencies have taken the threat of Western foreign fighters in Syria very seriously. In Europe, government leaders and intelligence officials have been raising the issue publically at home for some time. More importantly, perhaps, European officials have been trying to stay ahead of the curve in terms of intelligence work. Last week it was reported that intelligence officials from Britain, France, Germany, and Spain had all traveled to meet with Syrian officials in order to gather information on
European militants suspected of fighting in Syria. This suggests, seemingly, that while European leaders and diplomats have been critical of the Assad regime in public, European intelligence officials have had to put aside the politics of the conflict to work on addressing security concerns. Similarly, while American officials have refused to comment, it is public knowledge that the US has been supporting “moderate” opposition/rebel groups in Syria for some time; given this, it is inconceivable that American intelligence officials are not involved in keeping an eye on the movement of extremist groups and almost certainly in tracking specific individuals of interest (such as fighters with American passports).

The Canadian Position
All of this brings us to the issue of where Canada fits into this problem that has been facing many Western intelligence agencies. In this respect, I would like to highlight a few final points. Firstly, in CSIS’ latest Public Annual Report, released recently, the service clearly recognizes that Canadians travelling abroad to commit terrorism (including foreign fighters) are a problem for Canada stating thatNo country can become an unwitting exporter of terrorism without suffering damage to its international image and relations. Canada’s legal obligations to promote global security need to be honoured, and that means assuming responsibility for our own.”

Secondly, CSIS has been known to track Canadians suspected of heading to Syria to become foreign fighters, the latest example of which is the case of Mustafa al-Gharib. It is also worth noting here that Canada’s strong intelligence cooperation arrangements are a huge asset is helping our intelligence community to keep tabs on individuals of interest to our allies and to us.

Lastly, while the “Combatting Terrorism” Act has been controversial in some circles, it could possibly be helpful for Canadian national security officials seeking to manage the return of foreign fighters to Canada. The fact that Sect. 83.181 of the Act makes it an offence to leave Canada for the purposes of committing a terrorist act may be immensely helpful to law enforcement and intelligence officials because this gives them a stronger basis for detaining Canadians suspected of having been foreign fighters abroad.


Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  Photo by  FreedomHouse

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