Will ISIS ‘weaponize’ foreign fighters?

Editor’s Note: Thomas Hegghammer is director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and author of “Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979.” The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Likelihood of foreign fighters planning attacks in West varies by where they were, writer says

ISIS less interested in planning attacks overseas than al Qaeda, Thomas Hegghammer says

ISIS is unlikely to go all in on global operations the way al Qaeda has, he says

CNN  — 

How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It’s a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators, especially since U.S. President Barack Obama announced the United States was ramping up its military role in the region. Will such fighters return with dangerous new skills and experience that they are determined to use against their home country? Or is the potential threat by these fighters overhyped?

The answer depends on what the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria decides to do with them. So far, jihadi groups in Syria have not been sending foreign fighters on attack missions in the West in any sort of systematic way. But if the group decides to “weaponize” its fighters, we will have a much bigger problem on our hands.

Thomas Hegghammer

Since 2011, around 3,000 Western Muslims have gone to Syria, where many have joined the most radical elements of the insurgency. And there is no question that some of these individuals will pose a terrorist threat when they return. We know this because it has already happened – Syria veterans are suspected of involvement in one successful and at least six unsuccessful alleged attacks in Europe and Australia over the past year.

Yet there is no reason to expect all – or even a majority – of these people to try to attack us in the future. During my research, I have found that of all Western Muslims who joined conflict zones before 2011, no more than one in nine moved on to terrorism in the West. In fact, this estimate is probably at the high end – the real historical average may be closer to one in 15 or 20.

This suggests that the more helpful question is therefore not whether the foreign fighters in Syria are a threat, but what proportion of them will be.

Can we not simply assume that somewhere between one in nine or one in 20 of the fighters in Syria will become terrorists, and try to plan accordingly? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple because the “blowback rate