Since the start of the Syrian civil war, the phenomenon of foreign fighters has been watched warily by Western governments. This is no surprise: Syria is the No. 1 destination for jihadists. Over the last few months, the fear that foreign fighters will return to the West and carry out terrorist attacks has crescendoed.
Two events have fueled that fear. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen who had fought with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is accused of shooting four people in the Jewish Museum here on May 24. And ISIS, encouraged by its lightning military successes in northern and western Iraq, recently asserted its ambition to establish a global caliphate by changing its name to the Islamic State — a significant gesture likely to attract more Western jihadists to its ranks.
To many Western policy makers and security services, these developments underline the fact that ISIS is a dangerous terrorist group, and that it is only a matter of time before further attacks against Western targets occur. Senior European military officials and politicians say that the threat of returning jihadists is, in the words of Manuel Valls, the prime minister of France, “the greatest danger that we must face in the coming years.”
It is impossible to rule out new attacks by returning foreign fighters, but we believe these fears fail to take into account the facts on the ground. The foreign fighters we’ve contacted said that they left their home countries to fight for the “Umma” — referring to the saying often attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that when a single member of the Umma, or Muslim community, is hurt, all are hurt.
What draws these young men — and, to a lesser extent, women — to fight are what they regard as the indiscriminate killings of Muslim children, women and men in Syria. The use by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of industrial-scale torture, barrel bombs and chemical attacks evokes a strong desire to defend fellow Muslims.
This is the motive described by a former Dutch soldier known to us as Yilmaz, who became well known after being interviewed for a Dutch television news program. He said he had no intention of going back to the Netherlands unless it was to see his family — and certainly not to commit an attack in Europe. We, too, affirmed this by communicating with Yilmaz in Syria via his social networking account. Another Dutch fighter in Syria we contacted, the producer of the Dutch-made jihadist video “Oh Oh Aleppo,” is equally clear about his reasons for fighting in Syria; he expressed no intention of attacking the West.
Both men would consider themselves jihadists, but does that make them terrorists?
The number of Belgian fighters in Syria now exceeds 350. About 30 have been killed; some 25 have returned home. Relatively few who have gone to fight in Syria would qualify as radical Islamists from the outset; most started as idealists. And they come from a wide variety of backgrounds: engineers, unemployed, ex-prisoners, teenagers. Some are simply reckless young men; others are veterans from Afghanistan, Somalia, Bosnia or Iraq.
What most have in common, apart from their wish to help fellow believers, is a disillusionment with the West’s attitude toward Muslims. In Belgium, many Muslims object to the face-veil ban — a heavy-handed measure since only a handful of women wear the veil — when little is done about minorities’ more pressing concerns like discrimination, unemployment and economic deprivation. They are also critical of the West for, as they see it, standing idly by over Syria.
Unlike most of the fighters, the networks that recruit them are rooted in radicalism. In Belgium, the now disbanded Salafist group Sharia4Belgium was significant. Another network, operating from Syria, is Suqur as-Sham, a more moderate Islamist rebel group. An important figure is Abdelkader Hakimi, once considered the leader of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. He served eight years in prison in Belgium on terrorism charges and settled in Brussels on his release in 2011; reportedly, he has been active in Syria this year.
Enter ISIS. Here is a jihadist group that is not only fighting to topple Mr. Assad but also boasts of creating a caliphate based on strict Islamic law — an important pull factor for foreign fighters — stretching from Syria to Iraq. While Al Qaeda never came close to establishing a caliphate, ISIS now controls a territory almost as large as Britain.
When the caliphate was announced by ISIS Twitter accounts, we received celebratory messages from several jihadists welcoming us to the Islamic state. “You saw our Caliph now,” wrote one, who joked about the tax non-Muslims must pay: “I will come over to collect Jizyya tonight.”
Highly organized, ISIS recruits foreign fighters via Twitter, publishes glossily produced propaganda videos, provides social services in the areas it controls and even issues annual military reports. Contrary to what many counterterrorism experts believe, however, ISIS has so far shown no interest in Western targets.
The group’s overarching objective is to consolidate its dominion in the Levant, a place of great religious significance. Some foreign fighters have proved their devotion by burning their passports; others reportedly have had their passports taken from them. The one thing that might change the attitude of foreign fighters is the United States’ launching military action against them.
There is always the possibility of other individuals who, like Mr. Nemmouche, may pose a terrorist threat in the West. Western governments should monitor returning jihadists closely, but they should also keep a watchful eye on homegrown extremists: The fact that they have never set foot in Syria or had any contact with ISIS does not make them less potentially dangerous. Policy makers’ unrealistic obsession with foreign fighters could be a distraction from a more serious domestic terrorist threat.
Chams Eddine Zaougui, a scholar of Arab studies, writes for the Flemish newspaper De Standaard. Pieter Van Ostaeyen is a historian and a scholar of Arab studies who blogs about Syria’s jihad and foreign fighters.