Enhancing the Understanding of the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Phenomenon in Syria

During the fourth biennial review of the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy held in September 2014, Member States expressed concern at the growing phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) in Syria. As a result, the Secretary-General announced that the United Nations Centre for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT) would, in cooperation with those Member States that wished to participate, gather information on the motivation of FTFs through direct interviews of returnees. By analysis of the results, the Secretary-General aimed to provide Member States with a stronger knowledge base from which to understand the phenomenon of FTFs, assess the risks they posed, and develop effective responses.

Accordingly, in November 2014, the Executive Chairman of UNCCT and Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs invited all Member States to facilitate United Nations access to FTFs within their jurisdictions. Despite limited cooperation,1 UNCCT interviewed 43 individuals between August 2015 and November 2016, representing 12 nationalities. Thirty three (77 per cent) of the interviewees reached Syria but subsequently decided to leave, while the remaining ten (23 per cent) began the journey but were stopped en route, either on their own or in a transit country. Two interviewees are of Syrian origin, though they were not living in Syria when they were interviewed, while the rest fulfil the definition of foreign terrorist fighters included in Security Council resolution 2178 (2014).

The responses of the interviewees provide important insights into the motivations of individuals to leave their countries of residence or nationality to join armed groups in Syria. It is important to note that more often than not, individuals do not necessarily select the group they finally join. Rather, once they reach Syrian territory, some seem to join the group that operates closest to their point of arrival. Fighters also seem to be switching groups. The aim of this report is to expand understanding of the FTF phenomenon in Syria by examining why the interviewees chose to act in the way they did. The report records the reasons individual FTFs have given to explain their decision to leave their countries of residence or nationality to join armed groups. It also records their reasons for leaving these groups and returning to their countries of residence or nationality before achieving the goals and objectives they had set themselves. Finally, the report seeks to draw conclusions as to the threat that returning FTFs may pose in the future.

Tags: Foreign Fighters, Internet, Violent Jihadism