RAND Europe and the Forum on Geopolitics held the second of three RAND-POLIS (Department of Politics and International Studies) seminars at the University of Cambridge on May 21st. The seminar discussed the phenomenon of 'foreign fighters'; UK citizens travelling to join conflicts in the Middle East and North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and the UK government's response to the security challenges that follow.
The seminar was chaired by Kate Robertson, an Associate Analyst for the Defence, Security and Infrastructure (DSI) Research Group at RAND Europe. The debate was led by Martha Turnbull, Head, National Security Research Analyst Group, Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Alistair Bunkall, Defence Correspondent, Sky News; Valerie Smith, Head, Africa Team, Cabinet Office, with the goal of promoting engagement between policymakers, academics, research analysts and the media.
The seminar programme was held at Pembroke College in collaboration with the Forum on Geopolitics and two other University of Cambridge research institutes: the Centre for European Geopolitics and the Centre for Science and Policy.
Discussion opened with an assessment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); its presence in Syria and Iraq and its recruiting methods. Syria emerged as the most unique foreign fighter effort to date; with recruits from as many as 100 different countries, amounting to the largest international mobilisation effort since the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). ISIL's strategies for recruitment of foreign fighters are more robust and persuasive than those of other extremist organisations such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Part of ISIL's success lies in its ability to manipulate both broadcast and social media outlets to attract additional foreign fighters and to maintain recruitment momentum. Furthermore, ISIL's recruitment strategy is internationally oriented and inclusive and might even seem glamorous when compared with other organisations in sub-Saharan Africa which are far more nationalistic, regional and exclusive.
At present, policymakers are aware that ISIL's strategic priority is to retain the territory it has captured while continuing to expand where it can. The situation might change radically, however, in the event of an external intervention in Syria or Iraq, which could incentivise foreign fighters to plan and commit terrorist attacks abroad. For the governments concerned – Western, African and Middle Eastern – the outflow of foreign fighters, and their return with hostile intent and capability, could be a generational problem.
With this prospect in mind, it is imperative that greater effort is devoted to understanding why and how people are recruited to become foreign fighters. And it is just as vital that effort is taken to disrupt the financial networks that allow terrorist organisations to recruit, grow and spread. These two sets of measures will be essential if the recruitment of foreign fighters within the UK and abroad is to lose its appeal and if attacks by returning foreign fighters are to be prevented.