A UN Security Council report focused on al-Qaeda has highlighted the growing threat of foreign fighters, saying that up to 22,000 recruits from over 100 countries around the world are on the ground in war-torn Syria and Iraq.
The report, released last week, included several recommendations for international response, including technical support for weakened states, better intelligence sharing, sanctioning of recruiters or financiers, disruption of terrorist propaganda and the prevention or rehabilitation of returning fighters.
While the report was intended to focus on foreign resources of al-Qaeda, the authors also address the Islamic State group, which has eclipsed al-Qaeda in popularity and declared a caliphate spanning large swaths of Syria and Iraq. Several countries are now home to 1,000 or more returned fighters, according to the report, including Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and even France. Israel has been the source of a few dozen, according to scattered reports.
The drivers of recruitment are hinted at by the relative youth of foreign fighters compared to recruits in other conflicts over the years, which points to the prolific use of social media and modern communications by IS and other jihadist movements.
“Most are young males between 15 and 35 years of age, although there are also older fighters (including veterans of other terrorist campaigns),” the report said. “Compared with previous generations of foreign terrorist fighters, there is a significant proportion of minors, even among active militants.”
The fighters’ age was also evidence of a large, sophisticated network of “facilitators, including organizations and individuals” that are smuggling fighters into the war zone. There was special attention placed on Turkey, which has a long, porous border with Syria to its south.
In a not-so-veiled reference to Ankara, the analysis suggests the “capacity gaps” for border states to block passage of recruits to IS-controlled territory are “enormous,” demanding more usage of biometrics and INTERPOL data in border policing.
However, pinning down likely recruits before they join jihadist organizations is not a simple proposition, according to the report.
“There is no typical profile,” a study by German security authorities, obtained by AP, has found.
The German study reported that among people leaving that country for Syria out of “Islamic extremist motives,” 65 percent were believed to have prior criminal records. They also ranged from as young as 15 but ran as old as 63. Fully 61% were German-born, and there were nine men for every woman.
“Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile,” John Horgan, the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said in an interview with The Atlantic magazine in March.
The UN report paid special attention to the return of fighters to their homelands, some of whom have been responsible for terror attacks like last year’s quadruple murder at a Jewish museum in Brussels and pose a continuing danger to Western population centers.
The report also considers what to do about returning fighters beyond security precautions, including rehabilitation programs like those underway in Australia and Saudi Arabia.
“Even for those fighters who may return disillusioned with violent extremism, the emotional and psychological scars may persist and those individuals may not easily reintegrate into normal life,” the report stated.
“Foreign fighters are over-represented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s worst acts,” said John Hegghammer, Director of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, in an interview late last year.
“Just like Osama bin Laden started his career in international terrorism as a foreign fighter in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the next generation of Osama bin Ladens are currently starting theirs in Syria and Iraq,” Peter Neumann of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, told a White House summit in February.
The report also offers several examples of individuals selling off all their belongings to fund their trips. But funding is coming from organized efforts as well, including through sophisticated money laundering and the use of shell companies.
“Other methods include the establishment of small companies to obtain loans and support from other foreign terrorist fighters….. Third-party financing, including through diaspora and community support, is also in evidence for foreign terrorist fighters,” the report claims.
“There are concerns about small numbers of non-profit organizations being used to finance foreign terrorist fighters. In other cases, trusted volunteers are paid to recruit foreign terrorist fighters.”
One example highlights the efforts of Khaled Sharrouf, an Australian fighter who came to public attention in 2014 when he proudly shared photos of his son holding a severed head in Syria.
“It is suspected that the business was sending up to A$20 million ($15.5 million US) to countries neighboring the conflict zone to finance terrorism.”
The report’s authors highlight the importance of modern communication channels for jihadi recruitment. While calling for more efficient intelligence sharing among states, the writers suggest “it is crucial that no social spaces be left to be colonized by radicalizers…. Today, much of this activity relates to the digital space, including ever-evolving forms of social media.”
The authors welcomed efforts to close down accounts on major social networks that were linked to IS or promoted their messages. Last month, Twitter shut down over 10,000 IS-linked accounts in 24 hours.
The report did not consider the possibility that people with closed accounts may simply create new ones. No suggestion was made to utilize the sites’ algorithms to limit the exposure of messages to small networks, as privacy settings on such sites often do.
“While Internet companies, in particular social media companies, have been responding, still more needs to be done to effectively identify, disrupt or remove Internet material used to radicalize, recruit and facilitate fighters,” the report said.
It recommended closer cooperation between private companies and governments to monitor threats and gather data, a recommendation that touches on more controversial political issues, but which are “important ingredients for operational and preventive responses.”
“The current challenge,” the report concluded, “is not to raise awareness of the threat, but to build and develop national and international capability to help to counter it.”
AP contributed to this report.