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The Jihadis Who've Flocked to Syria Really Might be in Madrid or Milwaukee Before Long

The frightening logic of "bleedout"


In the U.S. Intelligence Community, the term “bleedout” has a fairly bad rap. The phrase refers to the idea that, after a conflict like the U.S. occupation of Iraq, foreign jihadists would return to their home countries to make trouble. At the height of the Iraq War, the CIA shopped around some shrill, sloppy analysis about the imminent danger posed by these fighters. Would they advance the jihadist cause elsewhere, or would they simply disappear back into the woodwork?

As a CIA counterterrorism analyst, I saw how ugly and personal these analytic brawls were between CIA, DIA, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the State Department. It turned out, though, that “bleedout” from Iraq was an illusion: The murderous new wave of attacks across the globe never occurred.

So it’s a bit tempting to roll your eyes when people in power raise the alarm. British Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, recently shared these stark thoughts about the threat posed by fighters returning from the Syrian civil war: “It is now the biggest risk we face—bigger even than what has been happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It needs to take up more and more of the time of the police, the security services, and the government.” [emphasis added]

But this time, Cameron might be right—and the reason for it explains a great deal about what is different from the current crisis in Iraq and the one that coincided with the U.S. occupation. With the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) able to move men and war machinery across the Iraq-Syria border, the potential for bleedout is more real than it has been in 20 years.

Like so much of our thinking about jihadis, the bleedout saga begins in 1980s Afghanistan. Religious zealots from across the Islamic world were encouraged to take up arms against the Soviets. These foreign fighters then formed the core of the global Islamic terrorism scene in the decades to come. The real narrative, of course, is a bit more nuanced: It turns out the fanatics of particular concern showed up at the tail end of the conflict—Osama bin Laden may have only fought a single battle in 1987—or arrived once the fighting was done. Indeed, more jihadist-wannabes flocked to Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out than during the war itself.

The Red Army certainly kept many of these fighters on their toes, and sometimes made for a tough operating environment within Afghanistan itself. That’s why several of these radical organizations were primarily based in neighboring Pakistan in the 1980s. On the other hand, Afghanistan during the 1990s was a great place to organize a global jihad: With the Soviets gone and the country collapsing into chaos and warlordism, al Qaeda and other groups were able to run their groups without much outside interference. Because these groups were left alone, they could occasionally pull off major attacks with limited blowback. Despite hitting American targets such as the U.S.S. Cole and U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Afghan-based groups never faced overwhelming, sustained force until after September 11, 2001.

By then, a fair number of the foreign fighters who trained in Afghanistan and formed strong bonds of comradeship had spent much of the past decade waging havoc in their home countries. Algeria and Egypt fought ugly, brutal battles against Afghan returnees. Jordan had its fill of returning fighters, including a convict named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would later found al Qaeda in Iraq. In Europe, the war in Bosnia brought, as terrorism researcher Evan Kohlmann described, “the cream of the Arab mujahideen from Afghanistan … [who] mobilized a new generation of pan-Islamic revolutionaries.”

Compare this to the experience of jihadists during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It’s hard to competently run training camps, plan operations, and indoctrinate new recruits when an air force is pounding and special operations forces are conducting nightly kill/capture missions on your turf. Like the foreigners in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets, the Islamists in Iraq targeting American occupiers were able to cause great pain. But except for a handful of attacks in neighboring Jordan, most foreign fighters were preoccupied with the battle within Iraq’s borders.

But now, with regimes on both sides of the Syria/Iraq border unable to exert control over vast swathes of land, these extremists are again left alone. They rule whole cities, control hundreds of millions of dollars, and do as they please. The dynamics, in other words, seem more similar to 1990s Afghanistan than 2000s Iraq. Al Qaeda-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and ISIS can operate without fear of merciless retaliation, and in that environment, they can dream big. As the Director of National Intelligence told Congress in January, “What's going on [in Syria] and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very worrisome. Aspirationally, al-Nusra Front, to name one, does have aspirations for attacks on the homeland.”

Beyond intent, the Syrian jihadist groups seem to have a capacity to launch transnational operations. Some 7,000-plus foreigners—including a few thousand Europeans and dozens of Americans—have poured into Syria to fight, mostly to fight with al Qaeda-linked groups. The Kurdish intelligence chief recently warned that some of the 450 or so British nationals fighting for ISIS will return to the UK for terror operations. And the EU’s counterterrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, said it was “very likely” that ISIS “is preparing, training, directing some of the foreign fighters to mount attacks in Europe, or outside Europe.”

Foreign fighters who journeyed to Iraq during the U.S. occupation had one-way tickets there—because whether they realized it or not when they first left home, most would die in a suicide bombing or another similarly sticky end. And from a completely self-centered American or European perspective, a suicide attacker in Mosul was better than one in Madrid or Milwaukee.

Certainly there are many suicide bombings in Syria— for instance in 2012-2013, JN carried out some 77 suicide attacks, mostly by Saudi nationals. Recently, an American citizen carried out a suicide strike as well.

It’s still too early to tell, but it seems some percentage of foreigners in Syria are there to wage war—like those in Afghanistan—and then probably return home. Whether they come home and go back to their regular lives or come back looking to spill blood is keeping counterterrorism and homeland security across the globe up at night. European security officials are taking this threat especially seriously, since it’s relatively easy to travel from the battlefield of Syria to one of Europe's capitals.

There are troubling signs that bleedout from the Syria conflict might already be occurring. Just this year, an attack on a Jewish center in Brussels that left four people dead was reportedly the handiwork of a Syrian returnee. In Kosovo last November, local authorities arrested several individuals, including two Syria vets, who were plotting an unspecified terrorist attack. More ominously, French authorities busted another Syrian returnee in Cannes for building a one-kilogram bomb filled with the high explosive TATP—right out of the al Qaeda playbook.

Multiple investigations remain ongoing to determine whether Syrian extremist groups specifically greenlighted any of these operations. But for a jihadist organization to spare 100 or 200 foreign fighters to return to their home countries to carry out operations, however, doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination.

Let’s be ready for this possibility.

What North American, European, and Middle Eastern governments need to take is a comprehensive approach to this problem.

First, the authorities must try to stop people from going to Syria to fight the jihad at all—admittedly very difficult, since it’s not a crime to travel to that country. Hunting down Syrian jihadist recruiters and rooting out their networks in Europe, though, is a good initial step.

Allied governments then need to invest more resources in identifying the foreigners fighting in Syria, then coordinate that intelligence with each other. (Anecdotally, counterterrorism coordination across Europe over a decade after 9/11 remains insufficient.) This effort must include Turkey, as most jihadist-wannabes travel through that nation on the way to the Syrian battlefield. One of the ways to accomplish this is to build a database in Europe that tracks these Syrian militants, as this information-sharing capability across the EU does not yet exist.

If and when these fighters return home, more resources must be put toward monitoring and tracking their whereabouts. National-level authorities need to push relevant intelligence to both the local levels and to international partners. Obviously there are civil liberties challenges in putting this plan into action, but if this is such a critical threat to the peace and safety of the West, governments will find a creative solution to this problem.

Finally, crafting an effective “counternarrative” is key. What motivates many folks to leave their families and homes to fight in a distant land is oftentimes the sense they are part of a larger cause to right historic wrongs. But what if, instead of fighting Assad’s forces and aiding a beleaguered Sunni community, it became the dominant narrative that most ISIS fighters just end up slaughtering other Sunni rebels? Or that only naïfs and suckers go to fight in Syria? Or that if you had a change of heart on the battlefield, your ISIS commander would then execute you? Governments are not always the best messengers in appealing to disaffected folks, but the jihadists are dominating the strategic messaging war so far. The good guys need to get in the game.

Managing the new Syrian conflict will be a challenge for years to come. The threat of hardened veterans bringing the jihad and their combat skills to the global battlefield is now more likely than has been in the past. Sadly, it seems “bleedout” is back.