Editor’s note: Below is Thomas Joscelyn’s testimony to the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats.
Chairman Rohrabacher, Ranking Member Keating and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me here today to discuss the threat posed by Islamist foreign fighters returning home to Europe. We have been asked to answer the question, “How are European countries addressing the threat, and how can the US assist in those efforts to thwart future terrorist attacks?” I offer my thoughts in more detail below.
But I begin by recalling the 9/11 Commission’s warning with respect to failed states. “In the twentieth century,” the Commission’s final report reads, “strategists focused on the world’s great industrial heartlands.” In the twenty-first century, however, “the focus is in the opposite direction, toward remote regions and failing states.” A few sentences later, the Commission continues:
If, for example, Iraq becomes a failed state, it will go to the top of the list of places that are breeding grounds for attacks against Americans at home. Similarly, if we are paying insufficient attention to Afghanistan, the rule of the Taliban or warlords or narcotraffickers may reemerge and its countryside could once again offer refuge to al Qaeda, or its successor.
Those words were written more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, they still ring true today, not just for the US, but also for Europe. Except, we no longer have to worry about just Iraq becoming a failed state. We now have to contend with a failed state in Syria as well. And Syria is not “remote.” It is much easier for foreign fighters to travel to Syria today than it was for new jihadists to get to Afghanistan in the 1980s. This is one reason that there are likely more foreign fighters in Syria than there were in Afghanistan at the height of the jihad against the Soviets. Estimates vary, but the total number of foreign recruits in Syria easily tops 10,000. A CIA source recently told CNN “that more than 15,000 foreign fighters, including 2,000 Westerners, have gone to Syria.” They “come from more than 80 countries.”
This, of course, is an unprecedented security challenge and one that counterterrorism and intelligence officials will be dealing with for some time to come. It requires exceptional international cooperation to track the threats to Europe and elsewhere emerging out of Iraq and Syria. My thoughts below are focused on what I consider to be some of the key aspects of dealing with this threat.
At the moment, most people are understandably focused on the Islamic State (often called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, or ISIS). There is certainly a strong possibility that some foreign fighters will return from fighting in the Islamic State’s ranks to commit an act of terror at home, either on their own accord or under the direction of senior terrorists.
However, I also want to focus our attention today one of the other significant threat streams coming out of Syria. Al-Qaeda’s official branch in the country, Jabhat al-Nusrah, has experienced al-Qaeda veterans in its ranks. I think they pose more of a near-term threat when it comes to launching catastrophic attacks in the West than do their Islamic State counterparts. And even though al-Nusrah and the Islamic State have been at odds, we should not rule out the possibility that parts of each organization could come together against their common enemies in the West. Indeed, two of al-Qaeda’s leading branches are currently encouraging the jihadists in Syria to broker a truce, such that they focus their efforts against the US and its allies. There is also a large incentive for terrorists in both organizations to separately lash out at the West, portraying any such attacks as an act of retaliation for the American-led bombings.
Read more at Long War Journal