By Karam Singh Sethi
May 15, 2014
Last week, the State Department came out with its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. With boundless acronyms and frequent mentions of global terrorism’s corporate brand, Al-Qa’ida, there is very little groundbreaking information in the report. Significant, though, is the particular sense of urgency with terrorism in Syria — especially when it comes to the influx of foreign fighters.
Like the 1979 Afghani war for liberation against the Soviets, Syria has turned into a right of passage for international would-be extremists and frustrated unemployed youth. “A number of key partner governments are becoming increasingly concerned that individuals with violent extremist ties and [now] battlefield experience will return to their home countries or elsewhere to commit terrorist acts.” Indeed, one major example of Syria being a hotbed for international terrorists is the link to Indonesia’s extremist groups.
As of January, only 50 Indonesians were counted in the large pool of 11,000 foreigners joining the opposition. This statistic is markedly lower than the funds Indonesian Muslims have been able to raise for AQ efforts in Syria.
It’s not just Indonesians. An “unprecedented” number of European Muslims are traveling to Syria. The Washington Post compiled data from various European intelligence agencies on foreign fighters:
The significant finding is not the breakdown, but the total. Estimates for Europeans traveling to Syria are between 1,100 and 1,700.
Even FBI Director James Comey came out urging Americans to stay out of Syria when estimates that “dozens more” were traveling to fight for al-Nusrah Front and Islamic State and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Both organizations boast ties with AQ.
The bulk of foreign fighters supporting either Assad’s Shia government or the Sunni opposition, however, come from neighboring Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. A groundbreaking study by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Flashpoint Partners used jihadi social media platforms to breakdown nationalities of foreign fighters in Syria.
What causes such an influx of foreign fighter? Jihadi websites boast the glory of martyrdom, guerrilla warfare and the David versus Goliath scenario. The report indicates that social media has provided a critical online tool for foreign fighters in Syria. Rebel supporters hoping to inspire others update Facebook daily with new names of deceased foreign fighters, turning them into martyrs.
The reality, however, is far less eulogized. The flood of foreigners is caused by joblessness, lack of education and health disparity in home countries. Fighting these realities combats the reason individuals are pushed towards terrorist acts in the first place. U.K. political scientist Edward Newman succinctly explores these “Root Causes” of terrorism.
Newman argues poverty is the most prominent structural source of terrorism recruitment. A lack of, “prospects, choices, and respect,” in societies where pride is put on a pedestal pushes individuals to face-saving extremes. Poverty is a likely symptom of unemployment, and rates soar in certain Arab states.
Tunisia, once lauded for its economic competitiveness in the MENA region and high ranking in the ILO’s “Doing Business” report, now has an unemployment rate of 17 percent. Youth unemployment, the overwhelming cause of the 2010 revolt, stands at a staggering 30 percent. One recent Tunisian college graduate who supports his mother and four siblings, expressed grievances to The Economist:
“I am just looking for a job so that I can live, I don’t ask for more. The most important thing for me is work…”
If youth don’t find opportunities at home, they will no doubt look for financial gains elsewhere (say Syria) and as Newman argues, a common recruiting tool for terrorist organization is simply payment. A multilateral approach to fighting social inequality will be a lasting solution to terrorist recruitment.
A good place to start is by cementing mutually beneficial trade agreements that spur job creation for the degree holding work force and reducing red tape for foreign investment. With Tunisia, for example, the ILO specifically praises Foreign Direct Investment efforts by the new Tunisian government but further suggests fewer restrictions on private sector small and medium enterprises. In other words, create a system that incentivizes, not inhibits, private sector innovation.
Reforms affecting social dynamics in countries like Indonesia, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Libya will drastically reduce the influx of foreign fighters in Syria. The challenges are lofty, but providing safe and prosperous face-saving solutions to the social disenfranchised will serve as a concrete place to start and set a roadmap for future international counterterrorism efforts.