The small number of Western Muslims who have gone to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State (IS) has raised concerns that these jihadists may likely continue and even intensify their extremist views and activity upon returning home.
But there is scant evidence that these returnees will be as militant or fervent in the Jihadist cause as when they left home to take up the battle, write Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro in the journal Foreign Affairs (Nov./Dec.). It is estimated that about 2,500 Muslims from North America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand signed up as soldiers for the IS. Byman and Shapiro write that the fear of returning jihadists is not new, as it was prevalent during the Iraq War, but most will not return home at all, either being killed in combat or joining new military campaigns (in interviews conducted by the authors, 10-20 percent of these fighters reported no plans to come home). Those that do return will not likely come back as dangerous Islamic extremists. They will either become disillusioned with the radical path or be few enough in number that authorities can monitor them.
Byman and Shapiro don’t discount the reality that even a few returned Jihadists can cause serious acts of terror. It is also true that the new wave of IS recruits have followed a different path into militancy than previous Western Muslim fighters. Whereas the earlier jihadists were lured to the battlefield to prove their bravery or to follow adventure, the IS recruits have stronger religious motivations attracted by the movement’s establishment of a caliphate and nursing their own sectarian grievances regarding the Shia-Sunni conflict. Unlike earlier conflicts that occurred in remote places like Afghanistan, the IS battlefield is easily reached through Turkey and advertised through social media.
The returned fighter does gain credibility and prestige among radicalized Muslims for service to the cause, and studies have shown that such individuals are more adept at carrying out terrorism than homegrown terrorists. Yet Byman and Shapiro conclude that most returnees won’t want to drag their families and friends into these conflicts, and most will go on to lead normal lives.
(Foreign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/issues/2014/93/6)