Returned foreign fighters are better domestic terrorists, but they're rare

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Jihadists who leave Western countries to fight abroad rarely carry out attacks in the West later, but those who do are more effective, says an article in the February edition of the American Political Science Review.

Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, writes in the article that no more than one in nine foreign fighters, and probably far fewer, return to the West for attacks.

But plots against the West are 1.5 times more likely to come to fruition if a former foreign fighter is involved, and they're twice as likely to kill, Hegghammer found.

"Policy makers should distinguish between outgoing and returning foreign fighters and treat the latter as more of a threat," he says. "Prosecuting all aspiring foreign fighters as prospective domestic terrorists has limited preventive benefits, because so few of them, statistically speaking, will go on to attack the homeland."

The theory that jihadists often go abroad to train in the hopes of carrying out domestic attacks appears to be false. More than one in nine foreign fighters would return to the West for an attack if that was a commonly held goal, Hegghammer says. He also notes that jihadists tend to do basic paramilitary training abroad, rather than learning bomb-making, countersurveillance and other skills that would enable domestic attacks.

Jihadists go abroad far more often to join a foreign insurgency, the article says. They tend to view foreign fighting as more legitimate, as Islamist religious authorities are more likely to approve of attacks in established conflict zones.

"Even at the radical end of the spectrum of clerical opinion, there is some debate about attacks in the West, whereas almost no clerics questions the legitimacy of geographically limited insurgency," Hegghammer says.

Typical al Qaeda recruitment videos, he notes, use images from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and other conflict zones.

Those who do return to the West for domestic attacks may have developed new perceptions of the attacks' legitimacy as a result of being around a very limited range of opinions while fighting abroad.

Some, such as the contingent of 9/11 attackers known as the Hamburg cell, may go abroad to take part in foreign fighting only to be asked later to carry out an operation in the West.

The few that return to the West "should be monitored very carefully," Hegghammer says, as the evidence shows them to be more lethal. On the other hand, assuming all aspiring foreign fighters are prospective domestic terrorists is likely to waste resources, he says.

Above all, it's key "to acknowledge the difference between domestic and foreign fighting and to discourage each activity with different sets of arguments," Hegghammer notes. "The view that radical Islamists are all the same has proved remarkably resilient."

For more:
- read the article, "Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting"

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