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Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq


Authors: Byman, Daniel & Shapiro, Jeremy

Date of Publication: 2014

Publication: Foreign Policy at BROOKINGS, POLICY PAPER Number 34, November 2014

Purpose of the study

Key questions 

Presents a standard schematic model of foreign fighter radicalization – to explain how and why some foreign fighters become dangerous terrorists, drawing on the Afghanistan experience in the 1980s to illustrate the arguments. 

It discusses why many seasoned observers believe the Syria conflict is likely to be particularly dangerous. 

It examines why terrorism in Europe and the United States was less than expected from previous jihads such as Iraq, again drawing implications and lessons specific to Syria, as well as examining factors unique to the Syrian conflict itself. 

Authors also identify policy implications and recommendations.


Design of the study


The authors relied heavily on interviews with experts and government officials in Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States


Focuses on the foreign fighter threat to the West.


The report seeks to understand the foreign fighter threat to the West, both the real dangers it presents and mitigating factors. 

Key Findings 

Using this framework, our policy recommendations focus on trying to identify opportunities to encourage potentially dangerous individuals to take more peaceful paths and to help determine which individuals deserve arrest, visa denial, preventive detention, or other forms of disruption. 

Key Recommendations 

Steps include increasing community engagement efforts to dissuade potential fighters from going to Syria or Iraq; working more with Turkey to disrupt transit routes; improving de-radicalization programs to “turn” returning fighters into intelligence sources or make them less likely to engage in violence; and avoiding blanket prosecution efforts. Most important, security services must be properly resourced and organized to handle the potential danger.

Reviewer Notes

This is the first report that I have seen that provides a model to understand FF radicalization – in terms of how and why they mobilize to violence. 

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