The arrest of Moazzam Begg in the UK is putting a spotlight on a popular fear of our time: The return of "radicalized" fighters from the jihad in Syria to their home countries, presumably bearing the virus of terrorism with them.
This is the second time Mr. Begg has been caught up in such an arrest. In 2001 he moved to Afghanistan, and on to Pakistan in 2002. Pakistan delivered him to that year into US custody. First, he was jailed at Bagram in Afghanistan; then at Guantanamo Bay until 2005. The US claimed he was training with Al Qaeda in Pakistan but his lengthy detention without charge or trial stirred outrage in the UK, and he was eventually released as a favor to the Blair government.
Now, the UK has detained him along with three other men in Birmingham, allegedly for training with unspecified "terrorists" in Syria. While at least part of the discussion around Begg will be on whether he's been targeted because of his personal beliefs and associations, the UK and many other European countries are alarmed that some of their Muslim nationals are going to fight in Syria. The fear – almost a conviction – is that the ones who survive could bring the jihad home.
But is this really true? I'm skeptical. Like much conventional wisdom, the belief that so-called foreign fighters are always a problem for their home countries – or for Al Qaeda's "far enemy" – hasn't proven true. Yes, a generation of men who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets seeded terrorist groups and plots from Malaysia to Morocco. But that was far more the exception than the rule.
Consider Iraq. When it became clear that fighters were pouring into the country from across the Arab world, particularly from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, and Egypt, the presumption was that these men would return home to plot terrorist attacks on either their own governments or on Western targets like the US (I was one of the guilty parties). This wave of terrorism never materialized. Major plots in Europe or the US tied to Iraq fighters? I can't find any.
Thomas Hegghammer, a leading terrorism researcher based in Norway who has studied patterns in Islamist militancy for over a decade, hasn't found any either. And he's looked hard.
In a talk last November summarizing some of his research, he said participation in a jihad – a religiously motivated war abroad – didn't seem correlate strongly with whether veterans were then recruited for terrorist plots in their home countries. Far more important seems to be the behavior and belief of the groups they join.
"Some conflicts where we expected a large spillover, Iraq for example, we've had very little, surprisingly little spillover." The latest conflict in Yemen, which has few foreign fighters, has spurred a relatively large number of plots while Afghanistan in the 1980s and Bosnia were "low-rate destinations" for foreign fighters.
As he points out, Iraq had a huge presence of foreigners, led by the US, fighting the jihadis. One would expect a surge in hatred of the US and other foreigners, and perhaps more blowback. But there was almost none. Yemen, where the US has killed hundreds with an air campaign but has had no boots on the ground and nothing like the occupiers' bad blood left in Iraq, has been a spawning ground for jihadis looking to attack Western interests.
So why the difference? Mr. Hegghammer warns there's much work still to be done but says he's spotted one key difference in conflicts in which veterans are induced in Al Qaeda-style global jihad: "My conclusion is that we basically have no way of knowing what the return rate will be but there's one crucial variable to follow closely: Whether or not the organizations in the theater adopt a strategy of systematically targeting the West," he said (video of his talk is embedded at the bottom of this page). "And so far there is no such organization in Syria."
Conditions in Syria could change, but it's worth considering his views at length since they both tack against conventional wisdom and match up well with recent history.
"Whether or not if there is an organization present in the theater that has a declared strategy of systematically targeting the west. that is what you have in (Afghanistan-Pakistan) that is what you have in Yemen but you don't have it in the other theaters. And this factor presumably drives the high return rate through two mechanisms. One is the obvious one - that they're sending people back because that is what they want to do. But the other mechanism is a selection effect that the places that have such organizations on the ground attract more of those foreign fighters that are open to attacking the west in the first place. So they get slightly more radical recruits. That's probably true with (Afghanistan-Pakistan) certainly today and I think it's also true of Yemen. So what does this mean for Syria? If we look at this table that I've jotted down there's no Western military presence or involvement - yet, it might be days away - but even if we get strikes boots on the ground are unlikely in the foreseeable future. It's relatively near Europe and we have several Al Qaeda affiliates present. But we do not have an organization with a declared strategy of targeting the West. Let me stress here that I'm not suggesting that the jihadi groups in Syria are not anti-Western. Of course they are. But they don't have a declared strategy of systematically targeting the West. There's lots of anti-Westernism in their discourse but they're not saying we are now going to kill you on your territory in the way that Al Qaeda core and Al Qaeda in Yemen are... much hinges on whether or not we get an organization in Syria that adopts such a strategy.
Using open source reporting, Hegghammer recorded 106 serious attacks and disrupted plots involving foreign fighters in the West from 1990-2010 and found the "vast majority" of them involved fighters who'd been in Afghanistan in the late 1990s or in Afghanistan and Pakistan since Sept. 11 2001.
So, what does this say about Mr. Begg?
The UK hasn't revealed any evidence against him so far. It may be that he was in Syria doing humanitarian work – or it may be that he was there to fight, or to help fighters aligned with a jihadi group like Jahba al-Nusra or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
But even if he was mingling with folks who admire Al Qaeda and share their regressive ideology, that's far from a guarantee he was about to become a threat to the people of Birmingham.