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What to do about British foreign fighters in Syria

What to do about British foreign fighters in Syria
13th January 2014 ICSR Team
In ICSR's News, Insights

What to do about British foreign fighters in Syria

By Peter R. Neumann and Shiraz Maher

ICSR Senior Research Fellow Shiraz Maher will tomorrow give evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on the role and implications of British foreign fighters in Syria.

The session will take place in the Wilson Room, Portcullis House, at 4.45pm (GMT). It will be broadcast live at:

This ICSR Insight provides background on ICSR’s research and the issues that Maher hopes to raise in tomorrow’s hearing. A video summary can be watched here.

Policy and Priorities

At the hearing, Maher will emphasise the following points, which our research suggests should be addressed as a matter of priority:

• Government should explore ways of empowering security agencies to disrupt the travel plans of potential fighters before they leave the country. Based on our understanding of foreign fighters’ travel trajectories as well as numerous conversations with law enforcement personnel, we believe that current legislation does not offer sufficient support for doing so.

• Instead of relying on a purely punitive approach, the Government’s priority should be to reconfigure its Channel Project, so it can deliver targeted support and interventions for a much broader range of extremists, including returning foreign fighters. Research has shown that only a minority of foreign fighters will become involved in domestic terrorism, and Channel – not blanket sentencing – will provide the appropriate (and sufficiently calibrated) tool for mitigating potential risks.

• New Prevent initiatives should seek to dampen intra-Muslim tensions. As a result of Syria and political instability in the Middle East, the narratives and motivations of violent extremists have come to emphasise a strong sectarian element (Sunni vs. Shia) which, in some cases, has overtaken the idea of the “West at war with Islam”. In our view, seeking to prevent any spill-over into British communities will be a key concern for Prevent practitioners in years to come.


Maher will draw on ICSR’s extensive research on the Syrian conflict and – specifically – the involvement of Europeans as opposition foreign fighters:

• In April last year, ICSR was the first research organisation to provide a credible and comprehensive estimate of the number of foreign fighters engaged in the Syrian conflict. (Our numbers were confirmed and adopted by several governments and the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator).

• In October, we published an overview of British foreign fighters in Syria, outlining their profiles and motivations.

• In November, we documented a number of individual cases (here and here) of British foreign fighters in Syria, revealing that a much higher number than previously known had died in battle. (The Foreign Office subsequently launched an official probe into the issue).

• That same month, we also published a list of urgent questions and concerns, which we believe Government needs to address in order to mitigate potential future risks from returning fighters. (These questions have since been put to senior government officials by Members of Parliament and the Home Affairs Select Committee).

• In December, we published a new estimate, concluding that – by then – up to 11,000 non-Syrians (up to 2,000 Western Europeans) had gone to fight in Syria.

• In March, ICSR will release a research paper on the networks that are involved in facilitating and supporting European foreign fighter travel.

ICSR is engaged in a multi-year research project on the consequences of the Syrian civil war. For more information, please consult, and sign up to our newsletter and updates.

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