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Foreign Fighter Returnees: An Indefinite Threat?

Silhouette of three foreign fighters

Since the War in Afghanistan began in 2001, there has been widespread concern about what happens when foreign terrorist fighters return to their home countries. Many assume that radicalized returnees pose a long-term security risk, and policymakers are divided about how to respond.

AU School of Public Affairs Assistant Professor David Malet recently co-authored a paper examining how long it typically takes a returned foreign fighter to launch a domestic attack, and he found there is not a long-term risk as feared. Understanding what happens with returnees is important to know because it can affect policies on everything from countries admitting refugees to whether to permit ISIS fighters to leave the theater of conflict alive.
Malet’s article, “Foreign Fighter Returnees: An Indefinite Threat?” recently published online in Terrorism & Political Violence, was co-authored with Rachel Hayes, a former graduate student at George Washington University, where Malet worked before joining the SPA faculty this fall. In their analysis of 230 jihadi returnees to Western countries, the researchers found the majority of attempted attacks occur within one year. Prison appears to play no role in lag times.

“The research shows there is no such thing as a ‘sleeper cell.’ Of the few people who return and do something, the vast majority either commit an act or are arrested attempting in under six months,” says Malet, who says he was somewhat surprised it didn’t take longer for the terrorists to plot attacks. Still, the findings are consistent with statistics for criminal recidivism that show those released from prison are most likely get into trouble within two years of being released.

The reason most returnees don’t pose an indefinite threat may be that many foreign fighters are in bad situations on the battlefield and come out with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The experience of going to be a foreign fighter might deter people from wanting to be involved in violence in the future,” says Malet. “The threat really drops off after six months and almost disappears after two years.”

The results of this new research suggest that security and reintegration efforts should be targeted within the critical six months after return, which diminishes the risk of attack considerably. Malet says his data show jailing foreign fighters is not an effective response, and long-term surveillance may not be necessary.

This study builds on research Malet has done on why people fight in the civil wars of other countries and how rebel groups recruit foreign fighters. He authored the book “Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts” (Oxford University Press, 2013).