Commentary: Will White House Summit Find Solution for Jihadist Threat?


FEBRUARY 15, 2015

US President Barack Obama will host on Wednesday a global Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. The landmark conference, which will feature a range of US and international politicians and security officials, will focus according to the White House on “foreign fighters, and the success that organizations like so-called Islamic state have had in radicalizing people all across the globe."

The summit was announced soon after last month’s Paris attacks, which alongside other atrocities in recent years, have fueled concerns about foreign jihadists returning to their home countries from overseas theaters of conflict, and also other individuals being influenced by terrorist propaganda.

Obama has expressed his “deep concern” about these issues, echoing comments of other leaders around the world, and is looking for consensus around a long-term, comprehensive international strategy to better tackle the issue.

At last month’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland, US Secretary of State John Kerry outlined the scale and complexity of the problem. He acknowledged that the challenge is much wider than just from parts of the Middle East, and instead extends to other “ungoverned spaces” around the world, including areas of Africa such as Somalia.

That being said, Kerry singled out defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria as the starting point for success.  He acknowledged IS as “better armed, better trained and better funded than any other terrorist group in history,” but asserted that the tide is now flowing against the organization with the international coalition of 60-plus states degrading many of its capabilities.

Kerry is not the only senior US official who has pin-pointed Syria and Iraq as the front-line in this battle against foreign jihadists. For instance, FBI Director James Comey has even warned about the prospect of a “future 9/11” caused by the increased flow of foreign fighters from Syria in particular.

In Comey’s view, “all of us with a memory of the 1980s and 1990s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan September 11. We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse" because of the larger number of foreign jihadists in the country.

The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King's College London estimates that as many as 11,000 foreign fighters overall may have fought in Syria, from some 74 countries, the majority from Arab countries. A central concern is that a significant number of these individuals, who include potentially as many as 2,000 from Western Europe, plus others from North America, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, will return battle-hardened with significantly greater terrorist capability and resolve.

To be sure, it is not clear precisely how many foreign fighters have already returned from the Middle East to their home countries is not certain. However, Richard Barrett, the former Head of Counter-terrorism at the UK’s Mi6, warned last year that “up to 300” foreign fighters from Syria may now be back in Britain alone.

The issue of foreign fighters most recently surfaced with the Paris attacks. A pre-recorded video emerged soon after the atrocities featuring one of the terrorists, Amedy Coulibaly, in which he pledged allegiance to IS.

Meanwhile, there are apparent links between at least one other of the Paris terrorists, Said Kouachi, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It is reported that Kouachi met with the radical cleric Anwar-al Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, and may have received a period of terrorist training there and/or fought alongside AQAP.

AQAP was formed in 2009 as a ‘merger’ between Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches. The organization is believed by US officials to have undertaken a series of bomb plots against US targets, including the foiled plan to bring down a Detroit-bound plane in 2009 using explosives hidden in a terrorist’s underwear.

It still remains uncertain about the degree to which the Paris terrorists were merely potentially inspired by AQAP and/or ISIS, or if either group played a wider role in supporting the attacks.  Western intelligence officials are still piecing together the facts.

The growth of terrorist nodes of high importance in parts of Africa and Middle Eastern countries like Yemen reflects factors such as political upheaval in those regions since the so-called Arab Spring.  And also the dispersal and de-centralization of Al-Qaeda away from Afghanistan since September 2001.

Reflecting the changed geographical risk pattern, US forces are re-deploying themselves. In Africa, for instance, the US military has scaled up facilities in numerous states, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic. This is intended to allow for greater aerial surveillance coverage and drone strikes, especially in North Africa, plus sites for military hardware storage.

Moreover, the CIA has expanded its staff in Yemen, a country that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently warned “is collapsing before our eyes” after the government was recently ousted.  Washington has also enhanced its air bases in the Gulf from which it can launch drone strikes into Yemen.

Taken overall, threats to international interests appear to be growing from violent extremism, including radicalized individuals returning from overseas theaters of war. The White House summit thus comes at a critical juncture when there is a clear need for a long-term, comprehensive international strategy to better tackle this key issue.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and a former UK government special adviser.