New security threat: Young Western nationals fighting in Syria

By Claire McNear, on 19 December 2013

By Aydan Sarikaya

The threat of terrorists on the home front has become increasingly worrisome. News agencies are reporting a surge of individuals that have traveled from the United Kingdom to Syria to fight. The New York Times, the BBC, and The Telegraph estimate that roughly 1000 Western passport-holders are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, of which 200 to 300 are British nationals.

It is relatively easy to travel to and from Syria. Most of the fighters who are entering Syria from the West do so through Turkey, and often return to the West by the same route. Intelligence officials are concerned with the potential ties these individuals may develop with terrorist groups abroad. Once back in the West, these guerilla fighters may continue to operate and communicate with terrorists. Needless to say, these individuals pose a national security threat when they return to the countries of their citizenship, which has prompted Home Secretary Theresa May to propose rescinding the passports of convicted UK terrorists. When asked by the BBC what he thought of May’s proposal, a Bangladeshi-British fighter in Syria stated that he had no desire to return to the UK, regardless of what regulations were to be imposed.

Most Western nationals fighting in Syria are young. And most of the jihadists from the UK are university-educated Muslims of Pakistani origin in their 20s, according to the Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. An interesting case of Europeans traveling to Syria is that of the two Somali-Norwegian teenage sisters (16 and 19) who, according to their father, “ran away” from their home in Norway in October, telling their family that they wanted to help the Syrian rebels. The sisters have only just been located by Norway with the help of Interpol, and it is said that one of the sisters is recuperating from a bullet wound. Recently, the most publicized example of homegrown terrorists from the UK is that of the “white widow”, Samantha Lewthwaite, the British wife of one of the 7/7 London bombers. Lewthwaite has become powerful within al-Shabaab, the infamous Somali terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda operating in East Africa. The 2013 Nairobi mall shooting may have been orchestrated by Lewthwaite. It is speculated that an individual exists within the Syrian context with power comparable to that of Lewthwaite.

The threat that these individuals pose when they return to the country of their citizenship is very real. However, the question remains of what criteria are to be imposed when monitoring these individuals and when assessing what makes an individual a threat. Should their passports be rescinded? What would happen were these individuals to become stateless? Would stateless individuals add to further instability in places like Syria? Is this an issue of immigration for Western countries? Should immigration policies be changed, and if so, how? What I would urge governments to keep in mind when addressing these national security issues is that any policy changes will inevitably create unintended consequences, which, in turn, will alter the very landscape of national security itself.