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Jihadi foreign fighters: How dangerous?

In our continuing collaboration with political science journals, the following guest post is written by Thomas Hegghammer (@hegghammer), a political scientist and historian at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). He is currently the Zuckerman fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (@CISAC).  His article in the February 2013 issue of the American Political Science Review to which the post refers is available ungated here through June 15, 2013.


Last week, radical Islamists stabbed a British soldier to death in Woolwich, South London. Meanwhile other Western jihadists were busy fighting Bashar al-Assad’s army in Syria. Although these activities seem unrelated, they raise an interesting question: Why do some Western jihadists attack at home while others fight abroad? Moreover, if jihadists are so keen to attack the West, why do some of them leave, given that they are already “behind enemy lines”? And how worried should we be about the prospect of foreign fighters returning to perpetrate terrorist attacks?

My article in the February 2013 issue of the American Political Science Review tries to answer these questions by looking at where Western jihadists have chosen to fight over the years and why. I rely on open-source data, including a new dataset on jihadi plots in the West (1990-2010) and a set of numerical observations of foreign fighter flows. My five main findings are as follows:

  1. Foreign fighting is by far the most common activity. Foreign fighters outnumber domestic attackers by at least 3 to 1 (over 900 vs. 300 individuals over 20 years).

  2. Western jihadists seem to prefer foreign fighting for normative reasons. They heed religious authorities who consider fighting in warzones more legitimate than killing civilians in Western cities.

  3. Most foreign fighters appear not to leave with the intention to train for a domestic operation.  However, a minority do acquire this motivation after their departure.

  4. Most foreign fighters never return for domestic plots. In my data, at most 1 in 9 foreign fighters came home to roost.

  5. Those foreign fighters who do return are significantly more effective operatives than non-veterans. They act as entrepreneurs and concoct plots that are twice as likely to kill.

For policymakers, the main takeaway from the article is that foreign fighters as a group pose somewhat less of a terrorist threat to the West than is often assumed. The widespread view of foreign fighters as very dangerous stems from their documented role in several serious terrorist plots in the past decade. However, this reasoning selects on the dependent variable, because it considers only the small subset of foreign fighters who returned to attack, disregarding the majority who were never heard from again. A related, but equally flawed assumption is that all foreign fighters leave for training, as part of a cunning strategy to “come back and hit us harder”. The fact that some foreign fighters trained and returned does not mean that all foreign fighters departed with that intention. As it turns out, not even those who did train and return say they planned it from the start. It follows from this that a government approach which treats all foreign fighters as domestic-terrorists-in-the-making risks wasting resources, because so few foreign fighters, statistically speaking, will go on to attack in the West.

A first step toward a more efficient counterterrorism strategy is to differentiate between outgoing and homecoming foreign fighters and focus resources on the latter. Some countries might consider going a little lighter on outgoing foreign fighters. The US government today spends considerable resources investigating, prosecuting, and incarcerating Muslims who merely attempt to join conflict zones like Somalia. While there should clearly be sanctions in place to deter foreign fighting, the deterrence effort could be better calibrated to the documented threat. By contrast, Islamists returning from conflict zones or neighbouring countries should be watched very carefully. This is hardly news to Western intelligence services, but the fact that the last two major attacks in the West, the Boston bombings and the Woolwich murder, involved unsupervised returnees – from Dagestan and Kenya/Somalia respectively – suggests an even greater effort is needed.

A second step is to distinguish between subsets of foreign fighters according to the rate by which they “produce” domestic attackers. This issue is not addressed in my article and will require new research and analysis. We do not yet know why some foreign fighters and not others move on to domestic operations. Nor do we know why some destinations produce more domestic attackers than others. The AfPak region, for example, has produced tens of foreign-turned-domestic fighters, while Somalia has hardly produced any.

Understanding these “determinants of differential returnee production” will be key to managing the future threat from the foreign fighters in Syria, a challenge that is not to be taken lightly. Just two years into the war, there may be over 500 Western Muslims fighting in Syria, more than in any previous Islamist foreign fighter destination, including the Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Most of these individuals are unlikely to pose a threat, but some will, so we should start thinking soon about who they are and when we might expect them. The most important indicator to watch is probably the declared strategic intent of jihadi organizations in Syria. If a group such as Jabhat al-Nusra should decide to systematically target the West, then the foreign fighter threat from Syria would increase substantially, as did the threat from Afghanistan when al-Qaida “went global” in the 1990s. In the meantime, we can take comfort in the finding that most jihadis choose foreign fighting because they do not want to be terrorists.

Now through June 15, 2013, my research from the APSR will be freely available to the public.


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Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

The following is the first in our series of collaborations with journals to feature guests posts from authors of recently published political science research in conjunction with ungated access to the article that is being discussed.

The guest post is written by political scientist Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa (@rolandparis).  An ungated version of his article is being made available temporarily by Cambridge University Press here.


In the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics, I have a review essay based on four books that offer insights into “what went wrong” with the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan after 2001.

The books, which are all excellent, approach the subject from different vantage points.  Astri Suhrke’s When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan examines the internal tensions and contradictions of the overall international effort.  Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan focuses more narrowly on the US military and civilian “surge” in 2010 and 2011.  In Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, Noah Coburn conducts a micro-level analysis of the politics in one village near Kabul during the international mission.  Finally, Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is a macro-history of Afghan politics and governance from pre-modern times to the present.

In spite of their differences, all of the books point to similar, underlying dysfunctions in the international mission.  The first dysfunction was the interveners’ inadequate understanding and knowledge of Afghan society.  Again and again, the authors point to cases of international action rendered ineffectual or counterproductive due to a lack of familiarity with the political and social environment. From the highest levels of decision making to the micro-dynamics of military patrols and aid projects, foreign organizations and officials seemed to be almost handicapped by their own ignorance of the country.

The second dysfunction was the persistent short-termism of international policymaking.  At each major juncture, decision makers seemed to reach for the most expedient fixes without fully considering the context or consequences of their actions.  This pattern was already visible during the 2001 invasion, when the United States paid Afghan militias to intercept fleeing Al Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora, rather than sending American forces—a costly decision, since the militias turned out to be less than fully committed to the task.  Then there was the Bush administration’s lack of interest in devising plans for Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition, and its eagerness to delegate this task to others, based in part on the assumption that the “problem” of Afghanistan had been largely resolved by the defeat of the Taliban regime.  Next came the UN-sponsored conference at Bonn, which produced an agreement for a political transition process.  This agreement, however, was reached “hastily, by people who did not adequately represent all key constituencies in Afghanistan,” as Brahimi, who chaired the meeting, wrote in a contrite essay seven years later.  With US and UN backing, moreover, the Bonn plan yielded a highly centralized system of government that was ill-adapted to the country’s needs.  Meanwhile, Washington had rejected the idea of deploying ISAF outside Kabul and refused to allow US counterterrorist forces to be used for “nation-building” purposes.  All of these actions reflected wishful thinking— or, more precisely, a dearth of serious thinking—about the viability and long-term implications of these decisions.

This mind-set continued in subsequent years.  As conditions worsened and the scale and scope of the operation slowly expanded, there was little reflection on the underlying assumptions of the mission.  When the US government, long distracted by the situation in Iraq, shifted its attention back to Afghanistan in 2008, decision making became more urgent, but was no less short-sighted. “Again and again,” writes Suhrke, “it was hoped that the latest change in strategy and personnel or increase in aid would be the silver bullet.”  I saw this for myself during visits to Kandahar and Kabul in December 2008 and January 2010.  Activity was intense, almost frantic, and driven by a sense that little time remained to “turn the situation around.”  But exactly how this would be achieved, and to what end, were never clear.  Even after President Obama entered office and conducted a lengthy policy review that resulted in a sharp escalation of US forces, these questions remained largely unanswered:  How would the United States convince the insurgency to capitulate or negotiate?  How would it persuade Afghan villagers to side publicly with ISAF and the Kabul government?  What, in short, was the purpose of the surge?  More broadly, why did the international operation, with its minimalist start and late escalation, seem so strangely out of sync with conditions on the ground?

If “strategy” is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim, there appeared to be little strategy guiding the international operation in Afghanistan.  Instead, reliance on a series of quick fixes seemed to substitute for strategic thinking—or tactics without strategy.  I conclude the essay by discussing the dangers of repeating these errors and drawing the wrong lessons from the Afghanistan episode.

You can access the entire essay for free until June 23, 2013.

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Collaboration with Journals and Presses to Highlight Recently Published Research Along with Ungated Links to Articles

In line with both the mission statement of this blog and recent discussions about the continuing need to highlight to those outside the academy the importance of political science research, we are in the process of trying to offer a new service here at The Monkey Cage. The goal is to have posts from authors whose research is featured in just released issues of political science journals provide a short guest post highlighting the research in conjunction with an agreement from the press to make that article available ungated for a specified period of time. This will be similar to what I have done in the past with some of the section newsletters, but now will feature research articles from journals. And we have gotten journals in the past to ungate articles in conjunction with posts on The Monkey Cage (and will continue to do so), but the hope is that this new set up will help regularize process and make a bit less ad hoc.

This means that if you are a reader of the Monkey Cage and lack institutional access to political science journals, The Monkey Cage will now be a way to access some very recent journal publications. Moreover, our hope is that the guest posts will be written in a way that will quickly make it apparent whether the full article would be of interest to you. I will write more when I have details on which journals are participating, but I wanted to just make this brief announcement now because I will momentarily be posting the first article under this arrangement. Please be aware that the articles will be only ungated for a limited time, so this access will work better if you read the post in real-time as opposed to searching for them later, although I will use the category “Journal Collaboration” to tag these posts.

For authors who are requested by journal editors to participate in this program, I strongly urge you to consider doing so. It is a great chance to get publicity for your research, and also an opportunity to contribute to a public good of helping to create more links between published political science research and the wider community of journalists, policy makers, private sector actors, politicians, etc. who may be interested in the work that we have put so much effort into producing.

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