Check out my new article co-authored with Jonathan Prohov for Lawfare: "Proactive Measures—Countering the Returnee Threat"


Editor’s Note: The conflict in Syria has attracted an unprecedented number of foreign fighters, with Muslims streaming in from the Arab world and Europe to take up arms against the regime of Bashar al-Asad. Mindful of the Afghanistan experience, where foreign fighters returning home from the anti-Soviet struggle often formed the nuclei of terrorist groups, governments are preparing for grim times ahead. Aaron Y. Zelin and Jonathan Prohov, researchers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describe the many steps taken by governments around the world to guard against this potential danger and assess the implications for the United States.


Fears that foreign fighters traveling to Syria might return home once the conflict is over and engage in terrorism have prompted an unprecedented level of proactive measures by countries around the world. In the past, many countries only changed their laws after an attack occurred, but this time around many states are trying to get ahead of the issue.

Compared to the number of foreigners who fought against the United States in Iraq or the Soviets in Afghanistan, the number of foreigners fighting in Syria has exceeded both of those cases—and in less than half the time. Around 9,000 individuals from more than 80 countries have joined the fight against the Asad regime, with the majority coming from the Arab world and Western Europe. U.S. intelligence officials told the Los Angeles Times in February that at least 50 Americans had joined the fight in Syria, and FBI director James Comey recently stated that the number of Americans who had either traveled to Syria or tried to do so had grown by a few dozen since the beginning of 2014.

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