The third MOSECON Luncheon Manchurian Candidate Redux: Are returning Foreign Fighters dangerous? took on the currently hottest subject in the security field and as such, not only set the tone but elevated the standards of excellence of the event. Amid the media hype surrounding the foreign fighters in Syria, in Canada, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, our renowned panelists for this Luncheon Claudia Dantschke, Florian Peil and Daniel Koehler, set out to separate the facts from the impressions and provided our guests and viewers with a concise assessment of the security threat returning foreign fighters represent.
Florian Peil opened up the discussion by explaining that the real danger stemming from foreign fighters does not come from the training received or their battlefield experience, which is negligible at best, but rather from the mythology that surrounds them upon their return. How just having been there makes them “heroes” in the eyes of some of the most impressionable members of their communities, especially for those that romanticize conflicts such as the one in Syria. As such, they provide inspiration and “someone to look up to”, which makes countering the narrative of radicalization and djihad more difficult. For Peil, reducing the impact of returning fighters goes through “establishing a credible and strong counter-narrative”, which he considers to be absent at this point.
Daniel Koehler took the ball on the bounce and not only presented a statistical overview of how many foreign fighters could be in Syria right now, raising the important point that their presence there is not necessarily to fight but also to provide humanitarian relief or medical help in the crisis zones, as the statistics do not differentiate roles foreigners have there. Furthermore, he argued that there is a growing credible counter-narrative to the radicalization discourse and romantic image of the returning “fighter”, and presented various Europeans deradicalization programs, among them the German program Hayat (Arabic for “Life”), which focuses on radicalization in Muslim communities. The key to a successful counter-narrative, says Koehler, is to get the family involved, as very often radicalizers prey on the family situation – tensions, fights – to present themselves and their discourse as legitimate. By providing means of deradicalization to families, they are in a position to defuse potential radicalization with long-term effects, especially because family provides the pillars for identity.
Finally, Claudia Dantschke, whose connections and respect within the Berlin and German Muslim communities is arguably unmatched, painted a brilliant portrait of how the “foreign fighter” propaganda is spread. Pop-djihad she calls it, as the propaganda uses urban and pop culture appeal to spread its message, using gangsta rap, super-hero and sports brands logos, as well as social media portals to make themselves more attractive. She also added to Daniel Koehler’s presentation by further underlining the pivotal role families play, especially in bringing back those already in Syria and defusing the romantic picture of political violence. Another important point Dantschke made is that some communities “fly under the radar” in terms of their contributions to the Syrian conflict, especially Chechnyans, who have a strong network and whose war-experienced population can provide trained fighters abroad.
In short, this third MOSECON Luncheon strengthened the importance of identity building and reinforcement when it comes to terrorism, while helping members of the security community understand that the danger of returning foreign fighters lies not in what they can do, but rather in the “ideal” they represent.
The full-length video of the MOSECON Luncheon #03 is now available online.