60 Shades of Gray: Measuring "Foreign Fighter" Returnees

Over the last few days, people have poured a lot of meaning into the number "60".

Not least, in some hands, this has become the number of "foreign fighters" who have returned to Canada from Syria and Iraq. In actual fact, though, this is the number of "extremist travellers" who have returned to Canada, according to the 2016 public report on terrorism.

The concept "extremist travellers" is not clearly defined, but it is a broad one. It is not simply people returning from Iraq, Syria and Turkey. And it is not just "foreign fighters". That last concept is itself a non-legal colloquial expression. It too means different things to different people. In some hands, it means "people who fought for terrorists". In other hands, it can mean people doing a lot of things other than actually fighting.

To begin, and for what it matters: It probably bears noting that this number "60" is smaller than that estimated in other contexts in the past. During its 2014-2015 hearings into security threats to Canada, the senate security committee learned that “93 Canadians have been identified as seeking to join Islamist extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), al Qaeda, Boko Harem, and al Shabaab. Eighty radicalized Canadians have been identified as participating with terrorists overseas and have returned to Canada and approximately 145 Canadians are believed to be abroad providing support to terrorist groups.”[1]

Assuming it was correctly reported, this earlier number "80" was more helpful because it told us that the individuals in question were viewed "as participating with terrorists overseas".  Participation is much closer to a legal concept than "extremist travelling" or the mutable "foreign fighting".

This overall number -- whether 60, 80 or anything else -- is important. But we need to know more about what it means if we are to judge how important it is. Because the issue is what should happen to these people.  Should they be prosecuted or "reintegrated" is the focus of the current debate. Stephanie Carvin and I go into a lot of this in Ep 11 of A Podcast Called Intrepid.

To answer that question, we need to know more about these people's risk profile. There are efforts to categorize dangerous people. The RCMP “High Risk Individual” Framework has been a form of triage, prioritizing security files into four cartegories: Priority 1 (in-country or in-bound and present an immediate terrorist threat); Priority 2 (in-country and present a possible threat); Priority 3 (in-country and present a non-immediate threat); and, Priority 4 (out of country).

But that is a prospective risk assessment. For returnees, I'd like also to know more about what they did in the course of their "extremist travelling". So I might suggest a returnee triage categorization as follows:

Category of “Extremist Traveler”

Policy Issue

Suspected of having engaged in acts of violence in association with a terrorist group (especially an actual terrorist activity or war crime, in the legal sense)

These are what I have called "right of boom" terrorists -- they have committed acts of violence. These should be priorities for prosecution. If they are not being prosecuted, why not? Is because there is insufficient information? Or is it because that information is intelligence and we struggle to redeploy intelligence as evidence?  If the latter, can we fix it? If not, why not?

Suspected of having participated in some other manner with a terrorist group or engaged in instruction, facilitation, or financing of a terrorist activity.

These are people I call "left of boom" terrorists -- they have crossed a criminal line, but not to violence. These people probably should be prosecuted, raising the same issue as above.

That said, there may be people who are close to the de minimis threshold in terms of their involvement. Perhaps incarceration would be counterproductive, creating new boot camps for the next generation of terrorists. Alternatively, perhaps disillusioned (and disengaged) former, de minimis participants can be redeployed to deter others in creative preventing violent radicalization programs, as has happened elsewhere. Everything depends on what they might have done in the  past – and the risk they may be believed to now present.  And it the latter is difficult to predict.

Suspected of having done something else somehow raising concern, but falling short of participation, instruction, facilitation or financing of a terrorist group or of a terrorist activity.

These are not terrorists. They are not people who can be prosecuted under our laws.

Of course, like the other categories, they may be on their way to violence, and they may be dangerous, but that danger is prospective. Some sort of intervention is required, since being labeled an "extremist traveller" suggests there is some reason to suspect radicalization toward violence. So we need a graduated system of triage, to rank risk, and plan interventions likely to be effective. See the RCMP triage system above, for instance.


Getting this right matters. The past is no definite guide to the future in this area. But data from prior "foreign fighter" events (pre-Daesh) suggest than a small but still significant percentage (11%) of returnees may engage in domestic acts of terrorism. And these acts are more lethal when done by someone with foreign fighting experience.

But until we have the kind of resolution I suggest above, we cannot actually evaluate how well the government is doing in managing returnee "foreign fighters" or "extremist travellers" or whatever non-legal, indefinite, bureaucratic category we wish to use.  And that is a problem.  And it has been a problem for a long time.