January 08, 2015

CNAS Press Note: The Attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Foreign Fighter Threat

By Nicholas Heras

Washington, January 8 – In response to the attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Middle East Security Program Research Associate Nicholas Heras has written a new Press Note laying out the Foreign Fighter threat to the West and the attack’s roots in Syria and Iraq.

The Press Note is below:

The January 7 attack on the Parisian satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo by three French-born jihadist gunmen, which killed 12 people, could be chilling foreshadowing of an increased tempo of attacks against targets in the West. Two of the Parisian gunmen, French-Algerians Cherif and Said Kouachi have close connections to international jihadist networks that sought to send French-born fighters to Iraq. It is widely reported in the French press, though not yet confirmed by authorities, that both men traveled to Syria within the past year, joining thousands of their countrymen in their participation in the increasingly bitter sectarian civil war, a conflict that has metastasized into the greatest recruiting event for jihadists in modern history. 

In Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and like-minded groups, like al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, are attracting Westerners and others from around the world to join their brutal fight. The Jihadist groups in Syria are offering fertile training ground to thousands, including those intent on returning home, and perpetrating attacks in the West. These thousands of jihadists with Western passports fighting in Syria and Iraq pose a direct threat to the United States and its allies. (A recent CNAS report details the threat posed by so-called Foreign Fighters returning to the West after fighting alongside groups fighting in Syria.)

Now more than ever, the United States can demonstrate its strong leadership role in the fight against these jihadist groups by pursuing bilateral and multilateral security initiatives with its European allies and Turkey to stem the flow of fighters. The United States and its allies will need to continue to refine their counter-radicalization efforts by working collaboratively with members of the local communities from which the jihadists emerge, and refrain from making the actions of a few individuals an indictment of an entire community. At this critical moment in Syria’s civil war, the United States should also support Syrian groups that agree with core values such as freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and a pluralistic vision of a future Syria to demonstrate that al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers have not regained the momentum and are not the inevitable heirs of the future Middle East.

Mr. Heras is available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org, or call 202-457-9409.


  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...