August 25, 2014

Confronting Western Foreign Fighters Returning from Iraq and Syria

By Anthony Vassalo, and Dafna Rand

Washington, August 25, 2014 -- The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) has completed a new policy brief laying out policy recommendations for addressing the threat posed by the approximately 3,000 Westerners fighting with extremist groups such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The policy brief, coauthored by CNAS Deputy Director of Studies Dr. Dafna Rand and CNAS National Counterterrorism Center Senior Fellow Anthony Vassalo argues that the danger from these Western foreign fighters has been accelerating for months, well before the United States began military action in Iraq two weeks ago, and offers several policy proposals for countering this growing threat.
The full report is available here:
CNAS experts are available for interviews on this foreign fighter policy brief, as well as the larger issue of current U.S. strategy in Iraq and the Levant. These experts include:

To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at or call 202-457-9409.
A more complete summary of the briefing is below:
“Bringing the Fight Back Home” argues that the changing dynamics on the ground in Iraq are accelerating the urgency of the threat from the approximately 3,000 foreign fighters with Western passports, including the over 100 Americans. These individuals, many of whom are young, self-radicalized fighters from Western Europe, are fighting with ISIS, al-Nusra and other Sunni extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. Even before the United States initiated military action in Iraq in mid-August, this threat was growing. This brief lays out the four areas where the United States and its allies are currently focused but where additional creativity, persistence and planning could amplify existing efforts:

  • Elevating the foreign fighter threat in all bilateral and multilateral diplomatic engagements with Turkey and European governments, including a focus on domestic counterterrorism legislation;
  • Updating counterradicalization messaging campaigns and other efforts to target the motives encouraging Westerners to join the fight;
  • Organizing the national security agencies to focus on this particular threat, and the particular plots that Western foreign fighters are most likely to plan and execute;
  • Designing a multipronged counterfinance strategy to squeeze ISIS, al-Nusra and other groups’ resources, so that it will be harder for the extremists to finance a plot involving the deployment of Western foreign fighters home.


  • Anthony Vassalo

  • Dafna Rand