August 25, 2014

Bringing the Fight Back Home: Western Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria

By Anthony Vassalo and Dafna Rand

“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

  • Commentary
    • The Washington Post
    • March 19, 2020
    9/11 swallowed U.S. foreign policy. Don’t let the coronavirus do the same thing.

    For two decades, American foreign policy has been shaped by the 9/11 attacks. The catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our failure to see the full threat posed by Russia...

    By Ilan Goldenberg

    • Commentary
    • Foreign Policy
    • March 6, 2020
    Big Ideas for NATO’s New Mission in Iraq

    Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s calls for America’s allies to “get more involved in the Middle East,” NATO defense ministers last month agreed to “enhance” the Atlanti...

    By David H. Petraeus & Vance Serchuk

  • Commentary
    • Defense One
    • February 21, 2020
    The American Public Wants a Sustainable Middle East Policy

    After the U.S. strike on Qasem Soleimani, Americans feared the United States was on the brink of war with Iran. “World War III draft” memes circulated around the internet, and...

    By Kaleigh Thomas & Emma Moore

  • Commentary
    • The New York Times
    • February 12, 2020
    The Iranian Missile Strike Did Far More Damage Than Trump Admits

    Over 100 American soldiers have been treated for traumatic brain injuries following Iran’s missile strike on Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq. The strike came in retaliation f...

    By Loren DeJonge Schulman & Paul Scharre

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia