Foreign Fighters: Trends, Trajectories & Conflict Zones


On Friday, October 1, 2010, The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) hosted a Policy & Research Forum examining the foreign fighter phenomenon and the threat it poses to Western nations. The event served as the public release of a new HSPI report on "Foreign Fighters: Trends, Trajectories & Conflict Zones"; and featured the report’s authors: Frank J. Cilluffo, Director of HSPI; Magnus Ranstorp, HSPI Senior Fellow and Research Director of the Swedish National Defense College’s Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies; and Jeffrey B. Cozzens, President of White Mountain Research. HSPI Steering Committee Member Bruce Hoffman, Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, offered introductory remarks and moderated the roundtable discussion that followed the authors’ opening remarks.

Hoffman, who recently co-authored a report with Peter Bergen entitled “Assessing the Terrorist Threat,” opened the event arguing: “terrorist organizations still matter, because they are the only entities that can put together a multinational plot and bring together a variety of different terrorist groups.” To illustrate his point, Hoffman cited the case of David Headley – the American who pled guilty to providing reconnaissance support to Lashkar-e-Taiba for their 2009 Mumbai, India terror attacks. Hoffman said that Headley is but one example, along with Faisal Shahzad and others, of an increasing proclivity among some individuals living in Western countries to travel overseas to engage in terrorism and then return to residence in the West.

Cilluffo highlighted the important role played by bridge figures – individuals like Anwar al-Aulaqi and Omar Hammami, who promote and give salience to jihadi messages within Western societies. Cilluffo stated that bridge figures act as charismatic leaders who radicalize and recruit Americans, Germans, and others to strike against Western interests. In response to those who argue that the threat posed by foreign fighters is relatively small, Cilluffo warned that: “The challenge posed by foreign fighters goes beyond their ability to affect conflicts in far-flung regions like Somalia or Yemen. The real threat is the potential boon they provide for radicalization and recruitment; they have propaganda value and facilitate fundraising on the part of terrorists. Most importantly, the threat is not primarily one that occurs ‘over there.’ This threat poses a direct danger to us here at home. A fact demonstrated by individuals like Najibullah Zazi, who travelled overseas to fight, but was trained and returned home in a plot to attack the New York subway system.” Cilluffo went on to cite the cases of Bryant Neal Vinas and Daniel Boyd as but two more examples of the dangers posed by returnee foreign fighters.

In his remarks, Cozzens explained why foreign fighters have developed as the new face of terrorism. Like Hoffman, Cozzens noted that terror organizations cooperate in the sharing of information and knowledge. Cozzens highlighted the fact that the pressure placed on terror organizations by Western security services have forced terrorists to focus on smaller, perhaps more numerous, plots in which they increasingly depend on help from those living in the West – in essence making us “a victim of our own success.” Cozzens went on to state that Western authorities prevent some potential recruits from traveling to conflict zones. Such individuals are diverted from journeying overseas and end up fighting “in London or New York City or Washington or L.A., owing to the serious screws we’ve put to the global jihadi trend in places like the FATA region of Pakistan,” said Cozzens.

Ranstorp began his remarks by stating that no country is immune from the threat posed by foreign fighters and that the United States and Europe must work together to effectively combat this danger. Ranstorp argued that the US and Europe must work to develop a clearer picture of the current threat and monitor the travel of suspected terrorists. To evidence his point, Ranstorp referenced growing cases in which Western residents travel to Africa or Pakistan to train with terrorist organizations. Ranstorp cited recent comments by Jonathan Evans, Director General of Britain’s Security Service (MI5), that it is only a matter of time before Europe suffers an attack at the hands of foreign fighters. “We need to increase our capabilities in regard to early detection; otherwise what Jonathan Evans has predicted will become a reality.”

During the question and answer period, HSPI Senior Fellow Suzanne Spaulding asked about the role of the internet and whether or not governments ought to act to take down jihadi websites. The panelists responded that the question had grown in complexity over the years. Cozzens said that so few plots develop online, that it would be futile to target such sites. Ranstorp, however, stated that monitoring the websites might provide some intelligence value to Western authorities. Cilluffo disagreed. Citing the role they play as a propaganda tool and in radicalization, Cilluffo argued that it was time to push such material to the margins and remove jihadi videos from mainstream platforms like Google and YouTube. Cilluffo put forward the idea that jihadi chatrooms and websites ought to be dealt with in a manner similar to the way in which authorities address child pornography websites.

Summary prepared by Joseph R. Clark

Introductory Remarks and Moderator:

Bruce Hoffman, Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University; Steering Committee Member, Homeland Security Policy Institute

Featured Speakers:

Frank J. Cilluffo, Director, Homeland Security Policy Institute

Jeffrey B. Cozzens, President, White Mountain Research

Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director, Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies, Swedish National Defence College; Senior Fellow, Homeland Security Policy Institute

Moderator Biography

Bruce Hoffman, Director, Center for Peace and Security Studies, Georgetown University; Steering Committee Member, Homeland Security Policy Institute

Professor Bruce Hoffman is currently a tenured professor in Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service where he is also the Director of both the Center for Peace and Security Studies and of the Security Studies Program. Professor Hoffman previously held the Corporate Chair in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency at the RAND Corporation and was also Director of RAND’s Washington, D.C. Office. Professor Hoffman was Scholar-in-Residence for Counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency between 2004 and 2006. Professor Hoffman was the founding Director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

Speaker Biographies

Frank J. Cilluffo, Director, Homeland Security Policy Institute

Frank J. Cilluffo, an Associate Vice President at The George Washington University leads GW's homeland security efforts on policy, research, education, and training. Cilluffo directs the multi-disciplinary Homeland Security Policy Institute, a nonpartisan “think and do tank” that builds bridges between theory and practice to advance homeland security through a multi and interdisciplinary approach.

Jeffrey B. Cozzens, President, White Mountain Research

Jeffrey B. Cozzens is President of White Mountain Research (WMR), a service-disabled veteran-owned company providing elite counter-terrorism and security research and advisory services to select corporate and government clients. Prior to joining WMR, Mr. Cozzens served as Religious Extremism Advisor at the U.S. Army Directed Studies Office (ADSO), an alternative analysis center that advises senior government leaders. A former Research Associate at the University of St Andrews (Scotland) Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, U.S. State Department counter-terrorism analyst, and long-time advisor to the homeland security, defense and intelligence communities, Mr. Cozzens has been at the forefront of conceptualizing, defining and predicting emerging patterns in terrorism and political violence since 2001.

Magnus Ranstorp, Research Director, Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies, Swedish National Defence College; Senior Fellow, Homeland Security Policy Institute

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is the Research Director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College (SNDC) where he has directed two major research projects in the last five years. Each project was funded by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. One examined radicalisation processes and counter­radicalisation policies within Europe; the other examined CBRNE (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, explosives) terrorism. Dr. Ranstorp has also led a Swedish cabinet study on radicalization (2008/9); a Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) funded project on counter­radicalization efforts in Indonesia (2009); and an Armed Forces Headquarters study on forecasting terrorism in 2018 (2008). His most recent edited book is Understanding Violent Radicalisation (Routledge, 2010). In 2006 Dr Ranstorp was invited to join the European Commission Expert Group on Violent Radicalisation, an official advisory body on all matters relating to violent radicalisation and recruitment of extremists within the EU.


Al-Hindi, Esa. (1999) The Army of Madinah in Kashmir. Birmingham, UK; Maktabah Al Ansaar Publications

Azzam, Abdullah. (1979) "Defence of the Muslim Lands." Website. Fribourg, CH; Religioscope Institute

Cilluffo, Frank. (2007) "Assessing and Addressing the Threat: Defining the Role of a National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism." Testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. Washington, DC; United States House of Representatives

Cilluffo, Frank and F. Jordan Evert. (2010) "Hammami the Jihadist Pop Star--Bridging Worlds: From Mobile to Mogadishu." Washington, DC; Homeland Security Policy Institute

Coker, Margaret. (2010) "Yemen Ties Alleged Attacker to al Qaeda and U.S.-Born Cleric." New York, NY; The Wall Street Journal

Cozzens, Jeffrey B. (2009) "Al-Takfir wa'l Hijra: Unpacking an Enigma." Studies in Conflict Terrorism. New York, NY; Routledge

Cozzens, Jeffrey B. (2009) "Training for Terror: The 'Homegrown' Case of Jami`at al-Islam al-Sahih." CTC Sentinel. West Point, NY; USMA

Elliott, Andrea. (2010) "The Jihadist Next Door." New York, NY; The New York Times

Ferris-Rotman, Annie. (2010) "Global jihad creeping into Russia's insurgency." London, UK; Reuters

Gnehm, Jr., Edward W. (2010) "A Focus on Yemen." The 2010 Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture. Washington, DC; The Elliott School of International Affairs

Harris, Alistar. (2010) "Exploiting Grievances: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula." Yemen: On the Brink. Washington, DC; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Hegghammer, Thomas. (2010) "Guest Post: The Story of Eric Breininger." Website. Washington, DC; Jihadica

Leapman, Brian. (2007) "4,000 in UK trained at terror camps." London, UK; The Daily Telegraph

Malet, David S. (2009) Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts. Dissertation. Ann Arbor, MI; ProQuest LLC

Malet, David S. (2010) "Why Foreign Fighters? Historical Perspectives and Solutions." Orbis. Philadelphia, PA; Foreign Policy Research Institute

Musharbash, Yassin. (2010) "Homegrown Terrorists: German Jihadist Eric Breininger Killed in Pakistan, Group Claims." Der Spiegel. Hamburg, DE; SPIEGEL-Verlag

Musharbash, Yassin. (2010) "Eric Breininger's Death: The Memoirs of a German Jihadist." Der Spiegel. Hamburg, DE; SPIEGEL-Verlag

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. (2010) "Hagiography, Bomb-Making, And A Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe." Washington, DC; Broadcasting Board of Governors

Raghavan, Sudarsan. (2010) "Foreign fighters gain influence in Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabab militia." Washington, DC; The Washington Post

Ranstorp, Magnus. (2003) Statement of Magnus Ranstorp to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. Washington, DC; National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Robertson, Nic and Paul Cruickshank. (2009) "Recruits reveal al Qaeda’s sprawling web." Atlanta, GA; CNN

Rotella, Sebastian. (2009) "Al Qaeda recruits back in Europe, but why?" Los Angeles, CA; Los Angeles Times

Taarnby, Michael and Lars Hallundbaek. (2010) "Al Shabaab: The Internationalization of Militant Islamism in Somalia and the Implications for Radicalisation Processes in Europe." Copenhagen, DK; Danish Ministry of Justice

Temple-Raston, Dina. (2010) "Jamaican Cleric Uses Web To Spread Jihad Message." All Things Considered. Washington, DC; NPR

Woker, Martin. (2007) "Established Muslims Resist Neo-Salafists." Website. Berlin, DE;

About HSPI's Policy & Research Forum Series

HSPI's Policy & Research Forum Series spotlights cutting-edge security policy solutions and innovative research. The Series is designed to provide thought leaders in the United States and abroad with a uniquely constructive venue in which to discuss current and future security issues and challenges.

About the Swedish National Defence College

The Swedish National Defence College (SNDC) trains and educates military and civilian personnel in leading positions, both nationally and internationally as part of the contribution to the management of crisis situations and security issues. Its task is to contribute toward national and international security through research and development.