Vol. 79, No. 1Featured submission

Airplane in flight.

The foreign fighter challenge

RCMP partners with academia to survey global approaches

While likely only a small percentage of foreign fighters will return to their country of origin, the threat posed by those who do has been a concern for many governments, including Canada.


As the Syrian war lurches towards its sixth year of conflict, law enforcement continues to adapt to the contemporary realities of the foreign fighter challenge. The RCMP this year forged a new link with students from the Masters of Global Affairs program at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs to tackle that challenge head on.

Looking at the best practices of current governments dealing with foreign fighters, the students sought policy approaches that the RCMP and Canada's greater security community could implement. The students spent months grappling with challenges that are complex, global and evolving. The team presented its research to representatives of Public Safety Canada, Global Affairs Canada and the RCMP last April.

Global challenge, local impact

Expanding instability in the Middle East has led to conflict and state collapse in Syria and parts of Iraq. The scale and complexity of the conflict — the existing ethnic and sectarian tensions in the region alongside Sunni anger resulting from political exclusion and abuse, and manifest in the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group (also known as Daesh) — has provided law enforcement with unprecedented challenges.

Between 27,000 and 31,000 people have joined the IS group and other belligerent groups in Syria and Iraq from at least 86 countries. More than 5,200 of those have come from Western Europe and North America. While it's generally accepted that only a small percentage of foreign fighters will return to their country of origin, the potential for individuals to pose a threat upon returning has been a concern for many governments, including Canada. In the last several years, some terrorist attacks have been committed by former foreign fighters in Europe.

When Canadian Security Intelligence Service head Michel Coulombe addressed the Senate of Canada last March, it was believed that 180 of those 5,200 travellers were Canadian. Coulombe further stated that 60 had returned to Canada's shores. These numbers remain in flux, and don't include individuals engaged in threat-related activities in Canada who haven't travelled.

Seeking fresh ideas

The University of Toronto's Masters of Global Affairs program at the Munk School is a new face among the leading international relations schools, with its first-ever class graduating in 2012.

The program introduces students to the practical realities of operating in today's complex, global environment. In the second year, rather than completing a graduate thesis, the program pairs students in a consulting role with organizations that face those realities daily, from humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to global institutions like the World Bank and NATO, to government departments like Global Affairs Canada and the RCMP.

In 2015, the RCMP proposed to the Munk School that a team of global affairs students be given the opportunity to tackle the issue of returning foreign fighters. Five students spent several months working with the RCMP's Research and Innovation team to fully understand the legal environment in which law enforcement agencies in Canada operate and the tools available to the RCMP.

This collaborative research project ultimately provided the RCMP with an overview of the current range of international practices for managing the threat posed by returning foreign fighters (RFFs) and highlighted possible implications of applying these programs in Canada.

The project was completed in two parts. The first part surveyed other nations' policies and/or programs on RFFs. Each of the surveyed countries believed they had at least 100 foreign fighters who travelled to Iraq and Syria. The policies and programs surveyed included both RFF-specific responses, such as revocation of citizenship, and broader counter-terrorism responses applied to RFFs, such as demobilization programs.

The second part of the project examined common types of policy responses that were identified in part one. These responses were compiled into a policy tool kit that outlined some possible implications of each response in Canada. The relevant Canadian context — including national and international legal frameworks — was explored as part of each tool.

The purpose of this second part wasn't to determine which policy tools were better than others, nor to recommend which ones Canada should consider, but to examine existing national responses and explore their applicability to Canada. The project formed a comprehensive resource available to the RCMP as well as partners such as Public Safety Canada and Global Affairs Canada.

Project highlights

The students found that because responses to RFFs are new, proven best practices haven't yet been established. While foreign combatants have joined international conflicts for centuries, the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria have drawn more attention to the issue. The newness of government responses means there's a lack of longitudinal data on the effectiveness of RFF policies and programs. Therefore, governments are still developing policies to counter the threat of RFFs without a clear understanding of what works.

Critically, the project found that there were no clear indicators to measure the effectiveness of RFF responses. In the countries surveyed, there was no unclassified discussion of what measures were used to gauge the success of RFF responses or broader counter-terrorism strategies. Canada was no exception. And without any indicators for success, the dominant framework was a "zero-fail" environment, in which any terrorist attack, no matter how large or small, equated to total failure.

The students felt that this framework was problematic because it set a standard that would remain virtually impossible to maintain and would fail to give credit to effective prevention work. The students recommended that a new framework that creates measurements of degrees of success on a continuum with varying degrees of failure would be preferable to a zero-fail framework.

The students found clear themes in the types of responses other countries have been taking to deal with the RFF problem and the second part of the project analyzed these types of responses. These responses were compiled into the policy tool kit that outlined considerations for each response if it were to be applied in Canada.

Ten of these policy approaches were programming or legislative tools. For example, programming executed through or with civil society; countering violent extremism (CVE) in prisons; monitoring and surveillance; and implementing visa and border controls to restrict travel of foreign fighters.

Three responses were policy approaches that use various tools to reach an intended goal, rather than serving as tools in themselves: deradicalization, which aims to alter or moderate extremist ideology; demobilization, which aims to prevent radicalized individuals from engaging in violent behaviour; and reintegration, which strengthens the economic potential and social ties of RFFs to reintegrate them into society.

The final item, whole-of-government co-ordination, remains both a goal and a tool for achieving goals by making more effective and efficient use of government programs and agencies.

A bright future for collaboration

Connecting Canadian academia to the Government of Canada benefits both communities. The RCMP has a long history of working with academic researchers on important problems. This has included involvement in the Kanishka Project and active participation in the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.

Engaging the next generation of Canadian thinkers allows the RCMP to better understand some of the most complex problems and provides students with the opportunity to apply their skills to real-world challenges and produce something on the level of professional think tanks.

For the 2016-2017 year, the RCMP's Research and Innovation team plan on posing new questions to the Munk School's master's candidates, and continue to forge bonds with the university.

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