You could call them the 519 Caliphate, after their area code. Or perhaps the Middlesex County Mujahedeen. We don’t know what the three London, Ont., high-school students branded themselves, but it appears that Aaron Yoon, Ali Medlej and Xris Katsiroubas were probably the latest in a long history of young Canadians to travel overseas to take part in a foreign struggle.
Security officials confirmed this week that the remains of Mr. Medlej and Mr. Katsiroubas were among those found at the site of a January attack on an Algerian gas complex that killed 38 Westerners; they appear to have travelled to North Africa along with Mr. Yoon to join the larger Islamist struggle centred in Mali – and thus, indirectly, to make war against Canada and its allies.
Canadians have taken part in overseas campaigns as mercenaries, freelancers, freedom fighters or self-proclaimed holy warriors, from the Spanish Civil War to modern campaigns in the Balkans and Africa, usually against the wishes of their own government. They have done so out of ethnic, religious or ideological zeal, sometimes from a desire for adventure or heroism, and often for both.
These days, we’re too quick to think of such acts as part of a larger terrorist problem. It’s increasingly clear that these foreign warriors are both smaller in number and less likely to bring their extreme ideas home than we’d previously thought. While still a real worry, they’re not a mass phenomenon.
“The challenge for Canada,” writes Jez Littlewood of the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies, “is beyond the simple notion of Canadians leaving to conduct terrorism.”
Add to that the worries that they’ll pick up dangerous ideas and techniques from the foreign insurgents they join, or bring their factional struggles home or raise funds for our enemies abroad. But beyond that, we often don’t really understand the nature of the phenomenon.
For any generation, there’s one war that attracts adventure-seeking foreigners. Today, the big cause is Syria’s struggle – and we worry about the prospect of tens of thousands of North Americans and Europeans becoming radical jihadists there, and then bringing their cause and its stealthiest battlefield techniques home to wreak terrorist havoc.
A new study this month by the London (U.K.)-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (which brings together agencies in Britain, the U.S., Israel and Jordan) provides a reality check: “The Syrian government has … claimed that many fighters that are involved in the current conflict are foreigners," the report concludes. "Our numbers do not support this assertion.”
About 10 per cent of Syria’s fighters are “foreign,” but all but a handful are from neighbouring Arab states. According to the study, between 7 per cent and 11 per cent of the foreign fighters are from Europe – perhaps 100 from Britain, 50 to 80 from France, a few dozen from Germany. No Canadians have yet been spotted, but there are likely some.
But wait. Of those Westerners who enter these battles, only a handful appear to be doing so out of religious extremism; a majority, it seems, are fighting for nationalist, ethnic or anti-authoritarian reasons.
Max Rodenbeck, the Economist correspondent who has covered the Syrian war extensively, describes the foreign fighters as “young men who mostly see themselves as part of a Spanish Civil War-style international brigade rather than as terrorist ninjas.” Most are Arabs or anti-authoritarian crusaders or relatives of Syrian torture victims whose beliefs aren’t different from those of most Canadians.
And that leads to the next problem: Are they with us, or against us? In the case of the three high-school students, the answer seems clear; the same with those adults who joined the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But what about those who joined the Bosniak forces in Bosnia, the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo or the anti-Gadhafi militias in Libya? What they were doing generally backed the causes for which NATO forces, including Canada’s, were fighting.
Now that Western countries are backing the Syrian rebellion, politically if not materially, it is worth asking whether foreign fighters are with us or against us. While the United States and other countries are attempting to channel their assistance to rebel factions not associated with Islamist extremism, as we saw in Libya, the distinction can be hard to make.
And, however dangerous they are, these young men don't seem to be bringing terrorism back home. The rise in the numbers of these foreign fighters in the Middle East and Africa during the past five or six years (there are an estimated 50 or 60 from Canada fighting worldwide) has coincided with a steep decline in domestic terrorist incidents to negligible numbers – and many of those “incidents” in the U.S. and Canada involve people recruiting fighters for struggles abroad.
Rather than amplifying terrorism, this phenomenon may well be replacing it. The end of the Afghan and Iraq wars appears to have caused young extremists to lose interest in the “enemy” at home, and turn their attention overseas. There, they join the tradition of Canadians throwing their lives, and their zealous beliefs, into a faraway conflict.