Eliminating Global Threats: The Difficulties of Reducing Foreign Terrorist Fighters

By Robert Kang

On March 22, 2019, the Trump administration announced the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Sarah Sanders, White House spokeswoman, briefed the press on the president’s planned withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. She went on to claim that the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces had driven out the remaining ISIL militants from their stronghold in Baghuz.

Following this announcement, on April 21, the international community saw a horrific terrorist attack in Sri Lanka that resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people. Although a local radical Islamist group, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, executed the attacks, authorities suspected the Sri Lankan foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) (a group associated with ISIL) had helped. It is unclear how the Trump administration will respond to these attacks—even after the deaths of more than 20,000 U.S.-allied fighters in Syria and Iraq.

The Bigger Picture

Something that helped ISIL expand beyond Syria and Iraq’s borders was the recruitment of FTFs. In fact, by the end of 2017, the estimated total number of active FTFs in Syria and Iraq was between 30,000 and 42,000. They fought for ISIL during its insurgency, but many relocated or returned to their homes to recruit other fighters. One cannot end the threat of global terrorism without reducing the recruitment of FTFs. Driving ISIL out of Syria has only pushed the group to carry-out more attacks to assert its position.

Recognizing FTFs as a potential threat, the U.N. Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee implemented the Madrid Guiding Principles in December 2015. These guidelines created a global mechanism to track and punish FTFs. And in December 2017, in response to FTFs spreading from Syria and Iraq, the Security Council went further by adopting Resolution 2396 (S/RES/2396), which led to periodic reviews of the Madrid Guiding Principles. Before adopting this resolution, a disagreement arose. While the United States, the United Kingdom, and France called for strengthening rehabilitation and reintegration efforts, Russia insisted that all member states bring FTFs, and their family members, to justice because they pose a significant threat to national security. After several heated exchanges on how to deal with the family members of FTFs, the Security Council finally persuaded Russia to support rehabilitation and reintegration. Later, to comply with Resolution 2396, the Counter-Terrorism Committee reviewed the Madrid Guiding Principles and added an addendum.

The United States has long been a supporter of global counter-terrorism operations and bringing FTFs to justice. This has included the exchange of information with international organizations, such as INTERPOL, and applying pressure to the United Nations to call for effectively implementing the Madrid Guiding Principles and Resolution 2396.

A Test Case

In February 2019, the United States took up a terrorism case to prove that these guidelines were effective. The case involved a young Muslim-American woman named Hoda Muthana, born and raised in Alabama, who joined ISIL in 2014. She petitioned the U.S. government to return home, knowing she would face criminal charges. During her time with the group, she married two ISIL fighters and gave birth to a child in Syria.

On Feb. 21, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that Muthana had forfeited her U.S. citizenship and denied her request to return home. Such a statement not only contradicted the laws governing U.S. citizenship but the country’s Security Council agenda as well. Of course, the U.S. should investigate Muthana’s role as an ISIL recruiter, and that outcome may result in prison time. Even if she accepts the consequences of her actions, the United States should still focus on rehabilitation and reintegration. If the collective goal of the international community is to end terrorism and violent extremism, forbidding her from returning home conveys a message to all “brides” that they should remain loyal to ISIL.


On March 28, the Security Council strengthened its counter-terrorism measures by adopting Resolution 2462 (S/RES/2462), which reaffirmed prior commitments in Resolution 1373 (S/RES/2396). While at the same time, stepping up efforts to combat and criminalize the financing of terrorism. The United States has long been at the forefront of global counter-terrorism measures, and this case study underlines the need for a rehabilitative instead of a punitive approach to FTFs. As a leader on the Security Council, the current administration should change its policy on FTFs to avoid undermining the legitimacy of existing U.N. resolutions and turning people back towards terrorism.

Robert Kang is a researcher at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations. He received his M.A. in international relations from New York University. His research interests include peace operations, counter-terrorism, and multilateralism.

The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.