Foreign Fighters and Their Economic Impact: A Case Study of Syria and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)
By Matthew Levitt
On July 14-15, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) sponsored a conference in Washington DC at the National Press Club on "The Foreign Fighter Problem." I presented a paper for a panel on "Foreign Fighters and their Economic Impact," focused on the case study of Syria as a foreign fighter hub for AQI. The following is taking from the introduction to my paper:
Running an insurgency is an expensive endeavor. Financing and resourcing insurgent activities, from procuring weapons and executing attacks to buying the support of local populations and bribing corrupt officials, requires extensive fundraising and facilitation networks that often involve group members, criminal syndicates, corrupt officials, and independent operators such as local smugglers. Along these lines, a report of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body focused on anti-money laundering and combating terror finance, found that while financing any singular attack may be relatively inexpensive compared to the damage incurred, “maintaining a terrorist network, or a specific cell, to provide for recruitment, planning, and procurement between attacks represents a significant drain on resources. A significant infrastructure is required to sustain international terrorist networks and promote their goals over time.” Creating and maintaining such support and facilitation networks, FATF concluded, requires significant funds.
FATF’s findings are certainly the case in Syria, where terrorist and insurgent groups have established sophisticated networks to facilitate the movement of foreign fighters from around the world into Iraq. These networks are especially important since foreign fighters facilitated through Syria have been responsible for the most spectacular attacks on Iraqis and coalition forces. Given the priority that Iraq and Syria both play in the Obama administration’s efforts to stabilize the Middle East, as well as the wealth of information now available on Syrian-based foreign fighter facilitation networks, this paper focuses its attention on the case study of Syria, foreign fighters in the Iraqi insurgency, and their economic impact.
Foreign fighters’ use of third party countries for training, fundraising, and transit is not merely an operational phenomenon, but an economic one as well. There are both direct and indirect economic consequences – both positive and negative – that result from the existence and operation of foreign fighter networks in Syria, for example. These consequences impact Syria and the Syrian government, various elements of the Syrian populace, from the political, social, and religious elites to the locals living in towns along the Syrian-Iraqi border, Iraq as the foreign fighter destination, and other countries in the region as well. Developing realistic strategies to contend with foreign fighter networks operating in third party countries is contingent upon first developing a holistic comprehension of the phenomenon, including an understanding of the economic impact
The full paper is available online here.