How countries are keeping their citizens from fighting in Syria

Europe has a romanticized history of lone figures joining "the cause" in war-torn foreign countries -- from Lord Byron's death fighting for Greek independence to George Orwell's storied participation in the Spanish Civil War. But tales of Europeans joining Syrian rebels on the frontlines haven't exactly been met with enthusiasm.

"Not all of them are radical when they leave, but most likely many of them will be radicalised" in Syria, the EU's anti-terror chief, Gilles de Kerchove, told the BBC on Wednesday, noting that an estimated 500 Europeans are fighting in Syria's civil war, where they could come under the influence of al Qaeda-linked groups like the al-Nusra Front.

Governments from Australia to the United States share these concerns, but the apprehension is less about the impact of this cadre of foreign fighters on Syria's conflict -- who, as we noted recently, form a tiny fraction of the resistance -- and more about what could happen when these citizens return home.

Australia, which has seen around 200 of its residents join the action in Syria, has made it clear that anyone fighting in the conflict is breaking Australian law. The Australian Federal Police have distributed flyers with the following statement:

Australia has imposed an arms embargo on Syria. This means it is illegal for any person in Australia, or any Australian citizen (including dual citizen), anywhere in the world, to provide any kind of support to any armed group in Syria - Government or opposition; Syrian or foreign.

Interestingly enough, another country that has weighed in on the legality of foreign participation is Saudi Arabia. Though the kingdom has a strategic interest in encouraging the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad, it is apparently illegal for Saudi citizens to join in the combat. As NPR reports, the official line may be more diplomatic than dogmatic:

Fighting with the rebels in Syria is illegal, declared Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "Anybody who wants to travel outside Saudi Arabia in order to get involved in such conflict will be arrested and prosecuted," he said. "But only if we have the evidence before he leaves the country."

NPR goes on to quote Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a Saudi professor and human rights activist as saying this amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell policy."

The United States is also taking a variety of legal approaches to address the issue. As my colleague Josh Keating noted back when an American joined the Libyan rebels, it's generally legal for Americans to fight in another country's army -- so long as they're not fighting against America:

According to the U.S. code, any citizen who "enlists or enters himself, or hires or retains another to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered in the service of any foreign prince, state, colony, district, or people as a soldier or as a marine or seaman ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both." But a court ruling from 1896 involving U.S. citizens who fought with Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule interpreted this to mean that it was only illegal for citizens to be recruited for a foreign army in the United States, not to simply fight in one....

A few caveats: If an American joins an army engaged in hostilities against the United States, that's considered an act of treason and punishable by death. The law also, obviously, doesn't sanction membership in designated terrorist organizations...

Just last Friday, the FBI arrested Abdella Ahmad Tounisi, an 18-year-old from Aurora, Ill., at O'Hare Airport before he boarded a flight to Istanbul. The Chicago Tribune reports that Tounisi told an undercover FBI agent he intended to join the al-Nusra Front. He now faces up to 15 years in federal prison for the felony charge of "attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization."

And in late March, when Eric Harroun, the U.S. citizen who trained and fought with the al-Nusra Front, returned to the United States, he was oddly enough charged for conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction -- specifically rocket-propelled grenades.

The European Union, meanwhile, has yet to make a concerted legal effort to bar citizens from joining the fight in Syria. While one man was detained last week in Belgium for allegedly recruiting residents to go to Syria, efforts have largely focused on curbing the effects of radicalization. As the BBC reports, the EU is "pushing to bring in a Europe-wide passenger database for air-travel which in future could help track individuals down."

It's a thorny problem to solve. As de Kerchove, the EU anti-terror chief, reminds us, "[n]ot all of them are radical when they leave."



A Venn diagram of Tamerlan Tsarnaev terror watch lists

If you're confused about the byzantine web of watch lists designed to stop terrorists in their tracks, you're not alone.

Today, the FBI came under greater scrutiny with the revelation that suspected Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was in fact on multiple government watch lists ahead of his deadly massacre in Boston last week. According to Reuters' ace investigative reporter Mark Hosenball, Tamerlan was placed on the government's highly classified Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database and the declassified Terrorist Screening Database.

What does that mean, and how do these lists compare to more serious lists such as the "No Fly List" or the lethal "Disposition Matrix"? Above, we've fashioned a crude Venn diagram of the sprawling web of government watch lists. While up-to-date information about each list is notoriously difficult to obtain, this should give you a sense of where Tamerlan fit on the spectrum of suspected terrorists (the diagram is not set to scale).


Tamerlan was first placed on TIDE, a massive database controlled by the National Counterterrorism Center, after an FBI interview based on a tip from Russian authorities in 2011 that Tamerlan had become radicalized. The latest information about the size of TIDE's database is from 2008, when it contained more than 540,000 names representing about 450,000 real people (multiple spellings of names inflate the overall number).

Terrorist Screening Database

The next list Tamerlan found himself on, according to Hosenball, was the Terrorist Screening Database, a declassified version of TIDE with fewer details about individual suspects. According to the Washington Post, the Terrorist Screening Database contained more than 400,000 unique names as of 2009. Around the time Tamerlan was placed on this list, he was also placed on a list managed by the Homeland Security Department's Customs and Border Protection bureau, which flagged Tamerlan's visit to Russia in January 2012. Hosenball suspects that this didn't trigger an alarm because the "FBI had not identified him as a threat after the interview." 

Selectee List

The Selectee List is significantly smaller than the previous two (14,000 names) and calls for mandatory secondary screening at airports. Tamerlan was not placed on this list, according to Hosenball.

No Fly List

Even smaller is the No Fly List, which, as of 2011, included about 10,000 people. According to NPR, the No Fly List is for passengers who authorities believe threaten the plane or could be "traveling somewhere to commit a terrorist act or went to a terrorist camp." No one is told whether they're on the No Fly List, so people don't typically find out until they arrive at the airport. By all accounts, Tamerlan was not on the No Fly List.

Disposition Matrix

This is the list you really don't want to be on. No one knows exactly how large the Disposition Matrix is, but it's the second iteration of the White House kill list and it "spells out the intelligence on targets and various strategies, including contingencies, for handling them," according to reports. For some, "handling" includes a lethal drone strike. Tamerlan is not believed to have been on the matrix.