"Why do some western jihadists attack at home while others go abroad to join insurgencies?" Thomas Hegghammer posed this question to a room full of START students and researchers.
"Papers and datasets describing jihadist plots in the West often gloss over the distinction between the two groups."
Hegghammer, a prominent scholar of jihadist ideology and practice, visited START headquarters in February to meet with START leadership and to discuss his American Political Science Review article, "Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting."
Bill Braniff, executive director of START opened the roundtable session by describing the kind of impact that rigorous scholarship can have in the professional counterterrorism realm.
"Thomas' work has formed the backbone of countless lectures that colleagues of mine and I have given for the FBI, the intelligence community, ICE, and local law enforcement. That's the kind of impact you can have if you do push this field the way Thomas has."
In his recent and ongoing research, Hegghammer estimates the ratio of militants who have chosen to attack in the West compared with the much larger number who have chosen to join active insurgencies abroad, as well as the motivations behind the decision. In addition, he estimates the number of foreign fighters who return to the West with the intent to conduct an act of terrorism.
Hegghammer's research shows that going abroad to fight is more popular; however certain experiences and factors will cause Jihadists to choose domestic fighting. According to Hegghammer, these influences include previous experience foreign fighting, contact with a veteran, or some factor that obstructs an individual from leaving his or her country.
"Despite these factors, I cannot fully explain why one choice is made over another," said Hegghammer.
According to Hegghammer, conventional wisdom tells us that violent jihadists strive to attack the West but go abroad to receive the proper training or because it is easier or more effective to do so. To the contrary, Hegghammer argues that the primary reason for the choice is related to norms regarding the legitimacy of classical or defensive jihadism compared with that of terrorist attacks. The data from Hegghammer's research indicates that when individuals leave to join an insurgency, they typically do not intend to return to conduct a domestic attack.
He estimates only one in nine militants return home after leaving. However, those who do return are more dangerous on average than those who attempt an attack domestically without having traveled abroad. Hegghammer hopes his research will help determine why western Jihadists ultimately decide to operate domestically or go abroad, and that this analysis will aid policy makers tailor policy, practice and messaging strategies with an understanding of the differences between the two courses of action. Underestimating the threat presented by foreign fighters is a dangerous gamble, while overestimating the threat may be an ineffective and financially costly proposition for a government, according to Hegghammer.
A link to Hegghammer's American Political Science Review article can be found on his Web page: http://hegghammer.com/.