IST’s Forster leads initiative to combat foreign terrorist fighters

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Foreign terrorist fighters — individuals who travel to a state other than their states of residence or nationality for the purpose of engaging in terrorist acts — pose a growing threat to world peace and stability. Thrill seekers, mentally unstable young adults, and individuals seeking something different in life are particularly vulnerable to the extreme ideologies disseminated increasingly through social media by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al Qaeda for recruitment. Pete Forster, a senior lecturer at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), is taking a leading role in generating policy proposals to international entities such as NATO and U.S. government agencies that emphasize a holistic response to the foreign terrorist fighter (FTF) threat.

“The problem of combatting violent extremism really requires a whole society approach,” said Forster, who is also associate dean for online and professional education and the academic program coordinator of the Homeland Security Master of Professional Studies program at the College of IST.

Forster is co-chairperson of the Combating Terrorism Working Group (CTWG), which is composed of a body of international experts devoted to addressing critical terrorism-related challenges and formulating recommendations for appropriate policy responses. The CTWG’s overarching goal is to contribute to the wider public policy debate in defining optimum approaches to fighting terrorism and violent extremism tailored for local circumstances. The CTWG is part of The Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes — a voluntary association of institutes of higher learning in defense and security affairs.

The CTWG met July 27-30 at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, for the "Foreign Terrorist Fighters: Challenges and Responses" conference. The event, co-sponsored by the Asia Pacific Foundation, a London-based think tank, brought together more than 80 practitioners and researchers from more than 40 countries to examine the FTF phenomenon via expert analysis and debate and a first-of-its-kind interactive tabletop exercise. The event developed analytical and practical insights into efforts to address the full spectrum of FTF challenges. The full report of the event will be provided to NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), U.S. government agencies, and other international entities in an effort to promote professional education, training, exercise, and evaluation responses to FTF threats.

According to Forster, successfully combatting the FTF movement requires an understanding of the various factors that could render a person vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists. Such individuals may be mentally unstable or feel alienated from society. Ideologically-based violent extremism and right-wing extremism are increasingly becoming polarizing factors in society. A second challenge is the creation of an “Islamic state” homeland that has galvanized violent Salafists worldwide. To confront those challenges, Forster said, there “needs to be close collaboration between government agencies and civil society.”

“If you can’t intervene early, you need to be able to arrest (perpetrators) and mitigate the effects,” he said. “We need to be able to respond, intervene, mitigate, and recover.”

In addition to the discussions and policy recommendations, Forster said, another notable aspect of the conference was its strong contingent of youth representatives, including two Penn State students and several students from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“It was really inspiring to see young people take up this issue,” Forster said. “We want to bring up the next generation of counter-terrorism experts.”

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Last Updated October 08, 2015