Byman Discusses Foreign Fighters in MOOC Lecture

The first lecture of School of Foreign Service Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs Daniel Byman’s Terrorism and Counterterrorism Massive Online Open Course took place at the Mortara Center for International Studies Monday evening.

Drawing more than 40 attendees, the course is part of the second wave of MOOCs introduced by Georgetown last year in concordance with edX, an international online education platform.

Byman gave the introductory lecture on the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, with a specific focus on the Islamic State group.

Byman said that he decided to offer this lecture in person, as a high volume of people who registered for the course lived locally. The lecture was recorded and will be added to the course’s edX page later this week.

The course is offered free on the edX website to anyone with Internet access and is graded on a pass/fail basis. So far, 5,100 people from 149 countries have enrolled in the course. Students who complete the course are awarded a certificate.

Byman began his lecture by extricating the reality of foreign fighters from the impression created of them by the media.

“I would argue that the threat from foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria is real, but also it’s overstated,” Byman said. “In my opinion, it’s a manageable threat.”

Byman continued by linking the problem of foreign fighters to Al-Qaeda’s history, which began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As Al-Qaeda was largely composed of foreign fighters who were “made comrades” by the Soviets, Byman emphasized the “sense of brotherhood” that wars created among jihadists.

Byman then discussed how foreign fighters became tied by ideology and eventually gained valuable fighting experience.

“So rather than people who run away from gunfire, which is a perfectly normal reaction, [they] become well adapted people who can move forward, who show a certain degree of sanguineness,” Byman said.

Byman then explained how terrorists could even get advanced training and were using foreign language skills to operate abroad.

In articulating the dangers posed by foreign fighters, Byman pointed to studies that suggest foreign fighters make terrorist plots more successful.

An important point Byman often mentioned was the role of social media, with jihadists using social media to attract fighters and supporters to their cause. He added that this also makes it easier for counter-terrorists to keep track of terror networks.

“Individual fighters are able to use Twitter or other forms of social media to reach large numbers of friends as well as lions in the jungle, and they all become propagandists,” Byman said.

Byman concluded his talk with a question-and-answer period. Topics ranged from Islamophobia, which he said was intractable, to the effects of foreign fighters on the influx of refugees from Syria, which he attributed to the brutality of foreign fighters.

Yasmin Faruki (SFS ’16), who attended the event despite not being a student of the MOOC, praised the lecture.

“I thought it was great. It was really informative,” Faruki said. “It gave a good overview of this situation with foreign fighters in the Middle East.”

Annie Kennelly (SFS ’15), who is participating in the MOOC, said she enjoyed hearing Byman’s perspective.

“I thought he had a very unique point of view compared to a lot of voices in the media and a lot of other scholars too,” Kennelly said.

Kennelly said that she was excited to continue her participation in the MOOC.

“A lot of interesting professors will be involved, which is different from a lot of MOOCs too because it’s not just one person,” Kennelly said.

After the event, Byman said he felt the course launch was successful.

“The event today was meant to serve multiple purposes. … It was an attempt to put a face on the online course, so to bring together the local participants and just get them to know each other in a way that would make the course richer,” Byman said.


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