OPINION | ISIS and Foreign Fighters: Jihadists from Europe by Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith

OPINION | ISIS and Foreign Fighters: Jihadists from Europe by Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith



By Tuva Julie Engebrethsen Smith

The prolonged fighting in Middle Eastern countries have attracted numerous European Muslims to partake in them. Although estimations of exact figures vary, approximately 2,000-5,500 foreign fighters (FFs) have joined the Middle Eastern battlefield.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) estimates that 18 per cent of the total number of FFs is from Europe: France (63-412); Britain (43-366); Germany (43-240); Belgium (76-296); and the Netherlands (29-152) have most recruits. However, the most heavily affected countries according to population size (per million) are Belgium (27), Denmark (15), the Netherlands (9), Sweden (9), and Norway (8).

The understanding of who these FFs are, and their motivations behind participating in the various ‘jihads’ is obscure. This article, presented from an European research perspective, aims to widen the understanding of this phenomenon by taking into account the patterns of joining and motivating factors.



Patterns of Joining

The radicalization of individuals and the distinct characteristics of radicalized people depend on complex factors. The general assumptions of poverty and lack of education admitted as core socio-economic reasoning for radicalization does not always comply with statements of European researchers. 

The socio-economic perspective reveals a diverse group, although rather violent in character acting on a private volunteering basis. Most commonly, they are young well-educated men and women in their twenties, either Muslim-born or Muslim converts enjoying good socio-economic footing. Many cases are similar to that of the teenager, Jejoen Bontinck, (BBC News) from Belgium, a Muslim-convert who decided to travel to Syria despite his education, sporting activities, etc. at home. Another example is that of 25-year old Abu Anwar (CNN news) from the southern England. He grew up in a middle-class household and enjoyed an easy life in Britain, but chose to leave citing the inability to practice Islam.

Furthermore, the European point of convergence tends to draw a line at this group's experience of feeling left behind in the mainstream society. There has been a tendency among some youth who lack a sense of belongingness to becoming more willing to embrace challenges more than what they already may be facing by joining the violent radical groups. According to Lars Gule, a Norwegian researcher on Extreme Islam at University College in Oslo and Akershus, some of these youths come across as inharmonious and already religiously alienated and frustrated before they join. 

Moreover, European research reveals that having established a personal relationship to a central figure in a radical environment, such as a charismatic opinion leader, seems to be important when influencing people to support or carry out politically motivated attacks. More importantly, these leaders, or `recruiters´, are skilled in the sense of persuading young Muslims into believing that their religion is under attack, and as Muslims, they are obligated to defend fellow Muslims.

Identity, Revenge, Status or all Combined?

There are a variety of motivations that lead these individuals to travel and partake in jihads in far off lands. Some, the so-called identity seekers, travel with an unfulfilled need to define themselves. Raffaello Pantucci, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, argues that European FFs are drawn to join by virtue of dissatisfaction at home and the desire to find one’s identity. 

Alternately, for some, the motivation to travel is the desire of power and status, given how participating as a FF equals high status among extreme Islamist groups in Europe. For instance, posting pictures of themselves with heavy weaponry in Syria provides reputation and acknowledgement among similar groups back home.

Additionally, some Europeans travel for legitimate purposes, such as for visiting their families or for education, but find themselves affected by violent situations. The recruiters then provide guidance, justification and encouragement for partaking in jihad.

Lastly, those upset over gruesome videos and images of destruction and suffering, and thus, seeking revenge for the lack of contribution and empathy from Western governments, as practicing Muslims, feel compelled to join. For instance, Abu Saif (NBC News), a 31-year old chef left Belgium to fight the US and Shiite Muslims in Syria after watching a YouTube video depicting the massacre of children. Social media is a significant platform with an undeniable power. It incorporates a source of information as well as inspiration. Its ability to mobilize has been deftly taken advantage of by groups such as the Islamic State.

Given the aforementioned phenomena, European FFs cannot be characterized under one monotypic umbrella. They are young well-educated men and women in their mid-twenties, who voluntarily partake in violent struggles they otherwise have no pre-given predisposition towards. Their motivations for jihad vary. Some are based on conscious choices of revenge, their ability to do more than just participate in demonstrations, whereas others join out of frustration, lack of belonging or rebellion. Additionally, people appear to unite as a result of horrifying images presented to them daily by media outlets. Thus, whether it is an act of revenge, status or identity seeking, they all combine, and, not surprisingly, it seems that their active use of social media represents the key source of their motivation for joining the wars as FFs.


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