Meet the fourth generation foreign fighters involved alongside the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

By Zsófia Baumann

In recent years,”foreign fighter” has become a commonly used concept when it comes to discussing terrorism. However, little is known about who these people are and what motivates them to leave their seemingly comfortable European lives to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and contribute to the building of an Islamic Caliphate.

Who Are the Foreign Fighters?

The phenomenon of Western citizens taking up arms in distant conflicts is not new. However, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and the ongoing conflict in Iraq has seen the emergence of a new generation of foreign fighters. Even though the foreign fighter phenomenon has historical precedence, the number in itself distinguishes it from previous conflicts. According to The Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN), it is estimated that more than 42,000 foreign fighters have travelled to Iraq and Syria as of the end of 2016.

This unprecedented surge in mobilization can be attributed to several factors. According to Randy Borum and Robert Fein’s 2017 article ‘The Psychology of Foreign Fighters’, the two major ones are undoubtedly the geographical proximity of the conflict zone to both Europe and North Africa, and the rapid proliferation of news and ideas through social media. They estimate, in accordance with the assessment of the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT), that the number of countries affected is between 80 and 104, while RAN suggests that this can be as high as 120. Russia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia and France provide the highest number of foreign fighters, based on data gathered by The Soufan Group from affected governments. The exact numbers are, however, difficult to determine. In the Maghreb and the Middle East, with countries like Libya, the lack of central administration makes it difficult to track citizens leaving and entering the country. Meanwhile in Europe, the free movement of citizens across borders and the administrative chaos caused by the refugee crisis are being taken advantage of by foreign fighters travelling between the war zone and their home countries. The ICCT in The Hague estimates between 3,900 and 4,300 European foreign fighters, based on their questionnaire sent to 23 EU Member States and updated with open source information in 2016, while RAN claims that this number could exceed 5,000.

This, so-called “fourth generation” seems to be very different from the “holy warriors” of Afghanistan or the hardened veterans of Chechnya not only in terms of quantity, but quality as well. They show a difference with previous waves in terms of socio-economic background, battlefield experience, age and motivations. Most importantly, they are less religious, radicalize and get involved in combat faster and finally, plan for the long term with the construction of the Caliphate.

One of the most significant differences between the current and previous wave of foreign fighters is the role religion plays as a motivational factor. This generation seems to be less educated in Islam, with many foreign fighters being considered as novices with regards to their religious education. This is also supported by the fact, that the proportion of newly converted fighters is also higher than in previous conflicts, according to the ICCT. Today’s foreign fighters often do not turn to the religion of Islam itself, but to the fundamentalist militant interpretation of it. They do so, after experiencing difficulties in trying to integrate into Western countries due to cultural, religious and social differences with mainstream societies. According to Professor Olivier Roy, the issue is not the radicalization of Islam, but the “Islamization of radicalism”. Islam is only a tool in radicalization, the language these disaffected youth use to express their “nihilistic rejection of society”, similarly to how the youth of the ‘60s and ‘70s used Marxism. Therefore, new foreign fighters’ decision to join fighting is more of a social or behavioral decision than a religious duty. Other studies also indicate that religion does not play the role of the main motivating factor (push factor) in an individual’s decision to become a foreign fighter. Religion, instead, is exploited by recruiters (pull factor) and has a later role in justifying violent behavior.

Another distinction between the current and earlier generations is the process of and the speed with which these new fighters radicalize. In some cases this process, dubbed as “accelerated radicalization” by German authorities, takes place discretely, and under the radar, within a matter of months. Radicalization can occur in different environments: within the family, a group of friends, places of gathering such as mosques, or in prisons. However, fourth generation foreign fighters are overwhelmingly introduced to radical ideas and groups via social connections. According to Professor Scott Atran, three quarters of those who join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Islamic State or IS) were encouraged by friends and peers, while another 20% were recruited by family members. These foreign fighters leave and then join the same group together. According to the ICCT, the majority of European foreign fighters end up joining IS upon arriving to Syria and Iraq, those joining other opposition groups, the Kurdish Peshmerga or the Syrian regime, are the exceptions. This falls in line with the ICCT findings, as well as with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR)’s 2014 report. According to these studies, IS is more loose in its admission criteria and is “very willing” to take in foreign fighters, even if they don’t speak Arabic or have not received any prior military training. On the other hand, other Syrian groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra are reluctant to take in unknown foreigners.

Lastly, the foreign fighters of Syria and Iraq are also not the typical “temporary” or “professional” fighters we saw in previous conflicts. These earlier generations of foreign fighters arrived to the former Yugoslavia or the Russian-invaded Afghanistan just for the duration of the fighting, only to then move on in search of new conflicts. Borum and Fein conclude that contrary to these fighters, those who now leave for Syria not only come to fight, but are also in search of a new home under the Islamic Caliphate declared by IS in 2014. Unlike other insurgent groups fighting in the region, IS does not only seek military victory, but is also the only group that combines rebel governance with expansionist territorial ambitions in order to create a new state on the ruins of Iraq and Syria.

The Profile

There is no single profile for European foreign fighters. However, based on the Member State questionnaires compiled and summarized by the ICCT, some general characteristics can be drawn. The most common traits of European foreign fighters are the following:

  • in most countries the average foreign fighter is around 25 years old, but the average age varies between Member States;
  • the majority are men, however there is a significant trend of women travelling to the conflict zone, with 17% of foreign fighters from 11 Member States being female;
  • a high proportion (>90%) of foreign fighters come from large metropolitan areas or peripheral suburbs;
  • many foreign fighters are from the same cities and originate from the same neighborhood, indicating existing recruitment networks or social ties between those leaving;
  • among Member States with the most foreign fighters, the proportion of converts (to Islam) was also significant, ranging between 6% and 23%.

Based on the answers given to the ICCT from Member States, however, there is no clear trend in the following:

  • the nationalities of foreign fighters: in some countries, the majority of foreign fighters hold a nationality other than that of the Member State, while in others, the opposite seems to be true;
  • family status: most foreign fighters leave alone, however there is a significant amount who leave together with their spouses or even whole families;
  • prior criminal history.

Not Just a Man’s World

One of the most significant differences between European foreign fighters and their “peers” coming from other countries is the increasingly high proportion of women, in some cases young girls. On the one hand this can be explained with the equality between men and women in Western societies, where women not only have the same aspirations as men, but can also radicalize, plan and execute their travels on their own. In Tunisia, for instance (one the countries providing the highest number of foreign fighters), it would be a lot more difficult for women to move freely and join a war zone on their own. Carolyn Hoyle et al.’s article ‘Becoming Mulan? Female Western Migrants to ISIS’ estimates that the number of Western women in Syria was around 550 in 2015, while according to the Soufan Group in October 2017 it could be as high as 680. According to a statement by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls in September 2016 there were approximately 200 French women in the territory of the Caliphate, but a year later this number is estimated to be around 320. In other European countries, Germany indicates that around 190 women have joined IS, 100 were reported for the UK, 90 for the Netherlands and 85 for Belgium. Hoyle and her colleagues divided these Western women into two categories: those who travel with male companions, such as husbands; and those who travel alone.

While the predominant stereotypes for female foreign fighters is often that they are either naïve victims who have been lured into leaving, or that they are violent agitators, the ICCT research suggests that, similarly to their male counterparts, there is no clear-cut profile. A lot of them, however, seem to be very active on social media upon arrival to the Islamic State, often playing an important role in the recruitment of other women and the dissemination of practical advice to would-be foreign fighters, according to Hoyle et al.’s article. Based on these accounts, it seems that even though their profile and motivations tend to be similar to those of male foreign fighters, there are certain aspects that play a more predominant role in the case of women. According to their social media activity, it seems that three main reasons can be drawn for their becoming foreign fighters:

  • The oppression of Muslims around the world: many women empathize towards the sufferings of Muslims in different conflicts around the world, and when these separate conflicts are presented as a larger war against Islam by non-believers, topped with the complicity they feel Western powers have in perpetuating these conflicts, many leave in search of an alternative society.
  • Building the Caliphate: women have an important role to play in building a new society, where they can live “honorably under the law of Sharia.” With the declaration of the Caliphate, IS has given these women an ideologically consistent outlet to do something more than just support the cause online, when combat is generally off limits for women.
  • Individual duty and identity: most of these women have a strong belief in the afterlife and consider emigrating to the Caliphate a religious duty that will bring them closer to God. Other personal factors that play an important role include finding a “brave and noble” husband, independence from the family and transitioning into adulthood, as well as a sense of camaraderie and sisterhood. This search for meaning, sisterhood, and identity is a key driving factor for women who travel.

It has to be emphasized, however, that these are self-identified reasons, expressed via social media, which, even in less extreme conditions, only provides a distorted and biased profile of a person.

From One Hood

According to the ICCT, the second distinct characteristic of European foreign fighters is that they tend to come from the same area, most of the time from the same neighborhood. In many cases, they do not come from cities that have the highest proportion of Muslim immigrants. This tendency can be explained by the fact that they are radicalized by their close social networks, friends and family members. It also indicates existing recruitment networks or social ties between foreign fighters, as these play a greater role in radicalization and later leaving than the greater Muslim community.

Based on Lasse Lindekilde et al.’s 2016 article “Who Goes, Why, and With What Effects: The Problem of Foreign Fighters from Europe”, individuals get involved in radical milieus via three ways: 1) through so-called social selection; 2) organizational outreach; and 3) self-selection. Out of these three, social selection is the primary form of mobilization to high-risk activism, including joining violent groups. Lindekilde and his colleagues point out that everybody who knows somebody who already participates in social movements, such as political protests and other forms of activism is far more likely to become active than people without such relations. The same applies for radical milieus; the cost of participation is lower for someone who already has acquaintances “on the inside”, and the benefits of joining increase as they have the opportunity to spend time with people they care about. This is consistent with the previously mentioned findings of Scott Atran, according to whom three quarters of those who join IS were encouraged by friends and peers.

Social selection has therefore contributed to certain neighborhoods becoming more radicalized than others, such as the Molenbeek and Schaerbeek districts of Brussels, the Sparkbrook neighborhood of Birmingham, certain banlieues of the departments of Yvelines and Seine-Saint-Denis, in the suburbs of Paris, as well as entire small towns like Machelen in Belgium or Aarhus in Denmark. Once infiltrated, these predominantly Muslim neighborhoods do not only provide a fertile ground for recruiters, but also isolation and camouflage for radicals seeking a hiding place. Thus they become complicit in harboring terrorism and causing even more distrust between their communities and mainstream society.

Despite the fact that there is no single profile for foreign fighters, it is clear that there are some characteristics and indicators that could enable societies and governments to spot people at risk. Looking at social networks and connections between those already involved and paying more attention to women could prove to be helpful in developing adequate strategies and policies to address this phenomenon.

Cover Picture: a picture from IS propaganda magazine Dabiq