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The case of foreign fighters in Europe and the MENA region

Explaining the difference between local and globalist foreign fighters. Sources: Maja Touzari Greenwood, DIIS Policy Brief, March 2019.
A lot of media attention has been paid in recent years to foreign fighters who represent an extreme example of violent radicalisation. However, the concept of foreign fighter is not new. Over the past 250 years alone, nearly 100 civil wars have included the participation of fighters from abroad. The Spanish Civil War is a prime example in which around 50,000 volunteers for more than 50 countries participated, representing both sides of the conflict. In recent times, the term foreign fighter was first officially used in reference to fighters travelling from outside the conflict zone to fight for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and has become increasingly common since the terrorist led insurgency started in Iraq in 2003. But who is a foreign fighter?
Are there different types of foreign fighters? And what is the size of the phenomenon? In order to answer the first question, let’s start by saying that in September 2014, the United Nations Security Council adopted the resolution 2178 to address the growing threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters around the world, defining them as individuals who travel to a state other than their one of residence or nationality to perpetrate, plan, prepare, or participate in terrorist acts, or to provide or receive terrorist training, including in connection with armed conflict. That said, we can distinguish among different types of foreign fighters. We first distinguish between local and globalist foreign fighters.
Local foreign fighters engage in local and territorially limited conflicts, such as in the case of foreign fighters joining Syria to fight for toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while the globalist ones engage in conflict that is defined as global. A typical example would be the fighters involved in the al-Qaeda network in the past, or who joined ISIS in recent years. This distinction has implications as to whether fighters are likely to join other theatres of conflict and the extent to which they pose a threat when returning to their country of origin, or when moving to a third country they might elect as their destination.
Among local foreign fighters, we distinguish volunteers who travel abroad to fight for a specific insurgent movement for ideological, religious, or idealistic motivations that cannot be explained by personal affiliation or material gains, diaspora fighters who join conflicts because they have a direct interest in their outcome motivated by familial, ethnic, or other close personal relationships. Last but not least, local foreign fighters can be defined as regional when they join an insurgent movement in a neighbouring state operating in a geographically-limited conflict in order to advance their own national goals of political significance. So the category of local fighters includes volunteers, diaspora, and regional fighters distinguished because of their motivations. Now let’s turn to globalist foreign fighters.
Among them, we identify migrant fighters who join the conflict and at the same time become a citizen of the state where it is taking place– this for instance is the case of foreign fighters having joined the Islamic State or ISIS– transnational fighters, previously called international terrorists, who travel abroad to train with or fight for a global terrorist movement that is not involved in a geographically-limited or ethnic conflict, the obvious example for this being individuals or groups affiliated to al-Qaeda. And veteran fighters, who travel interregionally between theatres of conflict to fight alongside insurgent movements, operating in geographically limited conflicts with which they have no close relationship, these foreign fighters do not affiliate solidly with any particular movement.
This would be the case of foreign fighters who may have fought in Bosnia or Chechnya in the past, and then in Afghanistan, and now in Syria, or ISIS for instance. All six categories identified above exclude soldiers serving in national armies, mercenaries fighting for private companies, unarmed members of an extremist group, and members of organised transnational criminal networks with no relationship to any political conflict. Now that we have a clearer idea of who are foreign terrorist fighters and what are their motivations, let’s look into the size of the phenomenon. According to a 2018 report by the UNODC, the foreign fighters that had travelled to Syria and Iraq as of December 2015 were estimated to be over 40,000.
This is the number also provided by a 2018 study of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation of King’s College London. Young people from the Middle East and North Africa accounted for approximately half of those, while Eastern Europe for approximately 7,000 and Western Europe and Central Asia for nearly 6,000 each. Among single countries, Tunisia nationals seemed to form the highest share among them with an estimated 6,000 young Tunisians joining the battleground in Syria. Among Western European countries, it was France who had the highest share of foreign fighters, just under 2,000 individuals. The people who became foreign fighters have diverse profiles and backgrounds.
While they are predominantly men in their 20s, foreign fighters joining the ISIS included also teenagers, older people, and women. Different factors influence their decision, including the absence of a sense of belonging, a gap between expectations and reality, a commitment to a holy cause, weak effective relations, and being outsiders or adrenaline seekers. Today, more comprehensive approaches are studied by both researchers and policymakers to better comprehend the push and pull factors at play in radicalisation, notably economic, social, affective, psychological, and political factors. Stay tuned to find out more about the complex dynamics that lead to violent religiously-inspired radicalisation.

This video gives an overview and a definition of the concept of ‘foreign fighter’, while explaining the differences that exist among different types of foreign fighters. It also provides some data regarding the number of foreign fighters currently engaged in different conflicts around the world.

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Religion, Radicalisation, Resilience

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