Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

Dispatches - Europe’s Foreign Fighter Problem

Lorenzo Vidino

MILAN—The mobilization of European jihadists for foreign battlefields is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to the 1980s (Afghanistan), continued thoughout the 1990s (Bosnia and Chechnya) and surged in the 2000s (Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia). Even so, the number of European-based fighters who have reached Syria and Iraq since 2011 is unprecedented in its scope. In September 2014, the EU’s anti-terrorism coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, estimated that figure to be in excess of 3,000, but many believe it to be higher. Larger countries like France and the United Kingdom have contributed the lion’s share of the fighters (some 1,000 and 800, respectively), but even smaller ones have seen large numbers of their residents (and, in most cases, citizens) travel to Syria to fight.

The vast majority of these European volunteers join jihadist groups, in particular the Islamic State. European authorities are understandably concerned about the implications; French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has called the possibility of these individuals returning to France as hardened jihadists “the biggest threat that the country faces in the coming years.” Hans-Peter Friedrich, Germany’s former Minister of Interior, has similarly stated that returnees from Syria trained in “deadly handwork” will be “ticking time bombs.”

To be clear, not all foreign fighters will pose a threat upon returning to Europe (and some will never return at all, either because they will die on the battlefield or because they will continue their militancy in Syria/Iraq or elsewhere). But it seems inevitable that at least some of those who do will attempt to carry out attacks against targets in their own or other European countries.

Evidence supporting these fears has been piling up. Intelligence agencies have long believed that “Islamic extremist groups in Syria with ties to Al Qaeda are trying to identify, recruit and train Americans and other Westerners who have traveled there to get them to carry out attacks when they return home,” as a January 2014 New York Times article put it. And over the last few months, many of these fears have begun to materialize, as authorities throughout Europe have detected various attacks with roots that can be traced back to Syria.

The first such incident was thwarted in England in the fall of 2013, when British authorities arrested a number of Syrian returnees allegedly planning to conduct Mumbai-style attacks in London. Since then, attacks with Syrian links have reportedly been headed off in Sweden, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Great Britain (again). Many of these were just in the planning stages, and it is unclear whether the planners were acting independently or under some form of command from various groups operating in Syria and Iraq.

European authorities have reacted in a variety of ways. Many initiatives have focused on preventing European Muslims from traveling to Syria in the first place. While the approaches vary from country to country, most employ a mix of hard and soft measures to do so. When possible, authorities seek to arrest and criminally prosecute individuals seeking to leave. And while no country criminalizes traveling to Syria or any other conflict area per se (although proposals to do so are currently being discussed), many have statutes under which individuals seeking to make the journey can be charged with training for terrorist purposes, providing support to a terrorist organization or similar offenses.

Obviously, in order to do so, authorities need to be in possession of solid evidence that can be produced in court, something that is not easy to obtain when seeking to prosecute individuals who are simply planning terrorism-related activities. This often leads to frustrating situations in which authorities have to watch individuals leave for Syria with what can be quite reasonably assumed to be the intention of joining jihadist groups but are unable to arrest them for lack of adequate evidence. In many instances European authorities resort to alternative, but arguably not very effective, measures such as the confiscation of travel documents or, in the case of minors, judicial custody. 

Authorities face similarly significant challenges when dealing with individuals who have returned from Syria. Those seeking to prosecute returnees are faced with the challenge of proving through evidence admissible in court that a given individual committed specific crimes—a daunting task given the difficulty in obtaining reliable evidence from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.

Many European countries have also been employing various measures to reintegrate returnees. Countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands have had a counter-radicalization structure in place for almost ten years, and are now using many of their resources to diffuse the potential threat posed by returnees. In many countries, such efforts take the form of psychological counseling and coaching from trusted mentors. At the same time, authorities seek to monitor the returnees’ activities and assess the dangerousness of each.

Overall, however, these measures seem inadequate to stem the steady flow of foreign fighters now migrating to the Levant—or prevent the return of at least some of these holy warriors home, with the intention of carrying out attacks. Europe’s struggles in confronting this emerging threat demonstrate all too clearly that liberal democracies face significant—and perhaps ultimately insurmountable—barriers to their ability to defend against this new trend in transnational terrorism.

Lorenzo Vidino, Ph.D., is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), Milan, Italy.