Who are the Foreign Fighters?

In the past weeks, following the tragic events in Paris, suddenly the issue of foreign fightershas begun to pop-up in every newspaper and in mass media. In the last few days, many important national and European politicians have repeatedly stated that foreign fightersare an open issue for the security of the whole  Europe. In this vortex of news and press releases, the same foreign fightersword has never been translated in other languages, a clear symptom of how this topic is hot in the current debate. But beyond the label, the main question still remains: why do we speak about foreign fighters, and who are they?

“Foreign” fighters. Are we sure?

It is quite common for the human psychology to assume that an episode or a fact is true if we receive many unanimous and concurrent inputs. Mass media tends to take advantage of this phenomenon by repeating the same headlines which in turn causes the reader to view the information as unfalsifiable. Therefore, today all the media are bombarding the public with news about the foreign fighters. But are we sure that they are foreign? According to many sources, the main issue is that these fighters are coming in our countries from abroad: therefore they are considered foreigners. But the real issue is different: many times the foreign fightersare notforeignat all, but they have the citizenships, habits, accents, education and linguistic knowledge identical to many British, Italian, French or Belgian youngsters. Their passports have been issued by European authorities, and many of them were born in European hospitals and have spent the years of their childhood in European cities.

So why are they considered foreignfighters? They are called foreignbecause they are fighting in countries (like Syria or Iraq) which are geographically far from ours; but if we consider them from the social or juridical point of view, many of them are not foreignat all, they belong to our society in the same way as we belong.

This should be clear when we read articles or we listen to some news dealing with this issue: the majority of the European foreign fighters which are fighting in Syria and Iraq are European citizens.  This element should not be overlooked; it means that when these people come back to our countries, they are very difficult to spot or track by police authorities, because, basically, they look absolutely identical to the rest of the population.

The “global call” for foreign fighters: an awkward assessment

Today the issue of the foreign fightersis mainly related to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the volunteerswho are currently serving under ISIS’ flag. It is no secret that the Caliphate’s units are also composed of a substantial amount of foreign people: but the current situation is slightly different from other conflicts. In the course of history, many wars have attracted foreign fighters: during the XX century, for instance, one of the most famous cases was the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which attracted important politicians, political dissidents and intellectuals. They were grouped in the famous International brigade; on a smaller scale, even Franco’s positions attracted many foreign volunteers. In recent times the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) or the conflicts in the Balkans during the 90s have attracted again – many foreign people, who decided to join the ranks of the Afghan rebels or one of the factions active in former Jugoslavia. But the current war in Syria and Iraq has shown the globalised reach (a global call) for the foreign fighters;  currently between 10.000 and 15.000 volunteers are fighting in the Middle East, and their origins are incredibly diverse. From the alleged case of two Japanese ISIS militants to the nearly 3000 Tunisians fighters, it is no secret that the civil war in Syria and Iraq is now a small but globalised conflict. Thousands of foreign fighters are coming from all over the world, which includes not only Arab countries, such as Tunisia or Saudi Arabia, but also the US, Canada, Australia and even China; in Europe the situation is more complicated (click here for the map).

In the top listof ISIS (human) contributors there are the UK and France, obviously, the large community of Muslim people in these countries is a perfect place to recruit foreign fighters, even if many of them, as we know, were born and raised in the streets of London or Paris. Other countries are also included in this list, as Germany or Sweden (approx. 400 people), while others contribute fewer fighters, like Spain (approx. 100), Italy (approx. 50) or Ireland (approx. 25). However, such numbers are an approximation because the state prefers not to (can they?) make theofficialnumber of their own foreign fighters public. It is worth noting a second element, despite the fact that foreign fighters are mainly fighting in ISIS units, it does not mean that they are all Muslims. Many foreign fighters are joining ISIS’ ranks for money, ideological (which is different from religious) reasons or to eventually look for tough adventures. In this case religion plays a very peculiar role, as many Muslims authorities in both Western and Eastern countries are criticising ISIS as a not-Muslimorganisation. Not every ISIS member can be considered a Muslim and it is being Muslim does not make one sympathise with the organisation. Equating ISIS with Islam is a technique often used in mass media for political reasons, such as raising Islamophobia,  however it is clearly nothing more than a logical fallacy.

Therefore being Muslim is not a pre-requisite to be  an ISIS volunteer, which falsifies the equation that ISIS equals foreign fighters which equals, Islam is wrong, despite it being quoted as such in the mass media, and mainly for political calculations or electoral purposes.       

Foreign fighters, domestic threats

The main threat posed by foreign fighterslies in them being much more local thanforeign. While those people are actively putting their lives in danger fighting in distant countries such as Syria and Iraq, they can also be a major threat to Western society. Of course, even if we try to categorise  these people along national lines (the Italian fighters, the British, the French…) it is impossible to forecast what every single person will do. From a national security point of view, it would be more advantageous to consider the dangerous goals that some (and usually isolated) foreign fighters could pursue.

A softercourse of action could be the recruitment of other volunteersto fight abroad, through the use of human contacts (proselitism one-by-one or using some networks, as associations or NGOs) or on the web by using special websites and/or chat lines. A more violent course of action could involve extreme cases of terrorism, as was the case during the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The intensity and the scale of this attack shocked the whole of Europe and has sparked interest in the role of foreign fighters in our societies. However, as we know, the threat related to foreign fighters is not only limited to violent and overt action. The recruitment of new followers, assisting other foreign fighters (logistics, safe houses, information, weapons…) and the spread of radical opinions (by physical means or using the web) are pressing threats that cannot be overlooked anymore.

So, it is quite clear to understand why foreign fighters are a relevant domestic threat: future attacks, as the last slaughter in Paris, cannot be completely ruled out in our societies. This threat is a serious challenge for European countries, but the answer cannot be only limited to police actions and a tighter surveillance. Eventually, it is wrong to identify the issue of the foreign fighters just as a military or a law and order problem. We should try to understand more deeply the reasons that drive many young people to leave their families and pour into the tough conflict in the Middle East, remembering that many of these warriors can easily be (or maybe have been) our citizens and, sometimes, our neighbours or even colleagues.

Further readings:

UK Parliament report on ISIS

CSIS report on ISIS

Council On Foreign Relations


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