Foreign Fighters – Member State Responses and EU Action

Written by | Tuesday, April 19th, 2016

Piotr Bakowski and Laura Puccio (European Parliamentary Research Service)

EU Member States are currently being increasingly confronted with the problem of foreign fighters. A foreign fighter is generally considered to be such an individual who is involved in an uprising or fighting outside the borders of their own state and is primarily ideologically or religiously motivated. For the EU, such individuals can pose a threat especially after their return from the fighting in the Middle East or other war-torn regions to the individual Member States. With the ongoing war in Syria, this phenomenon has taken a completely new dimension.

The Syrian conflict has attracted the most foreign fighters in history. It is estimated that about 20,000-30,000 of such individuals have joined the fighting. The very fact that about 5,000 of these fighters come from some of the EU Member States – notably from France, Great Britain, Belgium and Germany – should serve as a warning sign for the Union. For this reason, since 2013, the issue of foreign fighters has been a top priority for the EU and its fight against terrorism. EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, defined six points, which are crucial for an effective fight against this dangerous phenomenon, including a better understanding of this issue, preventing radicalism, detecting suspicious travel activity, investigating and prosecuting individuals, checking suspected returnees, and cooperation with third countries.

The EU is also actively trying to solve the situation directly in Syria. In 2015, the EU issued its regional strategy for Syria, Iraq and the threat posed by the Islamic State. The importance of the fight against terrorism for the EU can be also observed in case of the EU’s Internal Security Strategy for 2015-2020, which points to the issue of terrorism as its top priority. During the meeting in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in autumn 2015, ministers drew the conclusion that it is necessary to complete the Passenger Name Record (PNR) directive and fight harder against illegal trade in firearms or terrorism financing.

Given the security threat that foreign fighters represent, some EU members have addressed this issue in their own legislation. Confiscation of passports of suspected persons, cancellation of residence permits to foreigners or even bans on entering the country are some of the concrete steps in this regard. Overall, we can grasp the gravity of the whole situation, which demands that the EU adopts a coordinated approach and also calls upon the most affected Member States to pursue cooperation beyond the EU.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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