The Return of the Terror Tourists

Written by | Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Kristina Eichhorst (Konrad Adenauer Stiftung)

The issue of foreign fighters is currently one of the key security threats for the EU. The citizens of the Member States, who travel to conflict areas where they fight and get radicalized, can subsequently use their experience on the Union’s own territory. Exactly these types of individuals were among the terrorists who carried out attacks in Paris in November 2015, killing 132 people. Foreign fighters also participated in the planning of the attacks in which 32 people were killed in Brussels at the end of March this year.

The conflict, which sparked the radicalization of most of these fighters, is the Syrian civil war. Looking at the real figures of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, about 4000 Europeans have left for Syria since 2011 and subsequently joined the Islamic State. Out of that number, 740 people have been from Germany and 240 of them have returned back to their homeland. In the context of the Syrian conflict, it is estimated that the total number of foreign fighters is around 30 000. Looking at this figure, we must begin to ask what motivates these individuals to leave their families, jobs and the relative safety of their homelands to fight for a cause, which, as many would argue, is not theirs?

According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, the motivation of the fighters in the context of the Syrian conflict could be divided into two periods. Their first wave went to defend their fellow Sunnis from the attacks and other brutal acts of Bashar Assad’s regime. The subsequent wave was linked to the declaration of the caliphate by the Islamic State. Military successes and the speed with which this organization progressed had a great influence on the young Muslims in Europe. Moreover, they had a vision of the opportunity to participate in the formation of a new structure, in which they would have the opportunity of reaching a better social status than in their home countries.

However, the question remains how to deal with these malicious influences. A multidisciplinary approach is important, whereby the key solution is to actually discourage people from wanting to go to fight in foreign countries. The issue of foreign fighters is also addressed by the 2014 UN Security Council Resolution no. 2178, which defines a series of anti-terrorist measures for the Member States, whereby it also defines terrorism as one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. From the EU’s perspective, the above-mentioned terrorist attacks highlighted the fact that it is necessary to strengthen the cooperation and exchange of information among individual EU Member States and third countries.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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