EU measures against European Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq

In a recent report, the UN states that the number of foreign fighters (FFs) that have flowed to Iraq and Syria to join extremist groups has grown in “an unprecedented scale and from countries that had not previously contributed combatants to global terrorism”[1]. At the beginning of September, the amount of FFs – estimated by the US State Department – was about 12,000 persons from at least 50 different countries[2]. Nowadays, the number of them has increased by at least 3,000 units. According to the UN Security Council, “15,000 people have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the Islamic State (ISIS) and similar extremist groups […] and they come from more than 80 countries”.

At the same time, the risk of radicalization leading to terrorism is increasing inside the Western countries. As a matter of fact, more and more marginal individuals who live in the West are beginning to radicalize to terrorism. The marginalization, when accompanied by an ideology capable of guiding the human behaviors, generally predisposes to violence.


Individuals who are candidates to become terrorists, for the most part, are those who live in Western society with some sort of marginalization and frustration. Scholars have tried to gather root causes of individuals’ inclination to terrorism. In order to study a complex social phenomenon such as terrorism, a multidisciplinary approach is required and recent studies on radicalization seem to be moving in this direction[3].

Radicalization does not coincide with violence. Killing is an extreme action, difficult to perpetrate and requires preparation. Not all those who acquire a radical mindset are able to use violence. There are two types of radicalization. One is known as cognitive radicalization and it is “understood as a growing readiness to pursue and support far-reaching changes in society that conflict with, or pose a direct threat to, the existing order”[4]. The second one, known as violent radicalization, is “a process in which radical ideas are accompanied by the development of a willingness to directly support or engage in violent acts”. The term radicalization in itself is vague. As a result, scholars have not always agreed on how to define it[5].

John Horgan and Maxwell Taylor regard radicalization as a process largely psychological, but also involving some social aspects. For the two scholars, an individual becomes radicalized starting from an existential discontent and marginalization. Subsequently, the marginal individual discovers a group of people that have the same condition and share this radical mindset. Triggers to some intentional and unintentional dynamics may lead the individual to violent action. Sophie Clark McCauley and Moskalenko define these dynamics as slippery slopes. In simple words, a slow slide sequence of an individual to terrorism.

Finally, there are factors that catalyze radicalization. The social context – radical milieu[6] – affect the outcome of the process of radicalization.

For Eline Gordts from “The Huffington Post”[7], foreign fighters are not a monolithic entity but, on the contrary, a heterogeneous group of people that diverge in their individual characteristics. Among the reasons that could lead a normal individual to become a FFs, there are several factors: adherence to the cause of the anti-Assad coalition, internalization of radical jihadist ideology, the spirit of adventure, an attempt to get out of the psychological discomfort of marginalization and existential frustration.

Radicals and FFs belong to the same anthropological type, which coincides with the individual dissatisfied by his life and looking for a ransom. For the purposes of this study, it can be assumed that the dynamics with which foreign fighters radicalize are similar to those of homegrown terrorism.


The steep rise in the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria has prompted the governments of the major European countries – Belgium, France, Germany and the United Kingdom – to take measures in order to tackle the phenomenon. Here is a brief review of them.

1) Belgium has a huge number of foreign fighters who entered Syria. According to data provided by the authorities in February, of the 226 individuals who had traveled to Syria, 26 have died, 47 have returned to the country and 7 were arrested. To tackle the problem of foreign fighters, Belgium resort to “a mix of repression and prevention[8], which is based on the creation of coordination structures and on new legislation.

The criminal measures before departure refer to the Belgian counterterrorism law (amended in 2013). In particular, Article 140 of the Belgian Penal Code constitutes the regulatory framework suitable to punish the case of FFs. Paragraph 1 provides for the punishment of all those “taking part in the activities of a terrorist group”, which sometimes is the case of FFs. Paragraph 2 punishes any incitement to commit terrorist crimes, while paragraph 3 punishes recruitment aimed at the commission of terrorist acts. Paragraph 4 punishes those who provide instruction and training for terrorism. Finally, paragraph 5 condemns the behavior of those who, in Belgium or abroad, receive instruction or training for terrorist purposes.

The non-criminal measures, before departure, are intended to prevent the will of an individual to leave the country to become a FF. This type of enforcement measures are based on the creation of a task force and a strategic coordination. In the case of Belgium, the Task Force Syria and the Coordination Unit for Threat Assessment (OCAM / OCAD) provide a list “of individuals who are presumed / known to be in / have traveled to Syria or presumed / known to have intentions to travel to Syria”. Finally, the Belgium government has tried to invest in the prevention of radicalization processes by acting especially on the reduction of risks for minors.

2) France has a number of citizens and residents who are fighting in the Middle East, which are around 700 people. For the Minister of the Interior Manuel Valls, individuals who return to France will represent the most serious threats to the security of France in the near future.

Against the phenomenon of the FFs, the French authorities have adopted a very aggressive strategy, even if the lack of proofs often undermines the judiciary. Those who travel to Syria and Iraq to fight in the ranks of extremist groups and return to France are punishable under the Criminal Code for conspiracy for terrorism purposes. The law n° 2012-1432, has introduced the case of crimes committed by the FFs which are punishable for having participated in training camps abroad.

3) German authorities, in February 2014, estimated that over 270 individuals fight alongside extremists in Syria. The German counter-terrorism system can be considered “as a mix of repression and prevention”.

Under German law, traveling in a theater of conflict becomes a crime only if “you are participating in various terrorist activities during the conflict”. Section 129 of the German Criminal Code “punishes acts which can be deemed as the formation of, participation in and support for a terrorist organization. ‘Passive participation’ in terrorist training is also punished”.

The German authorities have devised a “travel disruption plan” with which they try to prevent “would-FFs” from leaving the country through various procedures that, in practice, are based on the logic of the “Gefährdeansprachen” (hazard talks). These are conversations in which they try to intimidate the suspected FFs to induce them to remain in Germany. However, in general, the prosecution of FFs from a non-criminal perspective diverges depending on the land (district).

Against a FF suspected of threatening the nation, some administrative measures can also be arranged:

– the non-German residents, who stay abroad has determined a violation of their visa, will lose that right;

– strengthening the monitoring capacity of the border authorities;

– the authorities must be informed of the movements within and outside the Schengen space.

4) The United Kingdom is facing a serious problem related to more than 500 FFs who have left the country to fight in Syria. The UK has adopted a repressive-preventive system to tackle the problem of foreign fighters. An individual can also be arrested before departure in the presence of evidence.

Since the early 2000s, the UK has invested in a powerful system of prevention of the radicalization developed to avoid that individuals might suffer contagion of radical messages. One of the main elements of the prevention was the Channel, which is “a highly flexible intervention program at the local level” to fight the root causes of radicalization.

The Country’s Terrorism Act is a set of standards that include provisions to punish the FFs. In particular, Section 6 and Subsection 2 punish the “passive participation” to trainings aimed at terrorism.


The phenomenon of FFs is steadily increasing, from the self-proclamation of the IS (Islamic State) by the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on June 29th. The processes of radicalization that lead to the formation of the mindset of a foreign fighter are roughly the same as the ones that lead to the radicalization of homegrown terrorists. The European countries – some more and some less – are trying to equip themselves with adequate legal instruments to punish the FFs that constitute – with their return – a threat to State security.

However, measures to combat the phenomenon of FFs are still underdeveloped and poorly effective.



Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)



[1] S. Ackerman, Foreign jihadists flocking to Iraq and Syria on ‘unprecedented scale’ – UN, “The Guardian”, 30 October 2014 –

[2] F. Trianni, A. Katz, Why westerners are fighting for ISIS, “Time”, 5 September 2014 –

[3] P. Davis, K. Cragin, Social science for counterterrorism putting the pieces together, “RAND Corporation”, 21 May 2009.

[4] A. Dalgaard-Nielsen, Violent radicalization in Europe: what we know and what we do not know, “Studies in Conflict & Terrorism”, 33 (9), 2010. In order to deepen these two definitions, see: J. Bartlett, C. Miller, The edge of violence: towards telling the difference between violent and non-violent radicalization, “Terrorism and Political Violence”, 24 (1), 2012.

[5] The use of the term is problematic not just for these reasons, but because it is used in three different contexts: the security context, the integration context, and the foreign-policy context. See: M. Sedgwick, The concept of radicalization as a source of confusion, “Terrorism and Political Violence”, 22 (4), 2010.

[6] P. Waldmann, The radical milieu: the under-investigate relationship between terrorists and sympathetic communities, “Perspectives on Terrorism”, 2 (9), June 2008.

[7] E. Gordts, 15,000 Foreign Fighters have joined extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. Here’ why they went, “The Huffington Post”, 11 November 2014 –

[8] L. Vidino, Foreign Fighters: an overview of responses in eleven countries, “Center for Security Studies”, March 2014.

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