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Terrorism: The Rise of Homegrown Jihadists in Europe

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By Dr. Melissa Schnyder
Associate Professor of International Relations at American Public University

A string of recent terror events including the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the attacks in Copenhagen at a free-speech event and synagogue, and the anti-terror raids in Belgium that brought down a potential plot to kill police officers illustrate the threat of homegrown jihadism in Europe. This threat has become an increasing concern for European governments, which are devoting resources to monitor thousands of their own citizens who leave Europe for Syria to train and fight alongside the terrorist group ISIS.Jihadists in Europe

A growing fear is that many of these recruits eventually return home to plan terrorist attacks on European soil. Although citizens of many countries across Europe have left home to wage jihad, a recent report by Brookings indicates that France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands account for the largest percentage of European nationals who have fled to Syria.

Counting Foreign Fighters

Some estimates place the total from Western European countries to be close to 2,000 individuals, perhaps more. France, for example, is estimated to have had roughly 900 of its citizens enter Syria to join ISIS, and the corresponding figure for the United Kingdom has been placed at roughly 500 nationals.

The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) has examined the figures on a per capita basis, concluding that after adjusting for population, the most affected European countries are as follows:

  • Belgium: up to 27 foreign fighters per million residents
  • Denmark: up to 15 foreign fighters per million residents
  • The Netherlands: up to 9 foreign fighters per million residents
  • Sweden: up to 9 foreign fighters per million residents
  • Norway: up to 8 foreign fighters per million residents
  • Austria: up to 7 foreign fighters per million residents

As these figures show, the scale of the problem remains relatively small overall. At the same time, the danger of a potential terrorist threat from returning foreign fighters is real, and the impact is likely to be substantial.

In an article for Bloomberg Business, Ian Lesser, the senior director for foreign and security policy at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, explained that “for some European countries, this problem of foreign fighters and their potential role in terrorism inside Europe is their leading security problem.” The fear is that as transnational terrorist networks develop and strengthen, the threat of terrorist attacks on European soil orchestrated by European citizens becomes more and more likely.

The Decision to Become a Foreign Fighter

Many point to countries’ integration approaches, which reflect how well ethnic minorities including Muslim populations tend to be incorporated into the civic, economic, and political life of the state as a root cause of interest in becoming a foreign fighter. For example, in her book Terrorism within Comparative International Context, Maria Haberfeld found that Muslims in Europe experience “extreme alienation from the dominant culture,” and that this sense of alienation was not specific to any one socio-economic class. In an article for CBS news, David Schanzer, the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, highlighted the approach to integrating its ethnic minority populations as one reason why we see fewer foreign fighters from America compared to Europe.

One way to assess this more concretely is to look into how the integration policies of different European countries actually correlate with their respective numbers of foreign fighters. It is also worthwhile to examine economic factors to see if factors like youth unemployment and gross domestic product per capita can help account for the decision to leave one’s home country to fight abroad.

I undertook a very simple correlation analysis to look into these factors. I found a weak relationship between a country’s economic indicators and the number of foreign fighters, suggesting that economic factors may not be driving the decision. Integration policies were, in fact, stronger factors. European countries where labor market mobility and political participation policies are more open and favorable toward the inclusion of ethnic minorities tend to experience fewer instances of foreign fighters. To be clear, this does not mean that more restrictive policies are directly causing a rise in the number of Europe’s foreign fighters, but it does suggest that integration policies are worth examining as a potential contributing factor.

In conclusion, much more research is needed that examines why some countries experience much higher rates of foreign fighters than others. Labor market mobility and political participation policies may be a good place to start.

Countries with favorable labor market mobility laws promote equal access to the full labor market, education system and employment services, while favorable political participation laws support the development of an active civil society among a country’s ethnic minority populations. This suggests that European states that are more accommodating of their Muslim populations, with robust methods of promoting economic, political and civic inclusion, likely face less of a risk of home grown jihadism than countries that adopt more restrictive policies in these areas.

About the Author
Dr. Melissa Schnyder is an associate professor of International Relations at American Public University, where she teaches courses on international organizations, European politics, comparative politics and international relations theory. She researches the role of non-state actors in influencing international political processes and outcomes. Her forthcoming book, Activism, NGOs and the State, examines transnational and domestic networks of organizations in Europe working for migrant inclusion.

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