Migrating to the Land of Jihad: Why European Muslims fight in Syria

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015. Subsequent posts will come out on Wednesdays and will cover topics such as the responses by the Kurds, Turkey, and Iran to the rise of the Islamic States. An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 when protests erupted against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The immediate response of the Syrian authorities was to increase repression. However, the security crackdown proved counterproductive; by the summer of 2011, the confrontation between the Assad regime and the opposition had turned into a full-scale civil war. Since then, the two warring sides have increasingly drawn in different religious communities: the Syrian regime has been largely supported by the Alawite community and other minorities, while the opposition has been mostly Sunni-dominated. To make matters worse, Syria has become a battlefield on which great powers (the US and Russia), regional powers (Turkey and Iran) and non-state actors (Hezbollah and al Qaeda-affiliated groups) are fighting a proxy war.

According to news reports, a growing number of European Muslims are fighting alongside the insurgents. A study published by the King’s College International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation claims that between 400 and 2,000 European Muslims have gone to Syria since 2011 to fight the Assad regime, representing 18 percent of the foreign fighter total. It appears that most of them come from Great Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

British men of Arab and Asian origin, as well as converts, have joined the opposition forces. The British security agencies estimate that as many as 500 British nationals have travelled to Syria for the purpose of fighting there. The case of British fighters in Syria first drew media attention when a British and a Dutch journalist, who had been kidnapped by an unknown jihadi group, managed to escape from captivity and made it to Turkey in July 2012. It was later revealed that some of their captors were actually British-born Muslims of South Asian origin. Most recently a British national was identified as the infamous ‘Jihadi John‘ who was shown in videos of Western hostages’ beheadings.

Members of other nationalities have joined the Syrian opposition as well. In July 2013, Berlin estimated the number of Germans fighting in Syria at more than 70, predicting a further rise in their number in the future. Tens of Belgian Muslims have also joined the opposition forces in Syria. The cases of the Belgian teenagers, Brian De Mulder and Jejoen Bontinck, from Antwerp have received public attention because their families have launched a campaign to bring them home; the father of Jejoen Bontinck even travelled to Aleppo to find his son but in vain. In February 2013, a former Guantanamo prisoner, Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane became the first Danish fighter to be killed in Syria. In May 2013, an American woman convert was killed in northern Syria, although it is not exactly clear what her role there was. Additionally, Muslims from Ireland and Spain have travelled to Syria for the purpose of joining the opposition forces.

At the group level, there are three factors explaining the flow of European Muslims to this country. First, Syria is relatively close to European countries; jihadi fighters can easily reach the territories controlled by the insurgents through Turkey. Secondly, some of the European Muslims fighting in Syria are either native Arab speakers or have knowledge of Arabic which can facilitate their participation. Third, the suffering of the civilian population has received increasing media attention leading to mobilisation of support among Europe’s Muslim communities; while most concerned Muslim citizens wish to provide only humanitarian aid to the Syrian civilians, a small number of radicals view the conflict as an opportunity to join jihadi groups.

At the individual level, each jihadi fighter has followed his/her own radicalisation trajectory. Although the radicalisation process is not the same for all individuals, it is still possible to understand the circumstances under which some European Muslims turn to violence. There are indications that some mosques have been utilised by Islamist networks for jihadi activities; for example, the al Qibla Mosque in the Dutch city of Zoetermeer has allegedly played a role in the flow of fighters to Syria. Additionally, radical preachers have contributed to the radicalisation of European Muslims. Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a London-based cleric of Syrian origin, has been particularly active in mobilising support for the insurgents in Syria.

In many cases, however, European Muslims have been self-radicalised through the internet. In the post-9/11 period, numerous websites were created by jihadi groups, radical preachers and individual sympathisers. Frazer Egerton has noticed the importance of hypermedia and their impact on the transformation of some Muslims into jihadis. He rightly points to the inspiring role of images (e.g. massacres of Muslims). Through the use of hypermedia, Muslims are now more familiar with the Syrian civil war and thus more susceptible to jihadi messages. Many of them have mentioned the overwhelming influence of videos depicting atrocities against Muslim civilians. During an interview on Dutch television in March 2013, a Muslim convert of Dutch origin explained that he decided to join the Sunni resistance because he ‘could not sit and watch [on TV] his sisters in Syria being raped and his brothers being beheaded.’

For the new recruits, the jihad-trip is the equivalent of an internship through which they can prove themselves to their family and friends (who have usually criticised them for their conversion to Islam or their growing religiosity) and, more importantly, to the larger group – the world’s Muslim community, the ummah – which will give them recognition. Indeed, it can be argued that jihadi fighters have developed a hybrid identity that combines jihadism with Islamic universalism. They believe that they are involved in an open-ended religious conflict between the ummah and its enemies. Therefore, they consider it their own individual obligation (fardh al-ayn) to defend the ummah.

The involvement of European Muslims in the Syrian civil war could have important security implications for Europe. If the history of Arab Afghans is a guide, the return of European jihadi fighters to their home countries may contribute to the outbreak of jihadi campaigns. Since they have already gained valuable skills and experiences, they may later be tempted to target their own governments and societies. While investing more in intelligence-gathering is certainly an option, a successful strategy should promote the social inclusion of European Muslims. Therefore, European governments should promote inter-religious dialogue, enforce legislation on equality and non-discrimination, and take measures to combat Islamophobia. In this regard, working with Muslim communities and their leadership is a precondition for implementing any policies to tackle the radicalization of European Muslims.

Image: “Free Syrian Army soldier walking among rubble in Aleppo” by Voice of America News: Scott Bobb reports from Aleppo, Syria. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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