Foreign fighters: time to recognise and study a new type of migration

Published 3 February 2015 / By COMPAS Communications

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On 30 October 2014, the Washington Post reported the flow of over 15,000 foreigner fighters to Syria and probably also to Iraq. They suggested that each month around 1,000 people travel to Syria, mostly with the intention to join the fights, and thus to join the killing. A map shows the countries where these people have been coming from and their numbers: Tunisia (3,000), Saudia Arabia (2,500), Jordan (2,089), Morocco (1,500), Lebanon (890), (Russia (800), Libya (556), UK (488), France (412), Turkey (400), Egypt (358), Pakistan (330), Belgium (296), Algeria (250), Australia (250), Germany (240) (Washington Post). About 5,000 came from the Middle East, another 5,000 from Northern Africa and 3,200 from Western and Northern countries. In total, 53 countries are listed, suggesting a global phenomenon.

This information is based on sources from the CIA, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and the Soufan Group research (2014). How accurate these figures are is certainly disputable, national estimates are sometimes higher. For instance, German sources refer to ‘at least 600’ (Der Stern 16/1/2015), and French sources to 930, people who went to Syria and Iraq (RFLRL 25/1/2015). A related feature is the return of fighters to the countries where they have been coming from. The returnees may be disillusioned and they may be traumatised but they may also be radicalised and aiming at taking the fight back to the perceived enemy countries in the west. In the UK ‘about 250 are believed to have returned’ (BBC News, 14/11/2014), in Germany, their number is put at 200 (Der Stern 16/1/2015).

A figure of a Shooting ManHowever, foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are not isolated occurrences; foreigners also join fights in other parts of the world. Most notably, in Ukraine, Russians and other nationalities are joining the separatists to fight against the Ukrainian central government (BBC News 1/9/2014). Foreign fighters are also reported from the conflicts in Libya (All Africa 6/1/2015). The current situation is not new.,In the recent past volunteers have joined foreign guerrillas and fights in other countries, like in the 1980s and 1990 in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Palestine and Kurdistan, and more recently in Afghanistan and Chechnya. For instance, some German leftists joined the PLO or PFLP, the PKK or the Sandinistas and FMLN and others. Most of these, however, were individual cases and there was no large scale trend. Historically there are numerous cases of volunteers and mercenaries joining fights like French and Germans who joined the American independence forces.

Ideologies and drivers

Past and present volunteers, and this does not include mercenaries, usually joined forces they considered in one way or another anti-establishment, anti-western, anti-imperialist, revolutionary and often nationalist, and saw them as liberating countries from dominant powers of either foreign origin, foreign backed and/or illegitimate national elites. In any case they claim(ed) that they are practicing international solidarity and join(ed) a just cause. However, the volunteers of the past seemed to have been rather driven by ideals of equality, freedom, modernity and progress whereas the volunteers of today are driven by ideals of gender inequality, repression of other religions and of nostalgia, retreat and radical conservatism (see El-Mafaalani’s study on the motives of youth joining Salafist movements, Die Sueddeutsche 24/1/2015, also see the Soufan Group 2014 report). This implies that the purpose of these foreign fighters – supporting a community/movement/country under attack and/or joining the fighting - may have been similar whereas the motives and ideals - joining liberal versus joining illiberal causes - seem rather different. In this context, the rise of the number of mostly young people from western countries joining this cause indicates some failure of humanitarian and liberal education.

Staying the trend

fence with lockThe impact on the affected countries, the countries of origin and return, the countries of destination and potentially also transit countries is significant. The foreign fighters are radicalised in the countries of origin, their journeys are facilitated in transit countries where they possibly have supporters, and their contribution to the fighting and to suicide bombings but also to propaganda and infrastructure seems significant given their sheer numbers, whereas their return to the countries of origin can pose significant risks. The measures discussed so far are to improve border controls in all three types of countries: to introduce watch lists and prevent people from entering transit countries (so far, 1,300 were refused entry to Turkey, interview with Turkish official), remove the passports of people who are suspected to wanting to join IS in order to prevent them from travelling in the first place or to ban them from returning (The Guardian, 14/11/2014) and to criminalise recruiting, training, funding and travelling for the purpose of fighting abroad (see Council of Europe’s Committee on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Related Issues, 22/1/2015). There are, however, legal and normative challenges to all of these as the Guardian article suggests (as above).

Integration into the migration debate

The above is not isolated but can be found in other historical and contemporary contexts. It is of seemingly increasing scale and of significant social and political impact. It is already explored by war studies, such as at the King’s College’s Department of War Studies, but should also be recognised by migration studies as a separate type of mobility and migration that requires research along the conventional lines exploring drivers, scale, modes, intersection with other types of mobility, impact and governance. I would like to encourage readers to contribute to this debate and get back to me with comments and suggestions for a research agenda. (Please contact me at