In recent years, many European countries have been confronted with citizens or residents that have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN, as of recent known under the name of Jabhat Fatheh al-Sham) and the Islamic State (IS). The larger European countries, most notably France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, have ‘produced’ the highest number of these jihadist foreign fighters. But smaller countries have also seen high numbers of young Muslims leaving for the battlefields in the Middle East. Two of them, Belgium and the Netherlands, have been confronted with relatively many of them (respectively 388 and 260) compared to the size of their populations. Belgium is in fact the European country with most of these fighters per capita.
Why have these two countries produced relatively many jihadists? This question is difficult to answer as there are many possible factors that play a role, ranging from national and local political contexts and the existence of networks and leadership, to demographics and individual push and pull factors. A recently published article in Small Wars & Insurgencies by researchers of Leiden University aims to shed light on this question by providing an overview of the phenomenon of jihadist foreign fighters in the Low Countries , by analysing their characteristics, motivations, and roles in the war in Syria and Iraq, and by comparing the cases of Belgium and the Netherlands.
The article shows that some of the general assumptions regarding European foreign jihadist fighters, such as that they are mainly young and have migrant background, are more or less supported by the authors’ empirical data – gathered through open sources, court proceedings and interviews. Comparing Dutch jihadists with their Belgian counterparts, we see that these two groups are similar in several aspects. With regards to characteristics, parallels can be derived when looking at geographical origin, age, education, and occupational status. When looking at the motivations to join the jihad, both groups are believed to have done so for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from a general feeling of a lack of meaning in their lives to social exclusion and (perceived) discrimination . Furthermore, the activities and roles in the conflict in Syria and Iraq are also very similar for Dutch and Belgian jihadists. This is partly due to the fact that Dutch and Belgian (more specifically the Flemish jihadists, who represent a significant percentage of the Belgian jihadists) jihadists’ pathways in Syria are to some extent interwoven. Given their shared Dutch language, they are being clustered together in safehouses during their ‘enlistment phase’ and are also often grouped within the same battalion after having completed their training . Both groups also show several differences, especially when looking at the size of the phenomenon (see figures above) and the percentage of women. They also differ somewhat when looking at marital status and socioeconomic background. Regarding motivations to leave for Syria and Iraq, the role of networks in propagating the jihad seemed more important in Belgium than in the Netherlands.
These empirical data and the comparison between the jihadists from Belgium and the Netherlands provide more insight in phenomenon of jihadist foreign fighting. To further increase our understanding on these topics, similar comparisons with other countries are needed to be able to explain why some countries have ‘produced’ more jihadists than others and what factors may be more important than others in explaining the characteristics and development of the phenomenon in general. To that end, future research endeavours should not only focus on other European countries, but also non-European countries, such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, from which thousands have left for the battlefields in Syria and Iraq and whose citizens fight alongside their jihadist comrades from Europe.
The full article can be read here.