Universiteit Leiden

nl en

Foreign fighters

Understanding what motivates foreign fighters to go and fight in war zones and analysing their social environment offers a basis for preventing them from going.

The number of young Dutch people travelling to Syria to join the fighting has increased considerably since 2013. This is worrying, because these ‘foreign fighters’ return with combat training and a radicalised ideology. These fighters are the subject of research conducted by Edwin Bakker, Professor of Terrorism and Counterterrorism, for the Dutch government and also in the context of the EU. How dangerous are they, and what can we do to limit the potential risk? In order to address these questions, he and his colleagues collected all the existing information on European foreign fighters. They also spoke in person to fighters who have returned to the Netherlands, and to the families of young people who have left or wanted to leave. There are currently (autumn 2015, ed.) more than 4,000 European foreign fighters, over 200 from the Netherlands, a few hundred from Belgium and around 1,000 from England and France.

Attractive career move

Bakker: “Young people have very different reasons to go and fight, ranging from conviction (they see it as a basic duty of their religion, like visiting Mecca) to imitating the behaviour of others ('my best friend went too') and from genuinely wanting to help to trying to give meaning to their lives. Some of these young people have problems here at home, possibly with money, their studies or the police. Then they hear about the possibility of leaving. Within one-and-a-half day’s travel, they are suddenly fighters who have been ‘called to protect families under the holy flag of Islam’. Which is, of course, an attractive career move.”


Foreign fighters who have returned are a potential threat because some of them come back traumatised or radicalised, and may resort to violence. American research into incidents among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shows that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the horrors they have witnessed. “It is extremely likely that fighters will experience atrocities in Syria. What’s more, soldiers know that they will come up against these kinds of intense situations, whereas young people who go and fight are completely unprepared. This lack of preparation is asking for trouble. There’s a big risk of psychological problems, either there or when they return.”

Important role for mothers

“If you want to prevent young people travelling to Syria, parents – and mothers in particular – have an important role to play. What the government can do is to increase awareness of the phenomenon and give those involved (parents, teachers, social workers) some idea of the process that can lead to a trip to Syria or Iraq, so that they can recognise the signs and phone the police or a newly set up radicalisation helpline if they suspect that this may be happening.”

This website uses cookies.  More information.