Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Familiy of Foreign Fighters

An exploratory study on the role of family members of those who joined jihadist groups

Daan Weggemans

In 2012, intelligence and security services issued warnings about Dutch nationals who were leaving the Netherlands to join jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. In the following years, the number of Dutch foreign fighters increased significantly; from a few in 2012 to approximately 300 in 2018 (AIVD, 2018). Recently, a considerable number of (academic) articles has been published on the motives and living conditions of foreign fighters.1 To date, however, far less research has been conducted into the social environment of these jihadist travelers and, in particular, their families. In this study, consideration is given to the following question: what role and significance do relatives play in the process of a foreign fighter preparing for, traveling to and returning from a foreign conflict where jihadist groups have been active? In addition, in this report, we reflected on the opportunities family members have to intervene and mitigate the risks associated with the process of traveling to and returning from a foreign conflict zone, and the way in which the government can support family members in this context. Various information sources were consulted during this research. Firstly, a wide literature study was carried out into the possible roles of families in deviant behavior, radicalization and violent extremism. Secondly, consideration was given to national and international policy initiatives in the field of de-radicalization, disengagement and reintegration. Finally, the basis for the empirical part of this study consists of a series of interviews with relatives of (suspected) foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq, a small number of returnees and relevant professionals.


In literature and policy there is a lot of attention for the stimulating role of families, in which relatives support the radicalization process or exit and in addition the inhibiting role where family is actively preventing travel or radicalization. This study shows that there is often a more latent role in which family members only exercise a limited influence. In the latter case, for various reasons (including financial, relationship, or health problems, in combination with physical distance) family members are unable to intervene effectively or do not know how to do this. At the same time, it appears that the roles between family members and travelers are dynamic; in the course of time - for example, after departure or upon return - family members may start playing a different role. For the travelers themselves, they often tried to persuade family members to leave for Syria or Iraq during their exit.


The insights from this research endorse the importance for authorities to be in contact with families who are confronted with people who are (threatening to) radicalize or leave. One way of support concerns information provision. Many of the family members interviewed initially had limited knowledge about things such as travel and radicalization and which agencies they could turn to. Most of them had no relevant contacts themselves that could help them with this problem. In addition, (social) psychological and practical support of family members can also be important to limit risks.

This research paints a picture of the experiences of families of travelers. Many of the findings are in line with the results of earlier research into radicalization, but explicitly contradict the assumption that families automatically play a strongly inhibiting or stimulating role; this research shows that many family members often had limited influence on (alleged) processes of travel. A lot of new policy has been developed and the level of knowledge of agencies and professionals has increased significantly. There is also increasing contact with relatives of radicalized individuals. The question is how this contact with (hard to reach) families can be further implemented. In addition, more examples will come in the future of families that directly stimulate a jihadist radicalization process or exit. It is important to be alert in the coming decades to the transfer of extremist ideals within Dutch families.

To read the full report (in Dutch only).

Read the summary in English.

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