Members' Research Service By / January 28, 2015

Foreign fighters and European responses

In the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, the spotlight has fallen on the phenomenon of…

@RVNW / Fotolia

In the light of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015, the spotlight has fallen on the phenomenon of foreign fighters. These radicalised citizens of EU member states pose a threat to security, having been trained to fight and hardened against Western values in the war zones of Syria and Iraq. The phenomenon can be traced further back to Al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan and Afganistan, about the dangers of which commentators have been warning for many years. Especially since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2178 in September 2014, states around the world have been looking to counter the threat posed by foreign fighters at home. Europol Director-General Rob Wainwright recently cited “3,000 to 5,000 EU nationals” as potential foreign fighters.

This Keysource brings together the EU response, starting with its legislative status quo. It looks at responses in certain Member States, and offers analysis and background information on the nature and extent of the phenomenon.

The May 2013 Keysource on young jihadists provides further background, and EPRS produced a note, Towards a new European Agenda on Security, by Martina Prpic in January 2015.


@RVNW / Fotolia

Be afraid, be a little afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq / Jeremy Shapiro; Daniel L Byman, Brookings Institute, Policy Paper 34/2014.
Written before the Paris attacks, the authors assert that the current threat from foreign fighters is greater than past threats. They sketch how citizens of Europe and the USA become radicalised, and give an estimate of their numbers.

Comment déradicaliser les islamistes? / Pierre Conesa, 9.1.2015.
Propose des stratégies pour lutter contre la radicalisation, en Grande-Bretagne, Hollande, Danemark, Norvège, Belgique, et particulièrement en France. L’étude complete est également disponible.

Addressing the foreign terrorist fighters phenomenon from a European Union perspective: UN Security Council Resolution 2178, legal issues, and challenges and opportunities for EU Foreign Security and Development Policy / Global Center on Cooperative Security, December 2014. 18p.

Foreign Fighters: An Overview of Responses in Eleven Countries / Lorenzo Vidino, Livio Pigoni, Aglaya Snetkov, CSS, 2014

“This study provides an overview of responses to the foreign fighter phenomenon in eleven selected countries and it assesses strategies and legal mechanisms available for policymakers to address the potential threat posed by Syria returnees.” Covering Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany Netherlands, Russian Federation, Spain, UK, USA, Australia.

Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) Initiative : The Hague – Marrakech memorandum on good practices for a more effective response to the FTF phenomenon /GCTF 19-20 February 2014, 9p.

EU response

In 2013, Ben Hayes and Chris Jones (Statewatch) produced a Catalogue of EU Counter-Terrorism Measures Adopted since 11 September 2001 / SECILE project. 223p.

European Council, Justice and Home Affairs Council and Counter-Terrorism Coordinator

The informal JHA Council of 11.1.2015 released a statement in which the participants condemned the attacks, reaffirmed their attachment to human rights, freedom of expression, tolerance and mutual solidarity, and made plans for further cooperation in the field of internal security in accordance with UNSCR 1377 and 2178 and the conclusions of the Justice and Home Affairs Councils of 9 October and 5 December 2014. This cooperation would in particular be aimed against radicalisation, especially on the Internet, and the work and movement of terrorist networks.

JHA Council of June 2013 , 10578/14 called for increased cooperation in countering the foreign fighter threat, a call reiterated by the June 2014 European Council , and by the August 2014 special European Council (point 18). In October 2014, the JHA Council called for EU PNR to be enabled as soon as possible, a well as improvement to external border checks.

In his report to the European Council of 24 November 2014 ( 15799/14 ), the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator , Gilles de Kerchove, emphasised the need to address the foreign fighter phenomenon, issuing a discussion paper, 15715/2/14 , on 2.12.2014 . The CTC’s roadmap , 14.10.2014, is a restricted document. In his 17.1.2015 discussion paper, DS 1035/15, he focused on prevention of radicalisation, border controls, judicial cooperation and intelligence sharing.

European Commission

Commission Work Programme 2015, COM(2014) 910 , 16.12.2014
“The Commission will table a European Agenda on Security to address threats… such as… foreign fighters”. (p.9)

The Radicalisation Awareness Network is hosted by the Commission, whose January 2014 Communication, “Preventing Radicalisation to Terrorism and Violent Extremism: Strengthening the EU’s Response”, COM (2013) 941 , is the latest policy document.

Prevention of terrorism was the focal point of COM (2010) 0673 , The EU Internal Security Strategy in Action: Five steps towards a more secure Europe.


Europol Director-General Rob Wainwright, evidence to the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, on 13.1.2015,

The phenomenon is also addressed in the TE-SAT 2014 report , 29.05.2014, for which there exists a brief summary .

European Parliament

The European Parliament’s LIBE Committee held a joint debate on counter-terrorism, de-radicalisation and foreign fighters on 27.1.2015, at which key speakers included the Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, and a spokesman from the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network .

European Union’s internal security strategy: European Parliament resolution of 22 May 2012 on the European Union’s Internal Security Strategy, (2010/2308 (INI) .

EU Counter-Terrorism Policy: main achievements and future challenges, European Parliament resolution of 14 December 2011, 2010/2311(INI) .

Profiling, notably on the basis of ethnicity and race, in counter-terrorism, law enforcement, immigration, customs and border control , 2008/2020(INI), 24 April 2009

European Parliament resolution on the external dimension of the fight against international terrorism (2006/2032(INI) 15 February 2007

Member States’ responses

The difficulties associated with transposition of EU counter-terrorism legislation into national law were highlighted in the 2013 Statewatch  Report on the transposition of EU counter-terrorism measures / Ben Hayes, Chris Jones, 60p.


In the aftermath of an incident in Verviers, whereby two presumed foreign fighters were killed by police, the Belgian government issued a press release on 16.1.2015 detailing 12 measures against radicalism and terrorism. Interior Minister, Jan Jambon commented on these measures on Belgian television.

The basis of Belgian counter-terrorism law is la loi du 19 décembre 2003 relative aux infractions terroristes , about which Martin Moucheron wrote in Cultures et Conflits, 2006: Délit politique et terrorisme en Belgique : du noble au vil .

Article 137 of the  Code pénal is another primary source of counter-terrorism law, to which changes were made in April 2014 by the Loi portant des dispositions diverses en matière de Justice ,.


The DDIS Intelligence Risk Assesment 2014 report assessing risks to Danish security from abroad. 30.10.2014. 56p. Terrorism, p.25-27 [ Danish version]
Focuses on winning th battle against IS in Iraq and Syria as a means to reduce the foreign fighter threat.

Assessment of the Terror Threat against Denmark / Center for Terroranalyse, Danish Security and Intelligence Service, January 2013. 6p.
Relates the ‘significant’ threat to Denmark to the ‘Cartoon Case’.


La loi du 13 novembre 2014 renforce les dispositions relatives à la lutte contre le terrorisme. Un des principaux décrets d’application, qui met en place l’interdiction de sortie du territoire des ressortissants français projetant de participer à des activités terroristes à l’étranger, a été publié ce 14 janvier 2015.

Commission d’enquête sur l’organisation et les moyens de la lutte contre les réseaux djihadistes en France et en Europe / Sénat, Janvier 2015 et video , 3 minutes, 11/2014.

L ‘audition de Bernard CAZENEUVE, ministre de l’Intérieur, sur la lutte contre le terrorisme, Juin 2014, 19 minutes .


The possibility of withdrawing an ID card in addition to a passport, 20.1.2015, Bundestag: ” Ausreise nach Syrien ohne Pass “. Bundesregierung Antowrten zum Thema: “Entzug des Personalausweises bei Djihadisten”, BT-Drs. 18/3673 , 2.1.2015

Das Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz hat sein Aussteigerprogramm „HATIF“, das sich an gewaltbereite Islamisten richtete, September 2014 eingestellt .

Analyse der den deutschen Sicherheitsbehörden vorliegenden Informationen über die Radikalisierungshintergründe und -verläufe der Personen, die aus islamistischen Motiven aus Deutschland in Richtung Syrien ausgereist sind / Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Bundeskriminalamt (KI11, ST33), Hessisches Informations- und Kompetenzzentrum gegen Extremismus (HKE), 1.12.2014. 32p.

German Foreign Fighters in Syria / Daniel Heinke and Jan Raudszus, ICRS Insight, 20.1.2015
Looking at who the fighters are, how many of them there are, and where they go.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands comprehensive action plan to prevent jihadism: overview of measures and actions , was produced by the Ministry of Security and Justice on 29 August 2014. Further publications such as terrorism threat assessments can be found on the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) webpages. The NCTV also issued a report, Global Jihadism – Analysis of the Phenomenon and Reflections on Radicalisation in December 2014, 36p.,  which contains an annotated bibliography.


El ministro del Interior, Jorge Fernández Díaz, ha intervenido hoy en el Foro “Libertad y Seguridad” , 16.1.2014

Extremismo y radicalismo islámico en la estrategia de seguridad nacional 2013: una visión fragmentada e incompleta / Beatriz Tomé, Universidad Complutense, UNISCI, Mayo 2014

The Spanish foreign fighter contingent in Syria / Fernando Reinares, Carola García-Calvo, January 2014

United Kingdom

In November 2014, the Government introduced a Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill , with the aim of strengthening its authorities’ counter-terrorism powers, summarised by the House of Commons Library in its standard note SN07073 , 14.1.2015, and in more detail in the research paper RP14/63 , 28.11.2014.

The annual report on the national security strategy and strategic defence and security review , presented by David Cameron on 18 December 2014 , states that the threat to the UK from international terrorism was raised from “Substantial” to “Severe” in August 2014.

Prime Minister Cameron mooted the idea of barring UK foreign fighters from returning to the UK in August 2014 , an idea he restated in November 2014.
Source: House of Lords debate, 13.1.2015

In its report on Counter-Terrorism of 30 April 2014, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee outlined the general nature of the threat (p.4), estimated the number of UK nationals engaged as foreign fighters (p.13) and expounded UK counter-terrorist policy (p.33).

Blowback: foreign fighters and the threat they pose / Asim Qureshi, Cage Ltd 2014.
Analyses the British foreign fighter problem, with focus on Syria. Itemises terrorist attacks in the UK with presumed foreign fighter involvement.


Al-Qaidas deutsche Kämpfer / Guido Steinberg im Gespräch mit Silvia Engels, 20.11.2014, Koerber-Stiftung, 92 Minuten [Video]
Detaillierte Darstellung des Phänemomens der radikalisierten deutschen Rückkehrer aus Syrien und dem Irak.

War on two fronts: the EU perspective on the foreign terrorist fighters of ISIL / Teemu Sinkkonen, FIIA, 2015. 8p.

The modus operandi of jihadi terrorists in Europe / Petter Nesser & Anne Stenersen, in Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 8, Number 6, December 2014.
Analyses the type of attack committed by jihadi terrorists in Europe.

Western Foreign Fighters : Innovations in Responding to the Threat / Rachel Briggs & Tanya Silverman, 2014, 60p.
This paper estimates the scale of the foreign fighter problem, describing who the fighters are, what drives them, and offers ways to counter their threat.

Foreign Fighters under international law /  The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, Briefing No. 7, October 2014, 64p.
Putting the phenomenon of foreign fighters in its historical context, this briefing outlines the current state of EU and international law around the issue and introduces human rights aspects associated with counter-terrorism measures.

Further literature

Further literature may be found via the Library catalogue [EP Intranet only].

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  • I’m in the youth trainer database managed by Salto. I advise to engage in the debate in the channels where these age groups are active. E.g. schools. Acknowledge we want engaged youngsters. Ask how you feel about talking with a snakes’tongue: the UK-, France-, Belgian royalty – elites don’t seem to be shy in intervening in other states to secure their interests. At the same time we keep sponsoring regimes as Saoudi Arabia by buying their petrol for our cars that bring us to school. Or do you take a bike? How easy do we find it in our own lives to stay true to our ideals? Do these young radicals stay true to their ideals: e.g. do they distribute soup to the poor, what do we doe? Do these radicals speak the truth or do they don’t hesitate to lie too? Do they stay faithful to their wife/girlfriend? What do young people propose? What book do you find more valuable: their comment book on the Koran, or maybe the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Children/Humans/…/how to deal with prisoners of war/slaughtering animals. Explain them about the Agenda 21, the . What strategies do youngsters can think up? Explain them the EU Youth in Action funding to meet with peer youth all over Europe to discuss this. Civil society in Italy, can’t get rid of the maffia alone, idem in Greece, idem with that elite in the UK, France, Belgium … one solution is to come together in a larger entity: the European Union, where parliamentarians from other nations can expose and form a block. For more, contact me.

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