The European Union and “Foreign Terrorist Fighters”

Disciplining irreformable radicals?

Authored by: Francesco Ragazzi , Josh Walmsley

The Routledge Handbook of Critical European Studies

Print publication date:  December  2020
Online publication date:  December  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138589919
eBook ISBN: 9780429491306
Adobe ISBN:


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As approximately 5,500 European men, women, and children from 26 EU member states have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2012 (Barrett 2017), unease about “foreign terrorist fighters”—the term diffused in public and policy debates to designate anyone who came to reside in Syria and Iraq during the recent conflict—has grown increasingly salient. Though the phenomenon of people travelling from their home country to fight in a conflict abroad is not new, 1 the scale of departures, as well as the military rollback of IS in Syria and Iraq, have prompted a renewed debate about the risks they may pose to European security (UN OHCHR 2019). Since the mass shootings and suicide attacks that hit Paris on 13 November 2015, fears that battle-hardened, ideologically fervent combatants would return to Europe en masse— with destructive intentions and capabilities— have served as the dominant frame of interpretation. 2 As a result, there is a tendency for attacks those that have occurred in recent years in Brussels, Paris, Nice, Berlin, Manchester and London to be “viewed through the lens of the foreign fighter phenomenon (Bakker and de Roy van Zuijdewijn 2015)”. Despite this, very few concrete cases of “foreign fighters” returning to conduct attacks in Europe have been observed. Although the attacks in Paris and Brussels (as well as a number of foiled plots 3 ) directly involved individuals who had returned from Syria and Iraq, academics have struggled to reach convincing scientific conclusions about the causal relationship between “foreign fighting” and political violence in Europe. 4 This is not to say that there is no reason for concern— which is clearly not the case in light of the atrocities in Brussels and Paris. Rather, the threat posed by individuals returning from Syria and Iraq is characterised by most counter-terrorism professionals as “low probability, high impact”. 5

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