Foreign fighters and Jihad

(To Antonio Vecchio)

The theme of Foreign Fighters (FF), or of those "jihad fighters not originating from the state entities in which they voluntarily serve ", constitutes one of the most followed topics in recent years not only from the academic world.

If their presence has historically been limited to the Arab Islamic world, it is with the Afghan conflict that it is configured as a real expanding phenomenon, which will lead to an estimate of the 15.000 foreigners who arrived there to fight against the Soviets during the thirty years 1980- 2010.

Quantity largely exceeded by the number of those (20.000) who, in the last four years, have reached the "Siraq" to join Daesh, the 20% of which comes from Europe, and at least 3-5000 have already returned to the States of origin, creating a non-secondary problem of homeland security.

The use of foreign mercenaries is not new; the West itself has used it several times.

Think of the venture companies typical of Renaissance Italy; and, in contemporary times, to the presence of foreign soldiers in the legionary departments of France and Spain.

Never, however, had there been any amount of fighters coming from everywhere to respond to an "ideal" call - both political and religious -, even before the desire for adventure and realization, even economic.

And it is precisely this aspect that characterizes the fatal nature of the entire jihadist phenomenon, which, aspiring to a new geopolitical entity in the south and east of the old continent, represents a serious threat to the international community (already) capable of conditioning our own existences.

This article aims to provide elements of knowledge on the main aspects of this phenomenon, with which - if someone had not noticed - we will have to live together for the next 10-20 years.

Terrorism and conventional combat

Here it is necessary to start from the accredited definition of terrorism, which for Treccani is "The use of illegitimate violence, aimed at instilling terror in the members of an organized community and destabilizing or restoring order, through actions such as attacks, kidnappings, hijackings of planes and the like".

Terrorism is only the product of a strategy aimed at disseminating terror and insecurity in the enemy and its population, as well as reinforcing the trust in the cause in their ranks; from this point of view, i Foreign Fighters (FF) have shown, in the recent attacks in Turkey, Tunisia, Paris and Brussels, to be able to use asymmetric methods of combat extensively.

On the other hand, Daesh troops have also revealed traditional military command and conduct capabilities (think of the conquest of Ramadi, Racca, Mosul), which led them to annex, in about a year, one third of Iraqi territory and half than the Syrian one.

In this advance, they have certainly been helped by the contiguity with the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq, but still guided by the combat experiences brought by the many veterans of the Caucasian wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And it is precisely this capacity for action on two levels (symmetrical and asymmetrical) which gives them the ability to simultaneously hit the "near" enemy (Shiite Muslims, leaders of Arab nations considered in the service of the West, local populations who do not marry their confession) and the "distant" one (Europe, Russia and USA).

The first, through the use of "conventional units" trained militarily on-site (for about 4 months) before being used on the battlefields; the second, by resorting to fighters returning to Europe, to young people recruited by fishing in the social and economic hardships of our cities, some of which, the so-called "lone wolves", act as veritable weapons systems "stand off", uncontrollable, once (auto) activated.

In fact, there is also an individual Jihad - the one theorized by the Syrian Abu Musab al Suri - according to which "the individual can join the fight without necessarily having to create a group " through "a practical personal training, carried out at home ".

Who joins the Jihad?

Recent US and British studies have pointed out how maladjustment, marginalization, social exclusion and identity crises represent the constants of this category, which is also significantly characterized by young people with crime problems (for 50% with pending charges) and by subjects with mental disorders (20% of the total).

They are usually second or third generation immigrant citizens, whose fathers are well integrated and with moderate tendencies; they have an average age of 18-29 years (sometimes drops to 15-17), significantly younger than the fighters who flocked to Afghanistan in the thirty years 1980-2010 (25-35).

They are mostly males, although in recent times there has been a growing interest in recruiting women, mostly from Western countries.

Despite the presence of very many Caucasus veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan, most of the young people who join the Jihad do not have military training; on the other hand, it has a medium-high level of education, with a significant percentage of graduates.

Do not believe that the religious motivation is decisive in pushing them to join the Jihad: many - especially those from Europe - tend to be atheists or agnostics, and convert to Islam shortly before leaving, preserving a rudimentary religious knowledge.

Religion, however, catalyzes, facilitates the latent sense of revolt towards the society in which they grew up, perceived as a stranger, and gives this rebellion one more reason to fight it.

Motivational component

It represents the most important aspect of the problem: to understand why young people belonging to the most varied social classes, born and raised in European cities, in many cases with an excellent level of education are so sensitive to jihadist fascination.

What unites the deed of adhesion expressed by a member of the British middle class in possession of a university PhD to that of a Parisian who grew up in banlieue?

Answering this question means facing the "core" of the problem, and laying the foundations for a plausible answer to the phenomenon.

First of all it is necessary to underline how, over the years, the very concept of Jihad has undergone a profound transformation, which has transformed it from an original duty individual in obligation collective for all believers when the umma (the community of the faithful) and its territory are under attack.

It was precisely the theorizing of this doctrinal aspect, carried out by Islamic thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj, that provided an extraordinary lever for thousands of aspiring fighters from various quarters.

It was in the 80 years, however, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that this approach found its definitive consecration thanks to the work of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian intellectual who with his works: Defense of the Muslims Lands: The First Obligation after Faith, and Join the Caravan (1987), summoned all the faithful to fight in Afghanistan alongside the mujihideen.

It is evident, returning to the present, how this religious appeal is further corroborated by the feeling of rejection of the liberal-capitalist western social system, and the consequent individual-consumer combination.

An absolute religious belief is grafted onto this consideration, an all-encompassing ideology that transforms anger into motivation, protest into encouragement.

In fact, what prevails is not only the rejection of a civilization of which one does not feel like a child and towards which one places oneself with a feeling of superiority, but also the perceived threat that this model brings to the Islamic socio-religious framework.

In these individuals the disenchantment, which with relativism represents a result of modern society, gives way to a religious fanaticism that finally offers a reason to live (and to die), cloaking their daily work of religious poetry.

In them, that is, in the words of Renzo Guolo, an Islamic radicalization prevails more than a radical Islamization.

Finally, even the territorial definition of the Islamic State, which geographically re-proposes the Caliphate for the first time since the 1914, reinforces the narrative of a final, extreme possibility entrusted to the current generation of believers to realize the "umma".


As emerges from a recent study prepared by the Soufan Group, drawn up for the Munich Security Conference (2016), the international Caliphate militia is composed of about 36.000 fighters, most of them of Middle Eastern origin (8.240) and of the Maghreb (8.000 ).

The former USSR republics received about 4700, 875 from the Balkans, and slightly less than 900 from southern Asia.

Particularly worrying is the figure on European provenance, which amounts to around 5000 Foreign Fighters (about 14% of the total), with France clearly in the lead (1700), followed by Germany and UK (760 each), Belgium (470), Austria and Sweden (300), Netherlands (220), Spain (133 ) and Denmark (125).

From Italy, according to the latest report presented to Parliament on the "Information Security Policy", "only" 93 fighters would have left: all, with very few exceptions, of foreign origin.

The data presented above become even more significant if compared to the Sunni Muslim population present in the individual European countries.

(From Europe they have left, to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq in the last four years, about the 20% of all fighters, despite the fact that the component of Sunni Muslims present on our continent is only 1,5% on a global scale -19.000.000 against 1.500.000.000 -.)

In fact, the Austrian 300 FFs, if referred to the resident Sunni 450.000, "weigh" much more than the French 1700, an expression of well 4.710.000 compatriots of equal confession; the same applies to the Swedish 300 FFs (in Sweden live 430.000 Sunnis) preponderant, in proportion, to the 1500 of Morocco, whose population - entirely Sunni - is equal to 31.930.000.

In other words, as Paolo Quercia, an analyst at the Military Center for Strategic Studies (CEMISS) points out, an Austrian citizen now has ten times the chances of joining the Jihad of his co-religionist residing in Kuwait; as well as one Belgian has four times the probability of one from Saudi Arabia.

Just think that from the Swedish city of Gothenburg more FFs left than from all of Sudan.


In addition to the traditional channels (80 and 90 years) related to Islamic mosques and charity organizations (NGO's), what distinguishes today's recruitment is the massive use of social platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Istagram, blog, chat) and, in general, on the Net with dedicated video channels and online magazines: one among all "Inspire".

Just "Inspire generation" is the commonly used meaning to indicate all those militants reached and convinced through the mediaweb, with the so-called technique of adbusting, that reproduces, in sites designed with the most modern web architecture, colors, sounds, environments typical of the most widespread videogames.

Using posts, tweets, text messages and videos is fast and viral.

Marco Strano, psychologist and criminologist of the State Police, explains that "the most effective posts / contents for this purpose are those with a strong emotional charge such as videos of performances and images of blood, which are disseminated by users primarily to exorcise the horror and to dispel anxiety (..) the spread of pathogenic cultural messages is initially undetermined and with random diffusion, but it manages to find numerous recipients in the youth areas of perpetually waiting subjects".

The technique used is called "spider technique": the messages are packaged and put on the net waiting for someone to get caught up in them, even using effect sentences that solicit primary feelings in male adolescents.

An important aspect of the phenomenon is its ability to self-generate on the network with continuous sharing.

The aforementioned research by the Soufan Group compared, on a particular day (28 May 2014), the discussions on the war in Syria shared on social networks by experts and academics with those of groups particularly close to foreign fighters and Jihad sympathizers.

What emerged is the clear difference in the number of replies for the benefit of the second group, which is used, among other things, to comment extensively on each post before relaunching it.

(In the face of 10.700 posts, re-launched 173 times in the community of experts and scholars, the group of sympathizers for Jihad stood out for 308 posts relaunched for well 11.603 times).


In the 80 and 90 years, financial resources came from sponsor States, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, a true philosophical inspiration for Wahhabi fundamentalism.

Today, however, as shown in a study by Louise Shelley of George Mason University, activities related to the recruitment and training of foreign fighters destined to operate in Siraq, Libya and Europe, are financed with proceeds from traditional criminal activities consumed most of the time in our cities, since the self-financing of Daesh (smuggling of oil and works of art, trafficking in human beings, kidnappings and various taxes) exclusively destined for the salaries of those operative fighters already usable in the field , as well as for the functioning of the "state" bureaucracy.

(As soon as they arrive in Syria, in fact, i Foreign Fighters must wait at least 4-5 months before collecting the first salary, the time necessary for their training in situ).

The above points are certainly not exhaustive to frame the phenomenon as a whole, but serve to channel a path of gradual understanding, necessary if you want to become aware of the enemy you are facing.

Because of this it is a question of a war against us declared and in full swing.

Let our rulers take note of it.