European Foreign Fighters in the Islamic State

In this Quarterly Special Report (QSR), Jamestown looks at European foreign fighters within the Islamic State. One of the most unique aspects of the Islamic State organization is its targeted recruitment of foreign fighters. Thousands of men and women from around the world have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the jihadist group, and the Islamic State has purposefully sought out more through tailored publications and online videos in dozens of languages, including English, Russian, Bahasa Indonesian, Urdu and, of course, Arabic. Social media also plays a key role in reaching sympathetic individuals throughout the world and encouraging them to give up their lives to join the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate. For its part, the Islamic State needs these foreign fighters to replenish the organization’s ranks and serve as additional recruiters and propagandists for individuals in their home countries.

Europe has become a significant source of manpower for Islamic State recruitment of foreign fighters, due to its proximity and the presence of large, often poorly integrated Muslim immigrant and second-generation populations. At the same time, a notable number of ethnically European converts to Islam have also gone abroad in search of jihad. These jihadists come from countries spanning the continent—north and south, west and east—which makes stopping their transit a difficult task for authorities despite extensive international cooperation in this matter. It is with this purpose in mind that this QSR on European foreign fighters was compiled—to identify patterns and networks of these individuals who are sympathetic to violent Islamic extremism so that policymakers are better able to analyze at-risk populations within their own countries.