Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Research Report

What Drives Europeans to Syria, and to IS?: Insights from the Belgian Case

Rik Coolsaet
Copyright Date: Mar. 1, 2015
Published by: Egmont Institute
Pages: 24
  • Cite this Item

Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-4)
    Rik Coolsaet

    ‘A bizarre phenomenon,’ Der Spiegel concluded, after trying to figure out why youngsters left Germany to become foreign fighters in Syria. The magazine painted a portrait of two thirty-somethings with similar background and the same hobby – martial arts. One became director of a martial arts school in Hamburg, the other became a terrorist poster boy in Syria.¹

    ‘Bizarre’ wasn’t exactly the word Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, used in a confidential memo in 2014. But still, he too admitted to being puzzled by the Islamic State’s appeal:...

  2. (pp. 5-6)

    Over the past decade and a half, a huge amount of public money has been spent on research into radicalisation, either by the EU or by Member States. This has resulted in a substantial number of in-depth studies, profiles and even models aimed at conceptualizing the process by which an individual turns into a terrorist. But when the scale of the Syria phenomenon became public in 2013, everyone was surprised, even in countries like the Netherlands or the United Kingdom which had taken a substantial lead in the field of radicalisation studies. Mid-2014, the Dutch intelligence service AIVD reported consequently...

  3. (pp. 7-9)

    When defined as socialisation, ‘radicalisation’ is nothing new. Such processes led to political violence and terrorism in the distant past too. Neither is it novel for Belgians (and Europeans) to volunteer for foreign theatres of war. During the Spanish Civil War, some 1,600 Belgian volunteers engaged in the International Brigades. Many more joined the Waffen-SS and went to the Russian Front during the Second World War. These are examples of bygone times.

    From the 1980s onwards, a new generation of Europeans again started to join foreign battlefields. The war against the Red Army in Afghanistan, the civil war in Bosnia...

  4. (pp. 11-16)

    What do we know about the motives of (potential) foreign fighters originating from Europe? The authorities have at their disposal a wealth of raw data from different sources, even if it is not always systematically compiled into analyses. Its volume, however, exceeds by far the information on the earlier generations of foreign fighters. A small part of this information surfaces during trials, such as the major Sharia4Belgium trial in Antwerp, in February 2015. In the (semi-)public domain, social media are an important source, since it has been very widely used since 2012, including as a means of communication with the...

  5. (pp. 17-18)

    Undoubtedly this social environment is a difficult burden for youngsters as a group, but it is even harder to support if they have the feeling of not being able to enjoy the same opportunities as their peers. And it is still harder for those for whom this is not merely a feeling, but a reality, because they live in precarious circumstances in neglected city districts with no prospects of decent work.

    This is the conducive environment for the wide array of personal, age-related motivations through which a youngster may be tempted by a departure for Syria. In the aforementioned stories,...

  6. (pp. 19-19)

    Geography is part of the answer. Syria is easily accessible, especially for youngsters – in comparison to the earlier jihadist war zones. Hence it offers the opportunity that had been lacking since 2010. But from 2013 onwards, ISIS a.k.a. ISIL became a real magnet, attracting the bulk of foreign fighters. It was the direct successor to an earlier, also extremely brutal, terrorist movement in Iraq, founded by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi in response to the US invasion. On 29 June 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi announced the establishment of a caliphate. ISIS morphed into ‘Islamic State’ (IS)


  7. (pp. 21-22)

    In the early stages of the Syrian crisis, a number of small groups played a unique role of hyphen between push and pull factors. This was the case in Belgium with Sharia4Belgium, Resto du Tawhid in Schaerbeek (where Sean Pidgeon volunteered), and the members of the old GICM cell (Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain) in Maaseik, who were released from prison. The leaders of these groups were themselves interlinked and on average older than the rest of these groups.

    When sentencing Sharia4Belgium figurehead Fouad Belkacem in February 2012, the Antwerp court emphasized how the discourse of Belkacem had become ‘increasingly provocative...

  8. (pp. 23-24)

    An elimination of the push factors that motivate European youngsters to depart for the Syrian-Iraqi war theatre cannot possibly be addressed by Muslim communities alone.

    ‘Can you deradicalise a Muslim?’ a respected Belgian newspaper wondered, undoubtedly not realizing how belittling such a headline was to Belgian citizens of Muslim faith. It expresses a widely held view in Europe, and in Belgium too, that Islam is the real problem and that the solution is to ‘instil radical Muslims with more appropriate thoughts.’43 This has been the angle chosen by the UK government of David Cameron: ‘The root cause of this threat...