As 2014 comes to an end, the number of Europeans who have joined Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq—so-called Euro-jihadists—exceeds 3,000. This figure comes from European Union (EU) anti-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove. As this figure slowly grew over the past few months, France joined the fight against ISIS, sending aircraft to Syria, where the French government claims to have “wiped out” several ISIS targets.
The military contribution of the French government supports a wider coalition air campaign against ISIS.
Since August, coalition forces have carried out approximately 200 air strikes. The United States (US) and its allies operating in the region launched 15 airstrikes against ISIS positions in a 3-day period, at the end of November. The attacks have failed, according to Syria’s foreign minister Walid al-Moualem, to weaken ISIS in Syria.
US Central Command (CENTCOM) stated that vehicles, tactical units, fighting positions, and buildings in Syria and Iraq have been destroyed. Despite these efforts, and reports of “success,” al-Moualem stated during a broadcast, “[a]ll the indications say that [ISIS] today, after two months of coalition air strikes, is not weaker” (quoted in The Guardian).
Airstrikes may have served as productive means of demonstrating a military commitment by Western governments to confront ISIS, but they have increasingly become fruitless acts of addressing symptoms of jihadist radicalization and the flow of fighters from Europe to the battles zones.
Western efforts in Syria and Iraq have misrepresented the margins of this conflict. Although both countries remain, at least for now, the primary regions of intensive fighting, Europe has become somewhat of a home front for ISIS. Europe has contributed, in part, to what is now estimated at 31,000 jihadists in Syria and Iraq. This estimate has increased three-fold over the past several months.
But this home front can also become a convenient and ideal battleground. If ISIS seeks to exploit weaknesses of the West, there is a strong possibility of retaliatory attacks by ISIS in Europe. Individuals or communities sympathetic to the movement, its aims, and its ideology, could also plan and conduct attacks in European countries rather than against US and coalition military forces in the Middle East.
Why pursue the path of jihad-martyrdom for ISIS?
It is doubtful whether individuals fighting for ISIS or those attracted to the so-called opportunities it provides have even a moderate understanding of Islam. Those with an interest in their religion, but know very little about it, are the most vulnerable to online recruitment campaigns via social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. There is enough appeal and recruitment through these sites that ISIS has developed significant international appeal.
Those who are either uninformed or are newcomers to Islam are prime targets for recruiters. Many foreign fighters have claimed that Allah called them to Syria and Iraq. Spectators of this conflict might be equally unaware that this is not Islam.
Connecting Allah with the ISIS movement is a matter of invalidity. There can be no theologically legitimate connection drawn between Allah and ISIS, and its professed caliphate. But explanations by means of the pathology of these fighters likewise share no common ground with this conflict either.
Explaining the desire of Europeans to fight for ISIS, as an element of mental illness is deceiving. In some of the rare accounts of why individuals abandon their lives in Western countries and move to join ISIS and fight, the quest or journey to achieve significance or be part of something exceptional, factors in.
The goal still needs to be “awakened” for the behavior to be observed—loss of significance, deprivation, (anticipated or possible) loss, avoidance, and incentive—according to leading specialists Arie Kruglanski, Jocelyn Bélanger, Michele Gelfrand, Rohan Gunaratna, Malkanthi Hettiarachchi, and Keren Sharvit.
Ideology, while bolstered by such claims by ISIS as the creation of an Islamic caliphate, may play a less significant role in the radicalization of individuals. The role of ideology remains disputed. It is, however, important for detecting radical activity—particularly that which is emerging—and channeling or guiding it.
For Syrian and Iraqi children who were interviewed by Vice Media, stating that they wanted to become part of ISIS so that they could “kill infidels” (quoted by Eric Banco in the International Business Times), the violence is simply the means of achieving significance and of becoming part of something special, not the objective.
Battle-hardened jihadists can serve a valuable purpose when they show signs of wanting to disengage and deradicalize as part of their return to their home countries. Should they decide on this course of action, their transition into regular society is crucial. Their stories, experiences, and voices can be used to prevent others from seeking to pursue the same path.