“In recent years, thousands of radical citizens and residents from Europe have joined the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Unlike other European countries, Italy has traditionally been characterised by the prevalence of individual pathways of radicalisation over group mechanisms. Nevertheless, recent cases show interesting indications of the increasing role of small groups based on pre-existing personal relationships (family and friendship ties). This kind of bond can be particularly salient for IS, a jihadist “proto-state”, which needs not only ‘foreign fighters’ but also new ‘citizens’ of different sexes and ages, including entire families.
Although the phenomenon is not novel,33 Malet, Foreign fighters.View all notes the flow of (Sunni) jihadist foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq is unprecedented. It can be estimated that from 2011 to the present no less than 30,000 jihadist foreign fighters have arrived in Syria and Iraq from over 100 countries. About one fifth of these individuals have come from the West.44 See Schmid and Tinnes, Foreign (Terrorist) Fighters, 7, 27; Van Ginkel and Entenmann, The Foreign Fighters Phenomenon.View all notes
Most have joined the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Da‛esh). With the crisis of IS’ self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’, the risk is particularly high. In fact, an increasing number of jihadist foreign fighters could leave Syria and Iraq, exacerbating the terrorist threat.55 E.g., Khalil and Shanahan, Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.View all notes
Actually, there is no common and agreed-upon definition of the term ‘foreign fighter’.66 In particular, Schmid and Tinnes, Foreign (Terrorist) Fighters.View all notes However, drawing in part on Hegghammer’s formulation,77 Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters”, 57-8.View all notes a foreign fighter can be defined as an agent who (1) has joined, and operates within the confines of, an insurgency, engaging in combat, (2) lacks citizenship of the conflict state or strong kinship links to its warring factions, (3) lacks affiliation to an official military organisation, and (4) is not motivated essentially by the desire for private gain, unlike a common mercenary.
On closer inspection, however, not everybody who decides to leave for Syria or Iraq for the cause of jihadism is necessarily a genuine foreign fighter in the narrow sense. Importantly, not everybody takes part in combat. IS, in particular, is not only a terrorist group, focused on the use of rebel violence, but also a “proto-state” that controls a territory and governs a population.88 Lia, “Understanding jihadi proto-states”.View all notes Thus, in recent years it has been possible to join IS as new ‘citizens’ of this state, without necessarily engaging in terrorist or military roles. Since the self-proclamation of the caliphate in June 2014, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has asked every Muslim believer to fulfil their individual duty to immigrate. This has made traveling to Syria and Iraq attractive for an unusually diverse group of people compared to the past (for example, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was interested in young male fighters). Hence the diversity within the various national contingents of jihadists, which may consist of both very young and very old persons, of male and female jihadists, and even families with children.99 Bakker and de Bont, “Belgian and Dutch Jihadist Foreign Fighters”, 847.View all notes Some of these people may take on combat roles and become foreign fighters in the strict sense, but others do not because of their age (too young or too old), their sex (women are not allowed to engage in combat)1010 IS and other jihadist armed groups in Syria and Iraq, basing their activity on a rigid interpretation of Sharialaw, normally prefer not to use women in military combat. See, among others, Peresin and Cervone, “The Western muhajirat of ISIS”.View all notes or other reasons.
It is interesting to note, however, that even those who do not engage in combat may be involved in violent acts. In fact, supporting activities are often difficult to separate from violence.1111 Bakker and de Bont, “Belgian and Dutch Jihadist Foreign Fighters”, 849.View all notes For instance, one of the jihadists present in the sample examined in this article (Aldo Kobuzi), after arriving in Syria, was entrusted with religious policing tasks, which included the stoning of adulterers. Moreover, almost all men receive a rifle and are expected to be armed. Even some women, including one in our sample (Maria Giulia Sergio, Kobuzi’s wife), received firearms training.1212 Marone, Italy’s Jihadists, 15.View all notes Nor does the lack of a genuine combat role preclude these people from carrying out or at least supporting acts of violence in the conflict area or even in other countries.
Thus, as millions of people fled Syria and Iraq, thousands of jihadists decided to go the other way in order to fight alongside or simply support armed groups on the ground. They agreed to become muhajirun(‘emigrants’ in Arabic). The self-proclamation of the caliphate, based on a radical interpretation and application of sharia law, represents a powerful ‘pull factor’1313 Coolsaet, Facing the fourth, 39-40.View all notes for many jihadists from all over the world.
This article focuses on Italy, an interesting national case that has not been extensively investigated so far. It presents interesting particularities,1414 Marone, “Italian Jihadists”, and Italy’s Jihadists.View all notes including the traditional prevalence of individual pathways of radicalisation1515 Many studies have pointed out that jihadists, including foreign fighters, present a variety of individual profiles. Therefore in the literature there has been a general tendency to “shift the focus away from profiling extremists to profiling the radicalization pathways they take” (Hafez and Mullins, “The Radicalization Puzzle”, 959). See also Horgan, “From Profiles to Pathways”.View all notes over group mechanisms. Unlike other European countries,1616 Schmid and Tinnes, Foreign (Terrorist) Fighters, 35.View all notes peer pressure or other group dynamics within small groups did not play a crucial role in the past. Instead, the present analysis shows indications of an increasing importance of group dynamics. One characteristic of the cases examined is the influence of pre-existing personal ties and, in particular, family relationships.”
Source and further reading: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03932729.2017.1322800