GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia
Abstract. This article introduces the present volume and charts the history behind its development, starting from two separate but related events (from 2013 and 2014, respectively), and culminating with the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Advanced Research Workshop (ARW) on the issue. It also explains the author's entry into the world of research on foreign fighters, a field dominated by Syria-oriented studies. This volume is an attempt to offer a new, comparative perspective on the aforementioned phenomenon.
Keywords: foreign fighters; Syria; Ukraine; terrorism.
Two events explain the rationale for this book. The first, from the summer of 2013, happened when, while working on counter-terrorism projects (CT), I was interviewing a series of EU CT officials. They all were very keen on talking to me about the issue of foreign fighters. It was not in my portfolio at the time nor was I especially interested. I was more transfixed on their views about how CT develops in countries with no … “T” (terrorism). Nonetheless, the conversations kept coming back to the issue of foreign fighters, their numbers, the threat they constituted to the EU and the individual Member States. Of course, I had already heard about such individuals and had made the link with their similar mobilisation after the 2003 Iraq war. At that time, however, I was oblivious to the scale of this mobilisation and had not even thought about their post-conflict futures as returnees to Europe. The second event came almost exactly a year later, when in late August 2014, a report on RT (Russia Today), often scrutinized by Central European researchers for an alternative viewpoint, caught my eye because it discussed four Frenchmen who were present, or to be more accurate, fighting in Ukraine on the side of the separatists. Probably, I should confess that it stunned me . Here I was, sitting in my office in Warsaw, Poland, seeing a report about French citizens travelling to a neighbouring country, Ukraine, to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists. The news took some time to sink in but the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that these four people were in fact foreign fighters. Of course, they hardly resembled the jihadist recruits of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) but they were such fighters nonetheless. Yes, theirs was a different cause and a different set of motivations inspired them, and their numbers, at least at first glance, seemed lower, but they, just like some of their Muslim peers, travelled to a foreign war without the promise of a pecuniary award.
In between the two aforementioned events, the field of terrorism studies witnessed the birth of a new industry – research into foreign fighters. Dozens of researchers, experts, and journalists followed the travails of these fighters and documented, especially via social media, their history, motivations, actions in combat, etc. They almost exclusively focused on what was to that moment the dominant case – Syria. The number of sources on foreign fighters in that conflict seems to have risen proportionally to their actual members in the combat zone – one bibliographical study, attempting to take stock of the phenomenon as far as publishing was concerned, contains 17 works with “Syria” in the title – and these come only on top of studies that discuss the phenomenon more generally but in their empirical parts lean on the most obvious and recent case of the Syrian civil war .
A short digression is necessary at this point to map out the prevailing tendencies in the aforementioned “industry”. Most of the research concentrates on Sunni jihadi fighters who joined various Syrian rebel groups. Very little attention, if any at first, was paid to foreigners in the ranks of the Kurdish forces involved in the conflict and, last but not least, individuals or whole units/militias supporting the Syrian government forces. What is more, Western academics, journalists, and experts, for understandable reasons, zoomed in on “their” fighters, i.e., compatriots or other Westerners, be it Europeans or Americans. This led to a situation in which studies devoted to often obscure and miniscule foreign fighter populations were possible and fit in well with the broader, and rising, industry.
Interestingly, such research parameters did very little to introduce Central-Eastern European perspectives on the phenomenon into the fold. There simply was not enough, hardly any, fighters from the countries of the region for my colleagues and me to offer our take on the issue. Consequently, you would not see a scholar talking about such fighters from Poland, Slovakia or Latvia at any international conference devoted to the issue. No papers, articles or books were published. It was only in 2015, and especially in 2016 that some of the previously unknown facts about Poles and others in the ranks of jihadi organisations began to come to light . In the meantime, our queries and searches seem to have been truly futile and resulted in my writing an article subtitled “the lack of Central European foreign fighters” .
It is not an exaggeration to state that in the absence of jihadi and terrorist foreign fighters, the aforementioned Frenchmen, whom I saw flash on the TV screen in my Warsaw office back in August 2014, seemed like an ideal panacea to all Central-Eastern European worries vis-à-vis the issue at hand. They were not local or from the region but travelled to an Eastern European country to take part in an armed conflict. Of course, they stressed their non-terrorist intentions upon returning to the homeland. However, the way they portrayed their involvement in the conflict as “support for the population” and as then attacked by “the army of Kiev”, resembled some of the humanitarian, or quasi-humanitarian, motivations put forward by some of the European jihadists in Syria . What is more, inquiries into some of the backgrounds of the French and other foreign fighters led to the discovery of a range of fascinating life stories and rationalizations for joining the conflict, some not at odds with the stances and opinions of the foreign fighters bound for Syria . Many were displeased, to say the least, with the state of affairs in Europe and left the EU to fight, or so it seemed, for something better, newer, purer outside the borders of the broader West. Some had military or paramilitary experience or originated from either far-left or far-right milieus. Few seemed to have travelled to the conflict zone in order to literally taste war or to satisfy a need for an adrenaline thrill. In short, the conflict provided researchers with a fascinating new case-study related to the issue of foreign fighters.
Over the next several months, I studied their biographies, prowled social media for clues, and established contact with journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers in Ukraine, asking them one question: have you met any foreign fighters while there? Many responded that they had and offered colourful tales of their encounters with the aforementioned fighters. Mostly, however, they were dismissive of the larger value of studying these fighters in more detail. “An interesting subject but not significant enough to merit wider interest in it”, I heard from one of the journalists covering the conflict . Many would have been disappointed by his frankness, but I dismissed this comment at first, as I immediately saw the potential for introducing a new and vibrant case into the research on foreign fighters. Only later was I able to fully comprehend the rationale behind his frankness: the foreign fighters were not worth his time as they hardly made a difference, or to be precise, they “made very little difference” to the course of the war, as one of the Swedes in the ranks of the infamous Azov Battalion/Regiment confessed to me in a Twitter exchange . The latter quote was a finding in itself, an attempt to put the media interest in the broader issue of foreign fighters into the context of the events on the ground.
Regardless of the foreign fighters' importance to the broader war effort in Ukraine, I pursued my interest in them, recruited Arkadiusz Legieć (an author of one of the chapters in this volume) to help me as an intern in the effort, and published a major report on the issue in late March 2015 . I also reached out to colleagues in T and CT circles to comment and distribute the paper. The reactions were extremely positive, and in private conversations many jumped at the chance to compare “their”, mainly Syria-oriented fighters and “my” cases. This was probably the moment, i.e., sometime in spring 2015, when the idea for this book first came to my mind. I was tempted to commit what amounts to heresy in political science and put together two distant, unrelated, and incomparable cases – the thousands of Sunni, Shia and pro-Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the hundreds to low thousands of pro-Ukraine or pro-separatist fighters in Donbass. However, I first wanted the two sets of people interested in the two conflicts and often looking at such fighters to meet to debate the issue and check if it made sense to produce an edited volume focusing on both “Syrian” and “Ukrainian” fighters.
NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) kindly provided the funding for the gathering of handpicked experts with an interest in foreign fighters under the working title of “Not Only Syria?” Thankfully, the “Syria” expert did not feel offended by the provocative title and was enthusiastic about the idea. So were their “Ukraine” counterparts, especially since our meeting, as stipulated by the SPS rules for an Advanced Research Workshop (ARW), was taking place in a NATO partner country, in this case, Moldova. More than 30 experts from about 20 countries attended our meeting and for three days discussed, shared, and compared their expertise on foreign fighters. At the ARW there was widespread agreement on the rationale for staging such an exercise and involvement in direct comparisons between the different sets of foreign fighters, i.e., those in “Syria” (Sunni, Shia, pro-Kurdish) and “Ukraine” (pro-government and separatist). This yields new knowledge, provides interesting context to researchers looking at only a single set of such fighters, and can produce tangible recommendations on how to develop the best possible policies of addressing the threat from any returnee fighters from any conflict.
The participants of the workshop also appreciated the historical dimension of the studied phenomenon – this is not the first time the world has seen foreign fighter mobilisation and some phenomena related to the fighters are not really brand new. The role of contacts and networks in foreign fighter mobilisations was stressed – people travel if they know insiders or others with a track record in the conflict zone, or former militants. However, as was also discussed, sometimes not much is needed to initiate a wave of foreign fighters from a given country – it can take a few determined individuals, sometimes acting separately from each other. The sociological and psychological aspects of the foreign fighter phenomenon were also underscored – future researchers need to learn from seemingly similar national cases, which yield different results as far as mobilisation is concerned, i.e., one country sees many join a given foreign conflict while the other has very few individuals follow suit. The participants debated why that was the case and while doing so came across the issue of understudied, or “never heard before” cases. Their numbers should go down and utmost effort must be made to produce a better understanding of other foreign fighter mobilisations, such as those related to the host country of Moldova, which, and this is not a widely-known fact, has both been an exporter and an importer of foreign fighters. What is more, the participants of the ARW focused on the phenomenon of one country “infecting” another with foreign fighters. The Chisinau discussions also focused on issues such as the perceived link or nexus between criminality and terrorism, vis-à-vis foreign fighters; the widespread misinformation on the shallow, and often bizarre, ideological underpinnings of a given set of foreign fighters (to quote one of the participants: “Read up on obscure fascist theoreticians to know what they are talking about!”); the phenomenon of hop-on/hop-off foreign fighters who travel to conflict zones for a short period of time, only to return to their origin country later; the realization that the field does not underappreciate the “elephants in the room”, i.e., Russian foreign fighters in Ukraine (and not members of Russia's armed forces) or Shia fighting for the government side in the Syrian civil war.
Consequently, the decision was made that such an intellectually fruitful ARW must lead to an edited volume in which the contributors could follow up on the discussions in written format. This perfectly coincided with my original plan, as was mentioned it was formulated sometime in the spring of 2015, to produce a book that would feature both “Syria” and “Ukraine” experts on the issue. Thus, the original plan of contributing to the wider debate on foreign fighters was coming to fruition. This book is its latest element, both a reflection of the aforementioned ARW and a step beyond.
It deliberately is not divided into parts focused on foreign fighters in Syria, followed by articles looking at cases related to the Ukraine conflict. Of course, both wars are different and the Syrian one more complicated and brutal, but both sets of foreign fighters have enough in common to allow us to use a comparative approach. The volume includes 12 original articles, all written by participants of the aforementioned ARW. They offer a variety of takes on the phenomenon of foreign fighters and together form the pillars of an unprecedented work that places different groups of fighters, from different conflicts, alongside each other, in a comparative setting.
The volume starts with a contribution by Chris Holmsted Larsen of Roskilde University, who tackles the fascinating and multi-faceted phenomenon of Danish foreign fighters. He looks for past analogies and offers us a glimpse into the possible future trajectory of this phenomenon. Most importantly, he not only studies fighters who travelled to Syria but also looks at the rarer cases of mobilisations for the war in Ukraine. The “national” approach, and concentration on the sets of fighters bound for one conflict, and from one country, is also to be found in the contributions by Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs of Leiden University (Netherlands), Ebi Spahiu (mainly Albania but also with a look into the other Western Balkan countries), Pieter Van Ostaeyen (Belgium), Habib Sayah (Tunisia) and to an extent András Rácz of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (on Russia), Stanislav Secrieru (on Moldova), and Eman Ragab of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (Egypt).
De Roy van Zuijdewijn's article focuses on the relatively large Dutch case of Sunni jihadi fighters and sets it in a comparative light with other foreign fighter mobilisations. The author looks at the numbers, motivations of the fighters and the responses of the Dutch state, so far untouched by the returnee terrorist attacks. Spahiu deals with a no less interesting case of Sunni jihadists travelling to Syria from not only a Muslim but also European country with a recent history of violence, and a security sector undermined by corruption and criminality. Van Ostaeyen's contribution looks at the fascinating – for the wrong reasons – case of Belgian Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and attempts to tell us why so many Belgians have travelled to the conflict zone. Sayah analyses a much larger, less well-known case of similar fighters from Tunisia and charts their offshore (and back) travails. Ragab, looking more holistically at the Middle Eastern cases, provides us with much-needed context for our preoccupation with Western European Sunni jihadists. Rácz's piece analyses one of the aforementioned “elephants in the room” – fighters no one seems to be looking at. He dissects the numbers, mode of mobilisation and motivations for the Russians present in the separatist ranks in Ukraine. His contribution also attempts to chart out the consequences of the conflict for the two countries. Secrieru's article tackles another aforementioned phenomenon – the dual export and import of foreign fighters by a given country, in this case Moldova. A thoroughly understudied case and concepts that merit more attention.
The other articles in the volume focus less on national cases. Arkadiusz Legieć of the University of Warsaw provides a handy roundup of foreign fighters, bar the Russians, present in the war in Ukraine on both sides. He carefully unveils one of the biggest mysteries of the conflict – the ideological similarities between the aforementioned group of fighters. Not much, it seems, divides them and some might have as well ended up fighting alongside their erstwhile enemies. Pierre Sautreuil, a French freelance reporter, actually met some of these fighters “in the field” and his contribution offers us a rare glimpse into the other set of French foreign fighters – those who travelled to Ukraine, far less “famous” then their Syria-bound counterparts. Miroslav Mareš of Masaryk University approached the foreign fighter contingents in Ukraine with a sharp analytical eye and categorized them according to “eras” in which they appeared in the conflict zone as well as their potential future threat to NATO countries. Finally, Egdūnas Račius of Vytautas Magnus University discusses the extent to which Sunni foreign fighters can truly be seen as “foreign” and how their travel and settling down in the non-recognised “Caliphate” fits into the notion of nationhood, nation-building and statehood.
I am not sure what can follow this truly great volume. I highly recommend it and ask you, the reader, to keep your fingers crossed for us as we attempt to unearth more of the seemingly obscure cases of fighters, radicals or terrorists somehow connected to Central-Eastern Europe. This could lead to another book. Let us remember then that it is “Not Only Syria”.
 Russia Today, “French Donbass fighters: We came to inform people of the reality of this war”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahdROttr_o8, accessed 14 November 2016.
 See: Price, E., “Bibliography: Foreign Fighters of Terrorism”, Perspective on Terrorism, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/409/html, accessed 14 November 2016, for a compilation of a list of sources.
 Gąsior, M., “Interpol ujawnia dane bohatera tekstu ‘Mamo, zostałem dżihadystą’. Ten 24-letni Polak walczy w Syrii po stronie ISIS”, natemat.pl, 26 August 2016, http://natemat.pl/188465,interpol-ujawnia-dane-bohatera-tekstu-mamo-zostalem-dzihadysta-ten-24-letni-polak-walczy-w-syrii-po-stronie-isis, accessed 14 November 2016.
 Rekawek, K., “‘For Our Freedom and Yours?’: The Lack of Central European Foreign Fighters in Syria”, The Clear Banner, http://jihadology.net/2014/05/30/the-clear-banner-for-our-freedom-and-yours-the-lack-of-central-european-foreign-fighters-in-syria, accessed 14 November 2016.
 See: note 1.
 Jackson, P., “Ukraine war pulls in foreign fighters”, BBC News, 1 September 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28951324, accessed 14 November 2016.
 Author's e-mail interview with a correspondent (who asked to remain anonymous) of a major Western European newspaper in Ukraine, 15 January 2015.
 See: @KacperRekawek Twitter exchange with @MikaelSkillt from 3 April 2015.
 Rekawek, K., “Neither ‘NATO's Foreign Legion’ Nor the ‘Donbass International Brigades’: (Where Are All the) Foreign Fighters in Ukraine?”, PISM Policy Paper, no. 6 (108), 30 March 2015, https://www.pism.pl/Publications/PISM-Policy-Paper-no-108, accessed 14 November 2016.