The myth of the European jihadist hordes

By Khaled Diab

The terrorist attacks in Brussels will reinforce the idea that returning jihadists pose an existential threat to Europe. But the facts say otherwise.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart
Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart

Monday 28 March 2016

It has been described as a “treasure trove” and “goldmine”. German intelligence has reportedly obtained the recruitment documents of 22,000 members of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

While some have cast doubts on the authenticity of the information released in the media or raised questions about whether this was perhaps an intentional ISIS leak, the German security services are satisfied that the documents are authentic.

One thing this cache of documents and earlier finds clearly point to is the basic breakdown of where ISIS recruits come from. An analysis of 1,700 ISIS documents obtained by Zaman al-Wasl found that nearly three-quarters of recruits were from Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia leading the pack, followed by Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

Interestingly, Syrians only make up under 2% of the recruits listed in this cache, lending greater credibility to the notion that ISIS's blood-soaked theocracy is a kind of foreign imposition.

However, while ISIS depends heavily on with no connections to the local social fabric, thereby facilitating its brutality, this figure is probably too low, especially considering how long the terror group has now ruled.

“It's possible that [Syrians] are mentioned in other documents, and these are mostly about foreigners,” Hassan Hassan, co-author of the acclaimed ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, told me. “Syrians have a sizeable presence within ISIS, particularly young people or former insurgents.”

Despite all the media hype and political frenzy accompanying the phenomenon of European jihadists, only a small minority of ISIS recruits in the leaked documents actually come from Europe.

This chimes with the estimates of Western intelligence agencies and independent think tanks. In early 2015, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King's College London estimated the presence of 4,000 Western European fighters in and Iraq. At the end of 2015, another estimate, released by intelligence consultancy the Soufan Group, put the number of Europeans combatants in Syria and Iraq at 5,000.

Although the number of European recruits appears to have risen significantly over the past couple of years, it still represents a miniscule proportion of Europe's Muslim minority.

The European Union is home to 13-20 million Muslims, while Europe as a whole has a Muslim population of 44 million. This means that European jihadists in Syria and Iraq represents a maximum of 0.04% of the EU's Muslim population.

Despite this microscopic fraction, the concave mirror of sensationalist politicians and media outlets makes it appear to be a monstrous phenomenon of giant proportions – as if a European jihadist foreign legion is marching to the Levant, while a similar army, disguised as refugees, is marching in the other direction, to conquer Europe.

This magnifying and amplifying effect has serious real-world consequences. One significant effect is how the hype shifts government responses away from holistic policies and towards narrow, security-focused punitive measures.

While fear of the terrorism potential of returning jihadists is understandable and we must be vigilant so as to prevent future atrocities, such as the recent attacks in Brussels which left at least 31 dead, this overlooks the fact, as the experience of some Muslim countries shows, that the most effective form of de-radicalisation of jihadists is often “jihad” itself. Confronted with the discrepancy between their “utopian” ideals and the ugly, murderous reality, many return wishing to turn over a new leaf and reintegrate into society.

Instead of locking ex-jihadists up and throwing away the key, or stripping them of their nationalities, thereby giving them no path towards de-radicalisation and re-integration, we need a more nuanced approach.

Though war crimes committed should be punished, the growing ranks of disillusioned ISIS defectors can be utilised to undermine the group's appeal and propaganda, and assist in state efforts to prevent radicalisation among vulnerable individuals.

“Governments and civil society should recognise the defectors' value and make it easier for them to speak out,” contends Peter Neumann, ICSR's director. “Where possible, governments should assist them in resettlement and ensure their safety.”

Moreover, the exaggerated hype around jihadists makes ordinary Europeans feel far, far unsafer than they actually are and shakes their trust in their Muslim compatriots. It also causes a sense of greater and isolation among ordinary in Europe, as they endure a mounting wave of and hate crimes.

“It's like I can't do anything anymore without feeling unsafe,” a young Muslim woman from Brussels told me recently. A young Arab man in Brussels told me that he was now afraid of his own beard and name.

This hysteria strengthens the hands of extremists. Islamist and jihadist recruiters are able to prey on the vulnerabilities and sense of alienation felt by young, disaffected Muslims to radicalise more of them. It also weakens and undermines the role of secular and moderate Muslims as cultural bridges.

Far-right and neo-Nazi hatemongers exploit the actions of the few jihadists to demonise the majority of peaceful Muslims – a strategy exploited by groups as diverse as the in France, Jobbik in Hungary and numerous Republican presidential candidates in the United States, most vociferously by frontrunner .

In fact, the fixation on jihadists, Islamic terrorism and Muslims is distracting much-needed attention away from the odious and troubling phenomenon of the rise of far-right white and Christian supremacism and , both in Europe and the United States.

On the other end of the scale, it has given the distorted impression that the bulk of Westerners are hostile towards Muslims. While this holds true in places like Italy and Poland, this is not the case in Western Europe.

Despite two major Islamic terrorist attacks in France over the past couple of years and the growing vocalness of the far-right, the vast majority of French people have a positive view of Muslims (76%), according to a Pews survey. Britons and Germans also hold similarly favourable views.

This points to a way forward out of the growing hate and animosity marking the public discourse. The silenced and increasingly side-lined sensible majority must seize back the podium from the extremists, whether they be Islamists or the anti- far-right, and the media and politicians must pay greater attention to us.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 March 2016.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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