Addressing Europe’s Foreign Fighter Issue

Legal Avenues at the International and National Level

in Security and Human Rights
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Since its beginning, the Syrian civil war has been marked by atrocities on both sides of the conflict and as diplomatic efforts fail to bring the various fighting factions to one table, there seems to be no end in sight for the increasingly sectarian conflict. The Syrian crisis has drawn in a range of outside factions and there are reports of some 11,000 non-Syrians fighting alongside government troops, opposition forces and other, often religiously-inspired groups. While most of these so-called foreign fighters come from neighbouring states, around 20 percent of them are estimated to come from Europe. Authorities at the national and international level try to counter these worrying developments via a plethora of means. This article focusses on the question of what legal tools and measures legislators can and should utilise to prevent potential fighters from travelling to Syria and/or prosecuting individuals upon their return, for example for acts committed while abroad or the possible preparation of terrorism-related acts. It analyses the legal avenues available on the international and domestic levels for addressing the issue of foreign fighters. As concerns the national level, the article focuses on the European states that appear to have the highest percentage of departed foreign fighters: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (uk). The authors conclude, among other things, that rule of law responses to the foreign fighter phenomenon in the countries investigated remains fragmented. Although at the European level, the attacks in Belgium in May 2014 have meant that calls for a comprehensive approach to the foreign fighter phenomenon have become more urgent, it is doubtful whether Europe will soon have a Union-wide response to this increasingly challenging problem.




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N. Benotman and E. Naseraldin, “The Jihadist Network in the Syrian Revolution: A Strategic Briefing”, Quilliam Foundation,


T. Hegghammer, “Number of Foreign Fighters from Europe in Syria is historically unprecedented. Who Should be Worried?”, The Washington Post, 27 November 2013,


 See also J.D. van der Vyver, “Prosecuting terrorism in international tribunals”, Emory International Law Review, Vol. 24, Issue 2 (2010), pp. 540–541.


 See A. De Becker, “Tientallen Vlaamse jongeren vechten in Syrië tegen Assad”, Het Laatste Nieuws, 7 March 2013,


L. Vidino, “Foreign Fighters: An Overview of Responses in Eleven Countries”, Centre for Security Studies: Zurich, March 2014,, p. 6.


 See M. Torfs, “Task Force to investigate Belgian participation in Syrian war”, Flanders News, 24 March 2013,


 See J. De Wit, “Milquet en de Syriëgangers, deel 2”, Gazet van Antwerpen, 7 May 2013,


 See Belgisch Staatsblad, 4 March 2013, Federale Overheidsdienst Justitie, C-2013/09097, 18 February 2013, “Wet tot wijziging van boek II, titel Iter van het Strafwetboek”,


 See R. Crilly, “Toulouse shooting: 80 French nationals ‘training with Pakistan Taliban’”, The Telegraph, 21 March 2012,


 See S. Rotella, “Syria’s Jihadi Migration Emerges as Top Terror Threat in Europe, Beyond”, ProPublica, 24 July 2013,


 See J. Keaten, “Prosecutor: French terror cell planned Syria trip”, Yahoo! News, 11 October 2012,


 See C. Cornevin, “L’inquiétante cellule islamiste ‘Cannes-Torcy’ passée au crible”, Le Figaro, 5 July 2013,


 See C. Lynch, “Europe’s New ‘Time Bomb’ Is Ticking in Syria”, Foreign Policy, 9 July 2013,,1. See also S. Kern, “European Jihadists: The Latest Export” (2013): “Leading French anti-terrorism Judge Marc Trévidic told Le Figaro that the presence of so many French jihadists in Syria presents French authorities with an uncomfortable paradox. Because France officially supports the effort to overthrow the Assad regime – France was the first Western country to recognize Syria’s rebel council as the country’s legitimate interlocutors – it is difficult for the French government now to come out and say that it does not support those who are fighting the war”.


 See M. Pennetier and A. Sage, “French police arrest cell with possible Syria link”, Reuters, 25 June 2013,


 See E. Schmitt, “Worries Mount as Syria Lures West’s Muslims”, The New York Times, 27 July 2013,


 See M. De la Baume, “French Court Convicts 3 Who Tried to Join Militants in Syria”, The New York Times, 7 March 2014,


 See C. Tanti, “Terror strike planned for French Riviera”, The Riviera Times, 27 March 2014,


 See V. Siefert, “Salafisten mit Ziel Syrien ausgereist” (2013); and F. Flade, “Radikaler Salafist aus Düsseldorf kämpft in Syrien”, Die Welt, 27 May 2013,


F. Jansen, “Ex-Rapper Deso Dogg angeblich bei Anschlaf getötet”, Der Tagesspiegel, 22 April 2014,


J. Diehl and F. Schmid, “Deutscher Salafist in Syrien: Vom Niederrhein in den Heiligen Krieg”, SpiegelOnline, 27 February 2014,


 See F. Feyder, “Gotteskrieger aus Pforzheim kämpft in Syrien”, Stuttgarter Nachrichten, 27 June 2013,


A. Y. Zelin, “European Foreign Fighters in Syria”, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2 April 2013,


 See L. de Bode, ‘Dutch court sentences would-be Syrian rebel fighters’ Al Jazeera, 23 October 2013, wouldbesyrianrebelfighters.html.


M. Bentham, “Exclusive: Brits who fight in Syria face life in jail”, The London Evening Standard, 3 February 2014,


P. Walker, “Two London women charged with funding terrorists in Syria”, The Guardian, 23 January 2014,


D. Soni, “Student denies smuggling money to Syria in her knickers”, Channel 4 News, 19 May 2014,


Greater Manchester Police, “Counter-terrorism arrests in Manchester”, Crime and Justice, 11 March 2014,


J. Owen and B. Brady, “Theresa May urges action on ‘jihad tourism’”, The Independent, 7 July 2013,


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