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foreign fighters

Over the past few years, several international analysts have dedicated time and resources to profiling terrorists. They wondered what attracted and convinced a huge mass of individuals to become combatants in the seemingly desperate enterprise known as the Caliphate led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Religious factors, a hope for a better future, poverty and marginalization are among the most common motivations. A fascination for a divine design for a marginalized youth in countries run by autocratic and corrupt regimes. The individuals volunteering for ISIS came from all over the world and shared the same reason for going to fight.

There are no clear figures on the number of volunteers that have reached Syria or Iraq. Overall, some 70 thousand people have joined ISIS and other militant groups in the Middle East. Some 30 thousand of them were foreigners. Out of the latter lot, over 4 thousand were Europeans, of which 1.500 from France, 8/900 from the UK, 7/800 from Germany, 600 Belgians, 350 Austrians and 110 from Italy. To those who took the step to travel to the Middle East, we have to add those radicals that have not left their countries of origin.

What is more striking is that the process of radicalization took place in Europe, where human rights are respected, civil liberties, religious tolerance are granted and corruption is not as widespread as in Arabic or Muslim countries. Hence, the European Muslims represent, or appear to represent, a sociological contradiction that is hard to interpret or classify. And if we fail to understand the causes that push and motivate someone to become a fanatic and, at a later stage, a terrorist, we will not be capable of finding a cure for a chronic social disease. Preventing radicalization is a challenge for both security forces and politicians. Otherwise our analysis will be limited only by physical appearance – a long beard, a hijab and so forth – or a search for the 17 factors US authorities have identified in potential terrorists. The so-called “stress factors” include: late arrival at the check-in desk, excessive yawning, trembling or distress, a clean shaved and thus pale face, no direct eye contact, fast blinking of the eyes, excessive sweating and so forth.

Both the foreign fighters and those who stay share common values and ideology, but differ in terms of personal involvement. While the first are ready to take the decisive step to become militants, the latter develop religious fanaticism and social hate without carrying out any crime. These differences disappear once the Muslim that chooses not to go fight in the Middle East becomes a lone wolf. The attacks in London, Paris and Brussels prove that.

Stereotypes don’t help

Unlike what people generally believe, an individual that turns into a terrorist in Europe is not necessarily from a poor working class, jobless, uneducated, socially marginalized and thus frustrated, with psychological or psychiatric problems that are the result of traumatic events in his/her life. At least, this is not the dominant pattern. Statistically, the opposite is true: terrorists are middle class, they have a job and a profession (although in some cases he is a student, or unemployed), they are married and have kids. Sometimes they are divorced, or single, or engaged when they are younger. The average age is between 20 to 35 years. In the majority of cases the terrorist is a male, while women represent a mere 17%. Individuals that we would deem marginalized are the minority. Most of these people have a university degree (25%), a high school diploma (40%), while only 15% is illiterate or uneducated.

A dominant trait is the Arabic origin, generally Algerian, Tunisian or Moroccan. A second or third generation immigrant who lives in urban areas. Muslim converts are a minority. Most of them also have dual nationality: the country of origin and their host country.

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The path to radicalism

ISIS propaganda on the internet and social networks has had a great impact on the most gullible individuals. Subliminal messages, a religious and patriot mix, and divine inspiration convinced many to join the cause. The indoctrination starts through friends, relatives, mosques, during a detention in jail and, only at a later stage, when the emotional process has evolved, does the actual recruitment by Jihadists or Salafists actually take place.

Living in a Muslim community, often isolated in a ghetto, allows the individual to absorb his social and family identity in an overreaching religious context. Then, depending on how deep the message has gone, the radicalized individual decides to leave, stay or stage a terrorist attack at home.

Social marginalization

The unemployment rate among immigrants is higher if compared to the rest of the European population. One out of four terrorists that have staged attacks in Europe also spent jail time for offenses unrelated to terrorism. But this still fails to explain why a European Muslim, maybe from a second or third generation of immigrants, decides to become a fanatic first and then a terrorist.

There are a number of psychological factors to take into account. The son of a Muslim immigrant living in Europe embodies a contradiction: a family with its own culture, traditions, values and duties and the outside world. The individual thus faces an identity crisis and is often incapable of enriching his personality with external influences. When he finds himself a foreigner in the world around him, he chooses to go back to his parents’ culture of origin. And when this happens, religion is the key element in refusing and contrasting the culture of the host country.

In other terms, religion isn’t a cultural tool anymore, but rather the conduit for frustration, rancor and hate. This is when the path to radicalization begins. This explains why, in a recent poll, only a third of the 3.5 million British Muslims is ready to report an Islamic terrorist to the police. Only a third is willing to condemn a terrorist attack and over 1 our of 5 British Muslims is in favor of Sharia law. Namely, over a million British citizens support terrorism.

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The aftermath of the attack against the UK parliament

A bleak future

It is seemingly contradictory to find people still willing to carry out terrorist attacks in the name of the ISIS when the defeat of the Caliphate is closer. The so-called Islamic State has focused its fight in the Middle East against the Shia apostates, rather than against the Christians. The lone wolf in Europe is doing the exact opposite.

This implies that a military defeat of the ISIS will not put an end to Islamic terrorism in Europe. In fact, the opposite could be true. The religious utopia linked to the founding of an Islamic State was part of an irrational dream that overcame all odds. Fighting in the name of such a high ideal, through a bold terrorist act, simply raises the stakes. And turn martyrdom into a cherished prize. Terrorism is part of an asymmetric struggle, it can strike against anyone and anywhere, follows irrational patterns, and the symbolic nature of the action prevails over the actual damage inflicted. This makes terrorism extremely hard to eradicate. Europe is facing a long battle.

Of the estimated four thousand Europeans that have joined Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, 30% will return home. Some of them will be arrested or sanctioned, while others will get away with it. They will be able to display their military experience: they’re heroes who’ve fought a war. Once home, they will join local radical groups and help increase the level of extremism within their communities. By doing so, the ISIS propaganda machine to recruit or radicalize will become useless, because the contagion has begun. Between 2015 and 2016 around 14 terrorist attacks have struck Europe. And they could be more in the future.

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