ISIL and the myth of the European jihadist hordes

The fixation on jihadists is distracting the attention away from the troubling rise of far-right extremism in Europe.
af8d94c7cc2d400f8f503d6cb5c830c5_18It has been described as a “treasure trove” and “goldmine”. German intelligence has reportedly obtained the recruitment documents of 22,000 members of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

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 ISIL leak, the German security services are satisfied that the documents are authentic.

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Nevertheless, one thing this cache of documents and earlier finds clearly point to is the basic breakdown of where ISIL recruits come from.

An analysis of 1,700 ISIL documents obtained by Syrian independent electronic newspaper 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 less than two percent of the recruits listed in this cache, lending greater credibility to the notion that ISIL’s blood-soaked theocracy is a kind of foreign imposition.

A false presumption

However, while ISIL depends heavily on foreigners 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 ISIL, particularly young people or former insurgents.”

The exaggerated hype around jihadists makes ordinary Europeans feel much less safer than they actually are and shakes their trust in their Muslim compatriots. It also causes a sense of greater marginalisation and isolation among ordinary Muslims in Europe, as they endure a mounting wave of racism and hate crimes.

Despite all the media hype and political frenzy accompanying the phenomenon of European jihadists, only a small minority of ISIL 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 Syria 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 (PDF).

Although the number of European recruits appears to have risen significantly over the past couple of years, it still represents a minuscule 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 represent a maximum of 0.04 percent of the EU’s Muslim population.

Despite this microscopic fraction, the concave mirror of sensationalist politicians and media outlets make 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.

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While fear of the terrorism potential of returning jihadists is understandable and we must be vigilant so as to prevent future atrocities, this overlooks the fact, as the experience of some Muslim countries shows, 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.

Cooperation rather than coercion

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 reintegration – we need a more nuanced approach.

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

An arrangement of British daily newspapers photographed on February 2015 shows the ISIL militant dubbed ‘Jihadi John’. [Getty]
“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 much less safer than they actually are and shakes their trust in their Muslim compatriots.

It also causes a sense of greater marginalisation and isolation among ordinary Muslims in Europe, as they endure a mounting wave of racism and hate crimes.

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.

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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 Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary and numerous Republican presidential candidates in the United States, most vociferously by frontrunner Donald Trump.

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 extremism, both in Europe and the US.

Despite two major 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 percent), 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 sidelined sensible majority must seize back the podium from the extremists, whether they be Islamists or the anti-immigrant far-right, and the media and politicians must pay greater attention to us.

Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land. He blogs at

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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