Event Summary: “Foreign fighters in Syria: A danger to the West?”


This is a summary of an event with Dr. Thomas Hegghamer, Director of Terrorism Research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, on 26 November 2013; it reflects the views expressed by the speaker and not those of the Henry Jackson Society or its staff.

To view the full  transcript of the event, click here


Dr. Thomas Hegghamer discussed the threat that European fighters returning from Syria posed to the West. Dr. Hegghammer argued that the conflict in Syria could extend the jihadist threat in Europe by two decades. He highlighted the following key points:

The scale of the flow of Europeans to Syria is hugely significant

  • The numbers of Europeans going to Syria to fight is greater than all other foreign fighter destinations since the late 1980s combined. This is due to several factors: including the wide media coverage of the Syrian conflict, the easy access to the battlefront, the geographic proximity of Syria to Europe, the Levant’s significance in Islam and the network effects.
  • In order to see behind the numbers, it is important to take into consideration the size of the population and the proportion of the Muslim population for each country.
  • UK, France and Germany seem to be providing the largest numbers of foreign fighters, around 600 foreign fighters out of a 1200 in total. Yet relatively, Denmark, Norway and Belgium are more worrisome with an average of 11.6, 5.9 and 8.9 foreign fighters per million inhabitants respectively. Therefore, the biggest problems may develop in the smaller European countries.

The scale of blowback is unknowable

  • The proportion of foreign fighters that will go back to Europe and be involved in militancy on home soil cannot be predicted. In the past, most European-based fighters have left for jihadist conflict zones without the intention of returning home.
  • The blowback rate depends on whether the jihadi organizations on the ground have declared clear strategies to attack the West and whether there are al-Qaeda affiliates involved in the conflict.
  • There is the potential for a Western confrontation with jihadist forces in their northern Syrian enclaves.

Certain policies could restrict the threat to the West from returning fighters

  • Fighters should be tracked upon their return to Europe, and their networks monitored.
  • There needs to be a careful monitoring of the intentions and ambitions of the jihadi organizations on the ground in Syria.
  • The passports of the fighters leaving Europe to go to Syria should not be withdrawn, as this could create stateless citizens and push them towards further militancy, potentially against the West.


To view the full transcript, click here



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