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Briefing

Who are Europe's jihadis? Check your assumptions.

The threat of European jihadis returning home from fighting in the Middle East has been thrust back into the spotlight after last week's attacks in Paris. Your assumptions about who they are may be wrong.

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    Members of the Nusra Front carry their weapons as they walk near al-Zahra village, north of Aleppo city, in November 2014.
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Concerns over foreign fighters returning home has come violently back to the spotlight in the wake of the terrorist attack in France and the vow to fight “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islamism,” as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it. 

Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi, the two brothers who killed 12 people at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo Wednesday, had established ties with terrorist networks. The perpetrator behind the siege at a kosher grocery store Friday night, one of two deadly hostage incidents that day, said that he was acting for the self-described Islamic State.

All three perpetrators are dead. But their actions have revived questions about “European jihadis” – as well as misconceptions of who these men and women are and what threat they really represent to Europe.

Misunderstanding no. 1: This is a European problem.

In fact, it is actually a global problem. The “European jihadi” phenomenon came into focus with the conflict in Syria because researchers started to see a significant flow of French, British, and German fighters into the country to take up arms. They far outnumber American ones.

But it is not new, as the Kouachi brothers, who received training in Yemen, prove. And most jihadis are not in fact European. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London estimates that the 11,000 foreign fighters who have gone to Syria in the past three years hail from 74 nations.

The vast majority of those – about three-quarters – come from neighboring Middle East countries, who also suffer far more terrorism attacks than Western nations. Of course, with an estimated 2,800 fighting in Syria, European fighters still comprise a significant minority of those participating overall.

But Islamic State has intentionally played up the strength of the European contingent – for example by using “Jihadi John,” the masked man in a British accent used to kill Western hostages – to present their goals as global ones.

Misunderstanding no. 2: Shady mosques are where radicalization is happening.

Actually, if there is any single breeding ground for extremism, it’s the Internet.

Mosques do serve as a recruiting ground in some places in Europe and have been duly monitored by intelligence authorities. But research by Dounia Bouzar, director of the Centre for Prevention Against Islamic Sectarianism, indicates that 91 percent of recruitment happens online.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and scores of other networks lure in foreigners whose motivations range from a sense of injustice to one of adventure. Ms. Bouzar has worked with French families who fear their children are becoming radicalized, and says some 80 percent of them come from atheist households. The remaining 20 percent come from Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhist backgrounds.

Another common place for both conversion and radicalization is in jail. Amedy Coulibaly, who took hostages in the Parisian kosher supermarket Friday before getting killed by police, is believed to have first gotten radicalized behind bars.

Misunderstanding no. 3: This is an integration problem.

It's not just the disenfranchised who are turning to jihad. It's also the middle class.

A dominant narrative is that an underclass of Muslim immigrants who have failed to integrate in European society are driving European jihadism. Some do fall into this category, and the economic struggles that many have can deepen the risk of radicalization.

However, many of those fighting abroad are not poor or vulnerable at all. In Bouzar’s study in France, for example, 84 percent of families of radicalized youths come from the middle class. Only 10 percent had grandparents that weren’t French.

That hasn’t stopped far-right parties from condemning mass migration as the problem. When an Islamic State video showed a Frenchman who was not an immigrant beheading victims in Syria in November, France’s National Front party leader Marine Le Pen was dismissive, saying that the number of French fighters with no immigrant background was “anecdotal.” 

“Obviously, mass immigration has been a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism in our country,” she insisted.

Misunderstanding no. 4: This is a male problem.

Actually, these jihadi organizations couldn’t function without the support of women.

That has been made clear this week as the search for Coulibaly’s partner and alleged accomplice, Hayat Boumeddiene, continues. She is believed to have fled to Turkey and now is reported to be in Syria.

Women are playing an increasingly important role in the demography of foreign fighters. If the first wave of fighters was dominated by males, women are now part of a second wave. They are lured by men who see marriage and procreation as a means to perpetuate the Islamic State.

According to recent figures compiled by the Guardian, women comprise about 10 percent of “Western jihadis,” and up to 25 percent in France. Some women get manipulated into going, but others are drawn by the same adventurism and idealism that draw men.

Some are barely teenagers. A Dutch mother made international headlines in the fall after a story circulated that she traveled to Syria to bring home her teenage daughter, who allegedly departed to the heart of civil strife to marry a Dutch jihadi.

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