Editor’s Note: Foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria are a bit of an obsession for those of us at the Foreign Policy Essay. In this contribution, we’re pleased to go deep on the problem in Scandinavia—a surprising, but important, contributor to the flow of Europeans going off to participate in jihad. Magnus Ranstorp, a well-known terrorism expert at the Swedish National Defence College, offers us an in-depth assessment of the Scandinavian problem, which exemplifies many of the challenges that Europe and the West in general face. (Please note we’ve avoided, but only with difficulty, the obvious “something is rotten” reference.)
In the autumn of 2013, I received a phone call from the distraught aunt of a 28-year-old Swedish man who had traveled to Syria to join the group known as the Islamic State or ISIS. Her nephew had radicalized in less than two months, a process seemingly accelerated by attending so-called garage mosques, surfing on radical ISIS-affiliated Facebook pages, and grooming activities offline by ISIS facilitators. Overnight, he suddenly left on a flight to Hatay airport in Turkey and then onwards to a safe house in Reyhanli that specializes in sheltering Swedish foreign fighters. Inside Syria, he underwent indoctrination and training in a Chechen-run ISIS camp, as he felt the Arab one was not sufficiently religiously devout. The aunt’s Kurdish relatives tracked him down inside the ISIS training camp through facilitators and lured him across the border to say a final farewell before his mission. The aunt’s relatives managed to persuade him to come back to Stockholm instead of returning to the battlefield.
But although he reluctantly accepted, his intention was ultimately to return to ISIS. Now he was determined to gather necessary financial resources for a future mission. The family was left to their own devices to cope with monitoring him around the clock so he would not go back into the fray. It turned out to be a losing battle—he left again to fight with ISIS in October 2014. Before he left he had managed to create two companies, purchasing and selling mobile phones on credit. In his wake, he left personal financial havoc.
He seemed to be on a one-way mission, and there was little that his family or the Swedish authorities could do to stop him. The Swedish security service conducted so-called preventative talks where they made contact, signaled they were aware of his intention to depart for Syria and ISIS, and underscored obvious dangers and consequences. But that is as far as they could go legally. Under existing terrorism legislation it is not illegal to join a terrorist organization or train with them—only to provide instruction.
Scandinavia, like the rest of Europe, is experiencing remarkable rates of foreign fighters leaving for Syria. Often the official figures, with their strict criteria of verification, mask a higher number of foreign fighters actually on the ground. In Denmark, the official figure is over 100 foreign fighters, though the real number is likely to be 150 cases. In Norway, at least 60 foreign fighters have gone to Syria, with a high proportion of women joining ISIS to marry shaheeds ("martyrs"). In Sweden, the security service has put the official figure at 90, though they admit that the real number is at least double that. In fact, the head of the Swedish security service acknowledged that the real figure for Swedish foreign fighters were 250-300. Just in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, over 60 foreign fighters have departed for ISIS's ranks. Over 23 have died and—much more troubling—20 are back in Gothenburg.
All of this raises the question: what in the world is going on in Scandinavia? There are some interesting features and trends particular to Scandinavian foreign fighters that may help explain this phenomenon.
First, there is often a cross-over between territorial criminal gangs and extremism. For some, Islamic extremism becomes a salvation, a chance to begin a new chapter in life away from crime. Extremism strangely becomes an exit strategy from these gangs. For others, it becomes a way to act out their action-oriented personalities, promising excitement and the possibility for violence and killing. This trend is particularly evident in Denmark where even leaders of territorial criminal gangs have participated within ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other jihadi groups in Syria. In Sweden, the role of criminal networks from the Caucasus has proved a decisive factor. Chechen illicit trafficking networks have become important means of moving people and resources, and the interoperability of these criminal gangs to switch between crime and extremism makes them extremely fierce and effective. Additionally, there are several senior Chechen-Swedes active inside ISIS's ranks that further facilitate recruitment of young Muslims inside Europe.
There is a clear pattern that Scandinavian foreign fighters are involved in self-financing schemes that involve taking out student and bank loans that are never repaid. Some lease vehicles, particularly SUVs on which they can mount stands for heavy weapons, and report them stolen or drive them down to Turkey and then into Syria. Others have been tasked to establish front companies so that they can take out maximum credit and purchase merchandise which is then either resold for cash or shipped straight to Turkey/Syria. Using multiple identity fraud enables foreign fighters to disperse risk, repeat frauds, and maximize resources. It is easy to start companies with few barriers for receipt of credit, while financial warning mechanisms are not able to detect or respond to frauds if they are committed swiftly.
Second, there is the issue of humanitarian organizations that provide genuine aid but also provide a convenient cover for traveling to the region to participate in armed jihadi activities. Several leaders of aid convoys and humanitarian organizations have either appeared on the battlefield with ISIS units or appeared in photos with ISIS flags, emblems, or insignia. This raises important questions about how humanitarian organizations function in a war zone without actually negotiating access with ISIS. This is further complicated by the fact that ISIS is actually now hijacking humanitarian aid convoys to enhance its social welfare operations in Raqqa and elsewhere.
Third, there are significant numbers of Scandinavian women recruits joining ISIS's ranks. One of the first Swedish women appeared early in 2013, when she married Ibrahim al-Mazwagi, the first British foreign fighter "martyr," and soon thereafter gave birth to their child. Umm Fida, as she is known, has since risen within the ranks of foreign ISIS widows in Raqqa and Minjib (where many widows are based). Today she actively recruits young women back in Sweden via Facebook. Online, she admonishes other supporters for being armchair jihadists who only talk and do not act.
There is also significant overrepresentation of young Somali girls in Scandinavia leaving for Syria. One theory for what is driving this is that some Somali girls are not allowed to interact with men outside their family after 12 years of age. Somali girls may therefore be leaving for Syria out of a desire for personal liberation and the freedom to select their own husbands outside Xeer, or clan/family control or patriarchal structures.
Lastly, the role of social media is significant for foreign fighters—especially Facebook, where they establish multiple and interchangeable accounts. This virtual space becomes an echo chamber of extremist views that amplifies the urgency of the sacred mission to support the Caliphate and fight kuffar ("infidel") enemies. This is no ordinary jihadi conflict; rather, it is framed within unfolding Judgment Day prophecies. Like a Lord of the Rings world, foreign fighters create and re-create their own heroic, symbolic universe replete with references to the sanctity and direction of what they are struggling for. Many ISIS women recruits are initially contacted via social media and then manipulated offline, and they often travel in a small group of friends. In her online propaganda, Umm Fida warns that the window of opportunity to fight jihad is closing, as Judgment Day is around the corner.
What can these Scandinavian dimensions teach us about where to focus the West’s efforts in order to confront radicalization and recruitment into ISIS and other jihadi groups?
First, it is important to focus on the nexus between crime and extremism, especially the way in which neighborhood dynamics play out in this sphere, in order to get a better handle on recruitment mechanisms. Focusing on Chechen illicit structures and the interplay between extremism and criminal gangs provides important entry points into infiltration and network analysis. Focus needs to be on understanding radicalization and extremism within cities rather than on national levels of analysis.
Second, there needs to be better financial control and early-warning mechanisms to follow and counteract deliberate small-scale fraud by foreign fighters. Similarly, new efforts must be made to ensure that humanitarian aid does not end up in ISIS coffers. It is necessary either to create a government-approved list of charities (like in the UK) or implement stringent financial oversight of humanitarian aid distribution in conflict areas.
Third, there is a need to develop and promote effective counter-narratives to ISIS that emphasize the violence, repression, and social control that await new recruits arriving in Syria and Iraq. Promulgating the traumatic and personal accounts of disillusioned fighters, women, and children returning from the conflict zone would be one way to try to crack the illusion of the “five-star jihad.” Developing tools for law enforcement, schools, community leaders, and parents to detect involvement on social media will be important in this respect. Understanding how symbolism is being used to recruit young people to this conflict is important and has not been utilized effectively so far for gauging levels of involvement in extremism. The social media world is filled with symbols and meaning that signal religious authenticity and the sanctity of the mission. Research exists about the meaning of these symbols, but it needs to be operationalized into educational pointers, as they could provide an entry point for discussions with youngsters about the meaning of these symbols.
All these lessons must be integrated into a holistic, blended approach, using progressively tougher legislation tools in combination with “softer measures” such as community engagement, family support, and de-radicalization and reintegration programs for those disillusioned and repentant fighters who return home. Here the so-called Aarhus model in Denmark may offer important pathways for other cities on how to approach foreign fighters and change their radical outlook away from violence. According to the multilayered Aarhus model, which focuses on dialogue with radical milieus (mosques), mentorship programs, psychologist intervention, and family support networks, it is possible to reach potential foreign fighters and, in some cases, reverse the radicalization process and prevent them from joining ISIS in Syria and Iraq in the first place. This model seems to bear fruit in freezing recruitment into ISIS's ranks. In this sense, the Scandinavian approach offers important insights into the challenges and possible solutions to the broader foreign fighter issue in the West.
Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is research director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College. He is also involved in the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network as work group leader on foreign fighters.