Ebook: Not Only Syria? The Phenomenon of Foreign Fighters in a Comparative Perspective
The term ‘foreign fighters’ describes nationals of one state who – for whatever variety of reasons and motives – travel abroad to take part in a conflict in another state without the promise of financial reward. The majority of attention has so far been focused on the nationals of Western European states who have gone to fight for the so-called Islamic State in Syria. There exist, however, other examples of contemporary European foreign fighters whose travails, motivations and returns have been largely unnoticed and underappreciated. This books attempts to balance this state of affairs by bringing to the fore some lesser known cases of non-terrorist but foreign fighters related to the conflict in Ukraine, and situating them against the backdrop of the larger mobilization for the war in Syria.
This book presents edited versions of the 12 papers presented at the NATO Advanced Research Workshop (ARW) ‘Not Only Syria? Foreign Fighters: A Threat to NATO Allies and Their Neighbours’. The workshop was held in Chisinau, Moldova, in May 2016, and brought together researchers and experts in the field to discuss the differences, similarities and parallels between different groups of foreign fighters engaged in the conflicts in Syria and the Ukraine. The papers include contributions from the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Poland among others, and examine cases of foreign fighters from these and other countries. The book will provide an interesting context to researchers who have, up to now, looked only at a single set of such fighters, and will lead to tangible recommendations on how to develop policies to address the threat posed by returnees from any conflict.
GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia
Abstract. This article introduces the present volume and charts the history behind its development, starting from two separate but related events (from 2013 and 2014, respectively), and culminating with the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Advanced Research Workshop (ARW) on the issue. It also explains the author's entry into the world of research on foreign fighters, a field dominated by Syria-oriented studies. This volume is an attempt to offer a new, comparative perspective on the aforementioned phenomenon.
Keywords: foreign fighters; Syria; Ukraine; terrorism.
Two events explain the rationale for this book. The first, from the summer of 2013, happened when, while working on counter-terrorism projects (CT), I was interviewing a series of EU CT officials. They all were very keen on talking to me about the issue of foreign fighters. It was not in my portfolio at the time nor was I especially interested. I was more transfixed on their views about how CT develops in countries with no … “T” (terrorism). Nonetheless, the conversations kept coming back to the issue of foreign fighters, their numbers, the threat they constituted to the EU and the individual Member States. Of course, I had already heard about such individuals and had made the link with their similar mobilisation after the 2003 Iraq war. At that time, however, I was oblivious to the scale of this mobilisation and had not even thought about their post-conflict futures as returnees to Europe. The second event came almost exactly a year later, when in late August 2014, a report on RT (Russia Today), often scrutinized by Central European researchers for an alternative viewpoint, caught my eye because it discussed four Frenchmen who were present, or to be more accurate, fighting in Ukraine on the side of the separatists. Probably, I should confess that it stunned me . Here I was, sitting in my office in Warsaw, Poland, seeing a report about French citizens travelling to a neighbouring country, Ukraine, to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists. The news took some time to sink in but the more I thought about it the more I became convinced that these four people were in fact foreign fighters. Of course, they hardly resembled the jihadist recruits of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) but they were such fighters nonetheless. Yes, theirs was a different cause and a different set of motivations inspired them, and their numbers, at least at first glance, seemed lower, but they, just like some of their Muslim peers, travelled to a foreign war without the promise of a pecuniary award.
In between the two aforementioned events, the field of terrorism studies witnessed the birth of a new industry – research into foreign fighters. Dozens of researchers, experts, and journalists followed the travails of these fighters and documented, especially via social media, their history, motivations, actions in combat, etc. They almost exclusively focused on what was to that moment the dominant case – Syria. The number of sources on foreign fighters in that conflict seems to have risen proportionally to their actual members in the combat zone – one bibliographical study, attempting to take stock of the phenomenon as far as publishing was concerned, contains 17 works with “Syria” in the title – and these come only on top of studies that discuss the phenomenon more generally but in their empirical parts lean on the most obvious and recent case of the Syrian civil war .
A short digression is necessary at this point to map out the prevailing tendencies in the aforementioned “industry”. Most of the research concentrates on Sunni jihadi fighters who joined various Syrian rebel groups. Very little attention, if any at first, was paid to foreigners in the ranks of the Kurdish forces involved in the conflict and, last but not least, individuals or whole units/militias supporting the Syrian government forces. What is more, Western academics, journalists, and experts, for understandable reasons, zoomed in on “their” fighters, i.e., compatriots or other Westerners, be it Europeans or Americans. This led to a situation in which studies devoted to often obscure and miniscule foreign fighter populations were possible and fit in well with the broader, and rising, industry.
Interestingly, such research parameters did very little to introduce Central-Eastern European perspectives on the phenomenon into the fold. There simply was not enough, hardly any, fighters from the countries of the region for my colleagues and me to offer our take on the issue. Consequently, you would not see a scholar talking about such fighters from Poland, Slovakia or Latvia at any international conference devoted to the issue. No papers, articles or books were published. It was only in 2015, and especially in 2016 that some of the previously unknown facts about Poles and others in the ranks of jihadi organisations began to come to light . In the meantime, our queries and searches seem to have been truly futile and resulted in my writing an article subtitled “the lack of Central European foreign fighters” .
It is not an exaggeration to state that in the absence of jihadi and terrorist foreign fighters, the aforementioned Frenchmen, whom I saw flash on the TV screen in my Warsaw office back in August 2014, seemed like an ideal panacea to all Central-Eastern European worries vis-à-vis the issue at hand. They were not local or from the region but travelled to an Eastern European country to take part in an armed conflict. Of course, they stressed their non-terrorist intentions upon returning to the homeland. However, the way they portrayed their involvement in the conflict as “support for the population” and as then attacked by “the army of Kiev”, resembled some of the humanitarian, or quasi-humanitarian, motivations put forward by some of the European jihadists in Syria . What is more, inquiries into some of the backgrounds of the French and other foreign fighters led to the discovery of a range of fascinating life stories and rationalizations for joining the conflict, some not at odds with the stances and opinions of the foreign fighters bound for Syria . Many were displeased, to say the least, with the state of affairs in Europe and left the EU to fight, or so it seemed, for something better, newer, purer outside the borders of the broader West. Some had military or paramilitary experience or originated from either far-left or far-right milieus. Few seemed to have travelled to the conflict zone in order to literally taste war or to satisfy a need for an adrenaline thrill. In short, the conflict provided researchers with a fascinating new case-study related to the issue of foreign fighters.
Over the next several months, I studied their biographies, prowled social media for clues, and established contact with journalists, activists, and humanitarian workers in Ukraine, asking them one question: have you met any foreign fighters while there? Many responded that they had and offered colourful tales of their encounters with the aforementioned fighters. Mostly, however, they were dismissive of the larger value of studying these fighters in more detail. “An interesting subject but not significant enough to merit wider interest in it”, I heard from one of the journalists covering the conflict . Many would have been disappointed by his frankness, but I dismissed this comment at first, as I immediately saw the potential for introducing a new and vibrant case into the research on foreign fighters. Only later was I able to fully comprehend the rationale behind his frankness: the foreign fighters were not worth his time as they hardly made a difference, or to be precise, they “made very little difference” to the course of the war, as one of the Swedes in the ranks of the infamous Azov Battalion/Regiment confessed to me in a Twitter exchange . The latter quote was a finding in itself, an attempt to put the media interest in the broader issue of foreign fighters into the context of the events on the ground.
Regardless of the foreign fighters' importance to the broader war effort in Ukraine, I pursued my interest in them, recruited Arkadiusz Legieć (an author of one of the chapters in this volume) to help me as an intern in the effort, and published a major report on the issue in late March 2015 . I also reached out to colleagues in T and CT circles to comment and distribute the paper. The reactions were extremely positive, and in private conversations many jumped at the chance to compare “their”, mainly Syria-oriented fighters and “my” cases. This was probably the moment, i.e., sometime in spring 2015, when the idea for this book first came to my mind. I was tempted to commit what amounts to heresy in political science and put together two distant, unrelated, and incomparable cases – the thousands of Sunni, Shia and pro-Kurdish fighters in Syria, and the hundreds to low thousands of pro-Ukraine or pro-separatist fighters in Donbass. However, I first wanted the two sets of people interested in the two conflicts and often looking at such fighters to meet to debate the issue and check if it made sense to produce an edited volume focusing on both “Syrian” and “Ukrainian” fighters.
NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) kindly provided the funding for the gathering of handpicked experts with an interest in foreign fighters under the working title of “Not Only Syria?” Thankfully, the “Syria” expert did not feel offended by the provocative title and was enthusiastic about the idea. So were their “Ukraine” counterparts, especially since our meeting, as stipulated by the SPS rules for an Advanced Research Workshop (ARW), was taking place in a NATO partner country, in this case, Moldova. More than 30 experts from about 20 countries attended our meeting and for three days discussed, shared, and compared their expertise on foreign fighters. At the ARW there was widespread agreement on the rationale for staging such an exercise and involvement in direct comparisons between the different sets of foreign fighters, i.e., those in “Syria” (Sunni, Shia, pro-Kurdish) and “Ukraine” (pro-government and separatist). This yields new knowledge, provides interesting context to researchers looking at only a single set of such fighters, and can produce tangible recommendations on how to develop the best possible policies of addressing the threat from any returnee fighters from any conflict.
The participants of the workshop also appreciated the historical dimension of the studied phenomenon – this is not the first time the world has seen foreign fighter mobilisation and some phenomena related to the fighters are not really brand new. The role of contacts and networks in foreign fighter mobilisations was stressed – people travel if they know insiders or others with a track record in the conflict zone, or former militants. However, as was also discussed, sometimes not much is needed to initiate a wave of foreign fighters from a given country – it can take a few determined individuals, sometimes acting separately from each other. The sociological and psychological aspects of the foreign fighter phenomenon were also underscored – future researchers need to learn from seemingly similar national cases, which yield different results as far as mobilisation is concerned, i.e., one country sees many join a given foreign conflict while the other has very few individuals follow suit. The participants debated why that was the case and while doing so came across the issue of understudied, or “never heard before” cases. Their numbers should go down and utmost effort must be made to produce a better understanding of other foreign fighter mobilisations, such as those related to the host country of Moldova, which, and this is not a widely-known fact, has both been an exporter and an importer of foreign fighters. What is more, the participants of the ARW focused on the phenomenon of one country “infecting” another with foreign fighters. The Chisinau discussions also focused on issues such as the perceived link or nexus between criminality and terrorism, vis-à-vis foreign fighters; the widespread misinformation on the shallow, and often bizarre, ideological underpinnings of a given set of foreign fighters (to quote one of the participants: “Read up on obscure fascist theoreticians to know what they are talking about!”); the phenomenon of hop-on/hop-off foreign fighters who travel to conflict zones for a short period of time, only to return to their origin country later; the realization that the field does not underappreciate the “elephants in the room”, i.e., Russian foreign fighters in Ukraine (and not members of Russia's armed forces) or Shia fighting for the government side in the Syrian civil war.
Consequently, the decision was made that such an intellectually fruitful ARW must lead to an edited volume in which the contributors could follow up on the discussions in written format. This perfectly coincided with my original plan, as was mentioned it was formulated sometime in the spring of 2015, to produce a book that would feature both “Syria” and “Ukraine” experts on the issue. Thus, the original plan of contributing to the wider debate on foreign fighters was coming to fruition. This book is its latest element, both a reflection of the aforementioned ARW and a step beyond.
It deliberately is not divided into parts focused on foreign fighters in Syria, followed by articles looking at cases related to the Ukraine conflict. Of course, both wars are different and the Syrian one more complicated and brutal, but both sets of foreign fighters have enough in common to allow us to use a comparative approach. The volume includes 12 original articles, all written by participants of the aforementioned ARW. They offer a variety of takes on the phenomenon of foreign fighters and together form the pillars of an unprecedented work that places different groups of fighters, from different conflicts, alongside each other, in a comparative setting.
The volume starts with a contribution by Chris Holmsted Larsen of Roskilde University, who tackles the fascinating and multi-faceted phenomenon of Danish foreign fighters. He looks for past analogies and offers us a glimpse into the possible future trajectory of this phenomenon. Most importantly, he not only studies fighters who travelled to Syria but also looks at the rarer cases of mobilisations for the war in Ukraine. The “national” approach, and concentration on the sets of fighters bound for one conflict, and from one country, is also to be found in the contributions by Jeanine de Roy van Zuijdewijn of the Institute of Security and Global Affairs of Leiden University (Netherlands), Ebi Spahiu (mainly Albania but also with a look into the other Western Balkan countries), Pieter Van Ostaeyen (Belgium), Habib Sayah (Tunisia) and to an extent András Rácz of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (on Russia), Stanislav Secrieru (on Moldova), and Eman Ragab of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (Egypt).
De Roy van Zuijdewijn's article focuses on the relatively large Dutch case of Sunni jihadi fighters and sets it in a comparative light with other foreign fighter mobilisations. The author looks at the numbers, motivations of the fighters and the responses of the Dutch state, so far untouched by the returnee terrorist attacks. Spahiu deals with a no less interesting case of Sunni jihadists travelling to Syria from not only a Muslim but also European country with a recent history of violence, and a security sector undermined by corruption and criminality. Van Ostaeyen's contribution looks at the fascinating – for the wrong reasons – case of Belgian Sunni foreign fighters in Syria and attempts to tell us why so many Belgians have travelled to the conflict zone. Sayah analyses a much larger, less well-known case of similar fighters from Tunisia and charts their offshore (and back) travails. Ragab, looking more holistically at the Middle Eastern cases, provides us with much-needed context for our preoccupation with Western European Sunni jihadists. Rácz's piece analyses one of the aforementioned “elephants in the room” – fighters no one seems to be looking at. He dissects the numbers, mode of mobilisation and motivations for the Russians present in the separatist ranks in Ukraine. His contribution also attempts to chart out the consequences of the conflict for the two countries. Secrieru's article tackles another aforementioned phenomenon – the dual export and import of foreign fighters by a given country, in this case Moldova. A thoroughly understudied case and concepts that merit more attention.
The other articles in the volume focus less on national cases. Arkadiusz Legieć of the University of Warsaw provides a handy roundup of foreign fighters, bar the Russians, present in the war in Ukraine on both sides. He carefully unveils one of the biggest mysteries of the conflict – the ideological similarities between the aforementioned group of fighters. Not much, it seems, divides them and some might have as well ended up fighting alongside their erstwhile enemies. Pierre Sautreuil, a French freelance reporter, actually met some of these fighters “in the field” and his contribution offers us a rare glimpse into the other set of French foreign fighters – those who travelled to Ukraine, far less “famous” then their Syria-bound counterparts. Miroslav Mareš of Masaryk University approached the foreign fighter contingents in Ukraine with a sharp analytical eye and categorized them according to “eras” in which they appeared in the conflict zone as well as their potential future threat to NATO countries. Finally, Egdūnas Račius of Vytautas Magnus University discusses the extent to which Sunni foreign fighters can truly be seen as “foreign” and how their travel and settling down in the non-recognised “Caliphate” fits into the notion of nationhood, nation-building and statehood.
I am not sure what can follow this truly great volume. I highly recommend it and ask you, the reader, to keep your fingers crossed for us as we attempt to unearth more of the seemingly obscure cases of fighters, radicals or terrorists somehow connected to Central-Eastern Europe. This could lead to another book. Let us remember then that it is “Not Only Syria”.
 Russia Today, “French Donbass fighters: We came to inform people of the reality of this war”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahdROttr_o8, accessed 14 November 2016.
 See: Price, E., “Bibliography: Foreign Fighters of Terrorism”, Perspective on Terrorism, vol. 9, no. 1, 2015, http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/409/html, accessed 14 November 2016, for a compilation of a list of sources.
 Gąsior, M., “Interpol ujawnia dane bohatera tekstu ‘Mamo, zostałem dżihadystą’. Ten 24-letni Polak walczy w Syrii po stronie ISIS”, natemat.pl, 26 August 2016, http://natemat.pl/188465,interpol-ujawnia-dane-bohatera-tekstu-mamo-zostalem-dzihadysta-ten-24-letni-polak-walczy-w-syrii-po-stronie-isis, accessed 14 November 2016.
 Rekawek, K., “‘For Our Freedom and Yours?’: The Lack of Central European Foreign Fighters in Syria”, The Clear Banner, http://jihadology.net/2014/05/30/the-clear-banner-for-our-freedom-and-yours-the-lack-of-central-european-foreign-fighters-in-syria, accessed 14 November 2016.
 See: note 1.
 Jackson, P., “Ukraine war pulls in foreign fighters”, BBC News, 1 September 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-28951324, accessed 14 November 2016.
 Author's e-mail interview with a correspondent (who asked to remain anonymous) of a major Western European newspaper in Ukraine, 15 January 2015.
 See: @KacperRekawek Twitter exchange with @MikaelSkillt from 3 April 2015.
 Rekawek, K., “Neither ‘NATO's Foreign Legion’ Nor the ‘Donbass International Brigades’: (Where Are All the) Foreign Fighters in Ukraine?”, PISM Policy Paper, no. 6 (108), 30 March 2015, https://www.pism.pl/Publications/PISM-Policy-Paper-no-108, accessed 14 November 2016.
This chapter looks at the foreign fighters coming from the Netherlands. Firstly, it will present facts and figures about the Dutch foreign fighter phenomenon, and compare this information to what is known about other European foreign fighters. The second part of the paper will look at the response to the foreign fighter phenomenon: how has it made its way into threat assessments and what kind of policies have been developed to respond to this development? The chapter concludes that the Netherlands has seen large numbers of citizens leaving for Syria and Iraq, but that it has not witnessed any concrete jihadist plots linked to foreign fighters on its own soil. However, it has been confronted with other developments that show that the transnational threat of foreign fighters is also real for the Netherlands.
The aim of this contribution is, through a comparative historical perspective, to analyse the particular phenomenon of foreign fighters, which in recent years, as a consequence of the proliferation of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, have emerged in Danish society as a major security concern and public issue.
The foreign fighters phenomenon is forcing national governments to devise new methods to deal with emerging threats. Interest of the world's media, experts and policy makers is focused in this aspect primarily on the Islamic State, which is justified by the greater number of people joining its ranks, the scale of its operations, and the number of victims. However, despite the focus on Middle East discourse, there is a profound need for research on the phenomenon of the militants in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, because in recent years this has become a testing ground for extremely radical groups from more than 50 countries around the world. There is a need to formulate conclusions about the implications for international security raised by the conflict in Ukraine, and to consider carefully whether people from all over the world, who freely took part in this conflict, will become in the near future an unexpected source of radicalisation and new threats. This can be done only through effective understanding of their motivations, national structures, and the ideological relations that exist between them.
This contribution deals with the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Ukraine. The author analyses risks and threats to the security of NATO countries connected with the activities of such fighters on the territory of Ukraine (including the separatist republics) and their return to their home countries. The development of the foreign fighter issue during the so-called Ukrainian crisis is described. Significant risks and threats connected with their engagement in the conflict and return home (i.e., propaganda, involvement in paramilitary units, threatening political opponents, etc.) are identified and assessed.
Since late 2012, early 2013 Belgium has been one of Europe's main suppliers of foreign fighters to the war in Syria and later Iraq. A staggering number of over 600 foreign fighters has left Belgium since the war started. There are three main networks involved: Sharia4Belgium, Resto du Tawheed and the cell around Jihadi recruiter Khalid Zerkani. In this text, we will deal with the history of Jihadist activities in Belgium, look for demographical and sociological explanations on why Belgium seems to be a main supplier world-wide, a detailed overview of the recruiting groups will be provided, and we will zoom into a few of the personal motivations on why these young men and women left Belgium to join The Islamic State. In a separate paragraph, we will look into the involvement of Belgian foreign fighters in the attacks on Paris and Brussels in November 2015 and March 2016.
Routinely, people who have over the past five years travelled to Western Asia are being referred to as “foreign fighters”. Though, admittedly, many among them did join various armed groups, a fairly significant number of them did not or even could not become fighters. This is true first of all for children who travelled with their parents as well as for young females, who in the West pejoratively are called “jihadi brides”. However, even these categories aside, the (young) men who did join armed groups in Syria and Iraq, though they may be identified as “fighters”, may also not be regarded (and certainly many among them do not see themselves) as “foreign”. For the overwhelming number of people who travelled to West Asia and joined the Islamic State, their status in the entity is more like naturalized citizens whose naturalization process is epitomized by the joining of the armed forces of the Islamic State. Those who did not (or could not) join the IS armed forces became citizens by pledging allegiance to khilafa and by performing what they themselves regard as compulsory hijra – relocation from the lands of unbelievers to the land of Islam under the declared khilafa. The khilafa project initiated by the Islamic State is a unique phenomenon not only from the point of view of the theories of international relations but also with respect to classical notions of state formation and nation-building, and it puts the conceptualization of citizenship in a new light.
This chapter addresses the question of Russian foreign fighters in Ukraine fighting for or against the Ukrainian government. An effort is made to determine their numbers, channels of recruitment as well as their main motivations to take up arms. All in all, the main conclusion is that the active involvement of the Russian state in the flow of foreign fighters makes this case a highly unique one.
This paper examines the flow of foreign fighters into Syria from Egypt and the GCC countries. It analyses the profiles and stories of some Egyptian and Gulf fighters who have travelled to Syria since 2011, and discusses the different types of drivers leading an individual to become a fighter in ISIS. It underscores the importance of the “triggers” that are mainly personal drivers in comparison to the root causes, and contextual drivers. These triggers include personal grievances, wanting to play a leading role or looking for an opportunity, as well as emotional reactions to the dynamics of the conflicts. This discussion is important in identifying the needed policies to counter this phenomenon as discussed in the conclusion.
This contribution deals with the phenomenon of French volunteers in Ukraine fighting on the pro-Russian side. Here is an account of the author's encounter with some of these French foreign fighters. The author describes their background, motivations and expectations. This paper compares the involvement of French citizens on the pro-Russian side with other recent conflicts featuring French foreign fighters, and outlines the continuities and originalities of the Ukrainian case.
According to various studies and reports, Tunisia has been one of the top exporters of foreign terrorist fighters. This paper seeks to analyse the causes and factors underpinning flows of Tunisian foreign fighters. It will be argued that in Tunisia's case, the role of domestic mobilization structures played a key role in determining the amplitude of the foreign fighter phenomenon. In particular, Ansar al-Shari'a in Tunisia's (AST) efforts to structure the Jihadi-Salafi community into a large grassroots movement were instrumental in creating a wide pool of potential foreign fighters. Whilst the existence of a domestic grassroots movement made outflows of foreign fighters possible, these flows were motivated and oriented by the evolving geographical distribution of political and military opportunities across the Middle East and North Africa region. Indeed, new threats to the survival of the Tunisian jihadi movement manifested by the government crackdown on AST in 2013, in conjunction with the expansion and consolidation of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, generated a significant outflow of Tunisian foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. From the Islamic State's core territory, de-territorialized Tunisian fighters saw an opportunity to reconnect with their homeland in engaging in competition with al-Qaeda for the control of AST's legacy networks in Tunisia. During this whole period, neighbouring Libya played an important role as a line of flight or a foreign fighter corridor between Tunisia and Islamic State's core territory, until the centre of gravity of the Tunisian jihadi system shifted towards conflict-affected Libya when it became the host of three Islamic State provinces.
This chapter addresses the issue of foreign fighters in and out of Moldova. In addition to approaching the phenomenon from two angles, it will seek to expose some parallels between military conflicts in Transnistria and Donbas, reveal Russia's techniques to incite and sustain violence in both instances and demonstrate linkages between the inflow and outflow of foreign fighters in and out of Moldova. The first part covers the 1992 conflict in Transnistria, when foreign fighters from Russia and Ukraine infiltrated Moldova. After a brief description of the conflict, it will estimate the numbers and uncover origins of foreign fighters, reveal their motivations and track down their post-conflict careers where public sources permit. The second part will dwell on the problem of foreign fighters from Moldova in Donbas between 2014 and 2015. It will aim to approximate their numbers and draw a general profile of the fighters whose identities were fully or partially revealed. This part will conclude with scenarios assessing risks the return of foreign fighters may pose to Moldova.
This contribution analyses religious radicalism and violent extremism in Albania and the growth of foreign fighters who joined the war in Syria and Iraq from Albania and the Western Balkans in recent years. As a new NATO member and an aspiring EU Member State, Albania's case reflects that of many countries of the Western Balkans, largely from Muslim-majority areas, which have seen their citizens join extremist groups in the Middle East since the outset of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The number of foreign fighters from Albania and the rest of the region peaked when Abu Bakhr Al-Baghadadi, alleged leader of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh), proclaimed in the summer of 2014 the formation of a new caliphate in Syria and Iraq while also calling on Muslims from around the world to join the group. In Albania, domestic security and intelligence services quickly took action against homegrown cells, responding to concerns voiced by international partners. Ever since, both Albania and other Balkan countries have adopted legislation aimed at curbing the participation of their citizens in foreign conflicts, but the threats remain as the cleavage between Muslim communities broadens, and as transnational activities, including a potential nexus between religious extremism and organised crime, pose additional threats to regional and state security.