In comparing the Spanish Civil War with the current war in Syria, this paper puts the phenomenon of contemporary Jihadist foreign fighters within a longer tradition of modern violent conflicts. To be sure, the cases of Spain and Syria are profoundly different in both context and ideology. Yet, becoming a war volunteer seemingly has not only historical roots but also a transcultural face. From this perspective both cases raise the same central question as to what drives young people in their search for meaning in war. Who are these volunteers? Why do they become foreign fighters? In deliberately putting its focus on so-called Western foreign fighters and the similarities that characterise the two cases, the paper first takes a closer look at the individual profiles of foreign fighters in Syria and Spain. In a second step it analyses the recruiting patterns behind foreign fighters as a mass phenomenon. Based on this analysis, the paper concludes that the most promising strategy to address the foreign fighter problem would seem to start at the structural level. While groups of cognitively or behaviourally radicalised youth have emerged continuously throughout history, foreign fighters appear in large numbers only when the ideological and organisational structures are in place to facilitate their mobilisation for war.
Paper produced within the framework of the New-Med Research Network and presented at the international conference “Radicalization in the Mediterranean Region: Old and New Drivers” held in Ankara on 14 December 2015 and jointly organised by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) and the Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM).
1. “Fighting for the Caliphate”: Foreign fighters in the Syrian Civil War
2. “Fighting against Fascism”: Foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War
3. Recruitment patterns of the foreign fighter phenomenon
Conclusions: Lessons to learn