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Foreign Fighters and Contemporary Terrorism Essay

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Updated: Jun 8th, 2022


Since the attack of September 11, 2001, terrorism has been one of the most discussed challenges to international security. One of its aspects – foreign fighters – poses multiple threats to international security and their home communities such as the spread of radicalization, legal challenges, or reintegration (Hoffman & Furlan, 2020). This trend occurs due to the intensive application and modernization of various recruitment techniques with the use of new media and targeting vulnerable groups (Cilluffo et al., 2010). The latter can be found in the United States and Europe as well as in any other region; however, there are specific factors differentiating the level of radicalization threat coming from jihadists. Finally, there is an ongoing debate on counterterrorism measures, among which many emphasize the Boyd loop application.

Recruitment Techniques

Social media have significantly contributed to the contemporary recruitment process. First, they have provided propagandists with an opportunity to spread their messages such as leaders’ speeches in a more efficient way (Howell, 2017). Moreover, these platforms allow radicals to identify their possible followers by observing their social media activity on profiles of ISIS fighters (Turner, 2018). Access to jihadist propaganda sources such as Dabiq magazine or Flames of War can eventually be interpreted the same way (Turner, 2018). Finally, recruiters have received access to the vulnerable groups directly, which is demonstrated in the book In the Skin of a Jihadist written by an investigative journalist Anne Erelle (2015). Hence, it is fair to say that the recent spread of radical ideologies is partially related to modern technological advances.

Another point to be made is that radicalization has not substantially transformed: technologies in the context of recruitment are a form and a factor of efficiency. However, they do not change the nature of the recruitment process. For example, it still reaches the most vulnerable groups that are intentionally chosen by terrorists. Age is probably the primary factor, as young people frequently face an existential crisis and seek an alternative explanation of the reality they exist in (Turner, 2018). Hence, the lack of a sense of purpose and self-realization means in life also become the red flags that recruiters see as a potential contribution to radicalization (Turner, 2018). Religious and ethnic discrimination, as well as difficult circumstances in life, are interpreted as markers of vulnerability, too (Turner, 2018). Therefore, some techniques such as finding vulnerable individuals have not changed with new technologies, but have probably become more efficient in their context.

U.S. and Europe Vulnerability

It would be fair to claim that U.S. citizens’ and Europeans’ vulnerability to recruitment appears to be heterogeneous. As for the American population, it seems less assailable. For instance, the RAND study observes a number of cases that were publicly reported as “domestic radicalization” and the following “recruitment to jihadist organizations” and involved foreign training (Jenkins, 2010, p. 7). The number seems significant yet much lower than in Europe: 13 out of 46 cases registered between 2001 and 2009 (Jenkins, 2010).

On the contrary, Europeans have always shown higher involvement in such activities. This phenomenon’s roots lie in objective factors such as the geographic proximity of Europe to the Middle East and North Africa region. The latter is known to be the heart of contemporary jihad. Therefore, migration flows are higher, and that is why some Europeans have been concerned that with the migration crisis, radicalization will come. To say nothing of the fact that there are initially many communities that practice Islam: for instance, many of them can be found in the Balkans. It does not mean that they are jihadist – such a statement would be unfair stigmatization – however, this fact makes some members of those communities more vulnerable as radicals claim to profess the true Islam. Moreover, those groups are not the only ones who tend to end up as foreign fighters. During the ISIS recruitment, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia – if included in the region under discussion – were the most popular countries of origin of foreign fighters (Radio Liberty, 2020). Hence, the nature of recruitment in Europe is quite different from what is observed in the U.S.

Nevertheless, there is a common trend in the growing interest of the Western population in joining a jihadist movement in the United States and Europe. The primary factor is the activity of ISIS in Syria and Iraq which was seen as the most urgent threat in 2014 and caused military operations of the U.S. coalition, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, for instance. ISIS recruitment techniques were revolutionary in academia and media (Kalyvas, 2015; Engel, 2015). Therefore, technological progress has, in a way, contributed to jihadist recruitment, so it is not surprising that 15 years after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, the number of foreign fighters has significantly increased. This trend is relevant for all regions, including the ones discussed (Statista, 2020). In a word, U.S. citizens and Europeans have become more vulnerable to jihadist recruitment.

Targets Selection

Terrorist attacks may occur in various locations; however, terrorism’s key message is fear, and, hence, ordinarily such incidents happen in places with as many people as possible such as public transport, for instance. Meanwhile, some targets may have special meaning for radicals: as Alex Schmid points out (2011), terrorism is always a political act. Hence, terrorist acts must speak with political power. Therefore, police stations, military, government institutions end up being the most popular targets of terrorist attacks, according to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD, 2020). Another example is shooting in nightclubs as it was in Orlando in 2016 when the attack was based on the LGTQ+-hatred (BBC, 2016). Therefore, the choice of terrorist attack targets is a multifactorial process like an ideological message or the intended object of an attack: a politician, or a mob, for example.

The Boyd Loop in Counterterrorism

Speaking of the possible models in combatting terrorism threats, there is an example of the Boyd cycle. The latter is a concept describing the cycle of decision-making in military situations and explaining why some parties win and others do not (Shehabat & Mitew, 2017). It is a relevant tool “to model the information warfare dynamics in the clash between ISIS and its adversaries” (Shehabat & Mitew, 2017, p. 12). The elements of this cycle are the following: observation, orientation, or assessment of the information observed, a decision which means choosing among the alternatives provided, and action (Shehabat & Mitew, 2017). There is a couple of achieving victory: going through the Boyd loop in a faster path or improving the quality of the decision-making stage. In other words, this scheme appears to apply to various military cases, and in this context, counterterrorism operations are no exclusion.

The application of this model is demonstrated in the movie Eye in the sky. The plot describes the counterterrorist operation in Nairobi, Kenya, from the government’s perspectives, military command, and the pilot of the Reaper military drone (Hood, 2015). The Boyd loop is applicable in this case: observation and orientation allow the main characters to learn that a girl selling bread is within the territory of damage. The latter means humanitarian risks when opening fire on the terrorist preparing an attack in the building nearby (Hood, 2015). Observation also allows the characters to determine the time limit as they can see and assess the radicals’ preparation process (Hood, 2015). The decision stage seems to be the longest as the situation offers an unobvious moral dilemma. Moreover, the decision-making process is multilevel, and effective communication becomes challenging in this case (Hood, 2015). Finally, the action is demonstrated in an immensely dramatic way as despite the tactic victory – the death of the terrorists mentioned above – the girl that the characters have been trying to save dies.


To conclude, the terrorist threat has a reasonable number of various aspects, all of which need attention from the international community as they destabilize global security. With the development of technological innovations, recruitment means have been improving significantly, which has caused the growth in foreign fighters coming not from Europe and the U.S. Nevertheless, the targeting strategies tend to be the same as the idea of terrorist attacks has not changed but for the aspect of cybersecurity. Finally, counterterrorism techniques are closely related to the military strategy, making the application of traditional means such as the Boyd loop applicable in combating the jihadist threat.


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Engel, P. (2015). ISIS has mastered a crucial recruiting tactic no terrorist group has ever conquered. Business Insider. Web.

Erelle, A. (2015). In the skin of a jihadist. Harper Paperbacks.

GTD. (2020). Target types [Dataset]. GTD. Web.

Hoffman, A., & Furlan, M. (2020). Challenges posed by returning foreign fighters. Program on Extremism at the George Washington University. GWU. Web.

Hood, G. (2015). Eye in the sky [Film]. Entertainment One Films.

Howell, M. (2017). Fighting extremism: efforts to defeat online ISIS recruitment methods (Publication No. 706) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Mississippi]. The University of Mississippi.

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Radio Liberty. (2020). Foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria [Dataset]. RadioFreeEurope. Web.

Shehabat, A., & Mitew, T. (2017). Distributed swarming and stigmergic effects on ISIS networks: OODA loop model. Journal of Media and Information Warfare, 10, 79 – 109.

Schmid, A. (Eds.). (2011). The Routledge handbook of terrorism. Routledge Handbooks.

Statista. (2020). Gender of jihadist terrorists in the United States from September 11, 2001 to June 2020, by year [Dataset]. Statista. Web.

Turner, L. (2018). The Path to Terrorism: The Islamic State and Its Recruitment Strategies (Publication No. 585) [Doctoral dissertation, University of Connecticut]. UCONN Library.

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