The Clear Banner: “For Our Freedom and Yours?”: The Lack of Central European Foreign Fighters in Syria

NOTE: For prior parts in the Clear Banner series you can view an archive of it all here.

“For Our Freedom and Yours?”: The Lack of Central European* Foreign Fighters in Syria

*Central Europe is understood here as a bloc of formerly communist states, which are NATO and EU members (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria) plus the three former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

By Kacper Rekawek, PhD

“For Our Freedom and Yours” is one of the Polish national mottos first unveiled during the anti-Russian rebellion of the early 1830s. Its standing was augmented by the subsequent participation of the current author’s countrymen in different conflicts around the globe – from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 to all battlefronts of the Second World War. Nonetheless, Poles fought as foreign fighters in earlier conflicts as well – be it the wars waged by the revolutionary France in Italy  in the late 1790s (the song by the so-called Polish “legionaries” fighting alongside the French against the Habsburg Austria is Poland’s national anthem) or during the American War of Independence. The latter conflict produced one of Poland’s and possibly the world’s, most famous foreign fighter – Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a national hero to both Poles and Americans, whose monument stands yards away from the White House in Washington D.C.

Such strong and emphatic tradition of participation in foreign conflicts could, theoretically, result with scores of Polish volunteers ready and willing to fight for the cause of freedom around the globe. At the end of the day, citizens of the state, which regained its political sovereignty only in 1989 would be expected to remain zealously enthusiastic about aiding others in their quest for freedom. The same could be said about the societies of Poland’s Eastern and Southern neighbours or former communist countries, which are now all members of the European Union and NATO. Just as they all often offer and market their experiences of transformation from dictatorial regimes to liberal and prosperous democracies as interesting examples to all of the world’s democrats, different individuals from Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia could be expected flock to the banners of non-violent or armed movements or organisations advocating independence or democracy. However, it has not happened and neither the stereotypically romantic Poles or more pragmatic Czechs, just to name two of Central Europe’s nations, made names for themselves either as foreign activists or foreign fighters. Moreover, they seem to be missing out on the fight some of their Western European, Eastern European, or Balkan (as detailed in the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation estimates) peers are waging against the Assad government in Syria. Let us investigate why this is the case and study the counter-terrorism implications such situation poses for the countries of Central Europe.

There had been individual cases of foreign fighters from the region making their trek to wage jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s (Poland reports 3 such cases). The individuals were not religiously, but rather politically motivated – in theory, the war in Afghanistan offered a meaningful opportunity for those wanting to take the fight directly to the “Russians.” It is worth remembering, however,  that the opposition to communist regimes in Central Europe was entirely non-violent and such endeavors gained very little traction amongst the members of the likes of the Polish Solidarity or the Czechoslovak Charter 77. On top of that, Central and Eastern Europeans could get to battlefields in exotic places (like Afghanistan, but also in other countries in Asia or the Middle East) more easily as advisors to the local army, embedded with the Soviet troops, than as foreign fighters (e.g. the current author interviewed a Hungarian general who served as an advisor to the Syrian military in 1982). The logistical, financial, and bureaucratic obstacles while living under police states modelled on the Soviet Union would simply be insurmountable even for the most enthusiastic, but very small in number, prospective volunteers wishing to go to Afghanistan. For these reasons, the Poles who participated in this conflict used different Western European countries as launching pads for their forays into Afghanistan.

One could argue that the post-1989 reality of Central Europe should offer a marked change for potential foreign fighters emanating from this region. The aforementioned obstacles were disappearing and as the Central European countries were plugging themselves into the global economy, they and their citizens were becoming more and more aware of the world around them. Some activists and do-gooders  embraced humanitarian and relief efforts in e.g. the Balkans, but very few felt the need to help fight for someone else’s freedom in the ranks of foreign rebel or insurgent groups. Not that there was no sympathy for e.g. the Chechens, who just like the Afghans a decade earlier, were fighting what in the minds of especially many Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians initially constituted a struggle for independence of their homeland against the Russian invaders. This seemingly popular common Russian denominator, however, failed to ignite a phenomenon akin to the mobilization of Islamist foreign fighters in Western Europe for the civil war in Syria – only a handful of Poles, and hardly any Czech, Slovak, Hungarian or Bulgarian etc., trekked to Chechnya. The smaller, but perhaps more emphatically, at least initially, pro-Chechen, Baltic states are sometimes rumoured (as there is hardly any reliable data available) to have contributed more – some sources even mention allegedly Lithuanian female snipers fighting on the Chechen side. Moreover, after 9/11 and especially the Beslan school siege, much of the initial goodwill for Chechnya in Central Europe simply vanished. The alleged journalistic scoop of two prospective Polish fighters training in the Polish mountains for the hardship of the North Caucasus from 2012 or the 2009 Lithuanian alleged female suicide bomber, said to have been run from Chechnya and to be deployed against a military target in Russia, effectively constitute the most recent, but also farcical examples of “foreign fighting in the Caucasus” phenomenon on behalf of the Central Europeans.

The downfall of the Chechen cause in Central Europe, however, is not yet complete. Degi Dudayev, the son the late Dzhokhar Dudayev lives in Lithuania, and the the World Chechen Congress held its meeting in Poland in 2010. These are, however, forces seen as “secular” and in opposition to the Islamists of the Caucasus Emirate. After the horrors of Beslan, mobilizing support for this entity along the old anti-Russian lines of support in Central Europe became almost an impossibility and not only due to the fact of the world’s revulsion with “Chechen” terrorist acts, but also because the Emirate would not, in contrast to the Chechen rebels beforehand (see: the case of the late Aleksander Muzyczko, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Right Sector who fought in Chechnya on the rebel side in the First Chechen War), accommodate non-Muslim foreign fighters. Thus one would have to be a Muslim even if they wanted to oppose Russia in e.g. North Caucasus or after 2011 in Syria where the rebels are fighting a Russia-backed Assad government. This seemingly trivial conclusion seriously reduced the potential number of foreign fighters from Central Europe as there are simply very few Muslims residing in the region.

There are traditions of Muslim communities in Central Europe, e.g. the tiny Polish Tatar community, present in the country from the late 17th century, residing in the North East of Poland. Many Bosniaks moved to Slovenia (richest part of Yugoslavia) in search of jobs and settled there, and there, of course, exists  a sizable Turkish minority in Bulgaria. Additionally, almost all of the countries of the region have a history of close ties (also in supporting terrorist groups) with some Middle Eastern states, which co-operated with the Soviet bloc before 1989. For this reason, one can find the likes of Libyans, Syrians, Palestinians or e.g. former members of the Middle Eastern communist parties currently based in the region. They are, however, very small in number, usually secular and most of them are by now more than well integrated into the societies of the region. Their numbers are not swollen by any waves of new immigrants who, when they make it to Europe, prefer to stick to Western and Northern Europe where more of their peers, perhaps also family members, are based and where they have a chance of a more prosperous existence. Conversions to Islam are not unheard of, but far from numerous and as a result, some Muslim communities in Central Europe are so small that they do not even possess a luxury of a Mosque around, which its members could rally.

Those communities, are often poorly organized or riven with petty rivalries between the “old” Muslims and the converts, profess moderation, but are susceptible to more radically Islamist influences from abroad – neighbouring Western European countries where Muslim communities are stronger (e.g. Sweden and Finland vis-à-vis the Baltic states) or directly via funding from the Middle East. This, to an extent, is their foot in the door as far the Muslim community in Europe is concerned and theoretically a chance for their more militant members to link up with their peers in Western Europe. However, the numerical starting base is so low that we are yet to see examples of Central Europeans who, while struggling to locate individuals funneling fighters to the civil war in Syria from “home,” opt to use Western Europe as a launching pad for their forays into Syria. What is more, there are only a few examples of Central European foreign fighters (be it non-Central European nationals with new EU member states passports or converts) present in Syria [full disclosure – the author was informed of 5 such cases from three Central European (Poland, Bulgaria, Romania) countries by the administrator of Jihadology; there is also a yet to be confirmed case of a national of another Central European country which, according to the local police, “is most probably fighting in Syria”]. This contrasts with up to 2,000 potential Western European foreign fighters who, as reported by the ICSR in its December 2013 estimate, might have gone to Syria.

Theoretically, such a situation should not be worrying for the Central European CT officials. There are no networks of operators funneling prospective jihadists to Syria to track down, monitor, dismantle and prosecute. No resources and no manpower is to be devoted to tedious process of combing through the domestic radical Islamist milieu (virtually non-existent), and there are no risk of blowback if one of “our” citizens carries out a spectacular terrorist operation either in Syria or after they return home. Seen from this perspective, one should not be surprised with statements, heard in each and every country covered by the author’s research, of CT officials professing their happiness with being a “quiet” country in which “the threat is low” and which lacks “trigger issues” for terrorist activity.

At the same time, however, the absence of foreign fighters emanating from Central Europe – a more than a positive development – also  has serious and rather surprising downside for CT in Central Europe. To an extent, it removes the new EU Member States from the mainstream European CT discourse in which the issue of foreign fighters features prominently. In theory, there is nothing wrong with the fact that the Central Europeans do not take the lead in discussions on European foreign fighters in Syria during meetings of EU working groups devoted to terrorism. One could ask – why would they? They are not directly threatened, they are more than ready to help out and are willing to learn from the experiences of their Western European peers.

Unfortunately, the foreign fighters issue constitutes by far not the only CT portfolio which sees a complete Western European dominance, and, in the words of an anonymous EU CT official interviewed by the author, “quiet” on behalf of the new member states. Again, this might be the result of the simple lack of terrorism in Central Europe and consequently neither Poland, Czech Republic nor Estonia etc. would be likely to “teach” the UK, France, Germany etc. how to combat terrorism in general. There is, however, serious concern amongst EU CT officials  that the new member states’ stance on the preventive aspect of their counter-terrorisms leaves a lot to be desired. They are said to be keener on the more repressive aspects of their CT, and view it as a counter-intelligence and police matter and not essentially a policy to be developed on the basis of the whole of society approach.  To sum up, they  prefer “hard” to “soft” CT measures and are exasperated when asked to dwell on their CT preferences, because countries, which lack  “social groups, subcultures contemplating [terrorist] action,” do not see a need for development of sophisticated preventive mechanisms. At the same time, discourse about such mechanisms (e.g. on best practices in de-radicalisation) emanates from Brussels and some Western European capitals, and reaches a CT audience in the new member states, which are slightly disinterested. This creates the risk of a more serious and long lasting CT cleavage inside Europe in which “one size fits all” approach to asymmetric threats is hardly working. Fortunately, constant contacts and exchange of information between CT officials of different European countries ameliorate this danger and prevent a more serious rift from developing. In that sense, the aforementioned EU working groups where those differences in approach and interests, including on the Syrian foreign fighters, are exposed, also function as “get to know my neighbours and friends better” mechanisms. Hopefully, this could convince some of the proponents of unitary approaches to slow their enthusiasm down, at least until Central Europeans will be directly threatened by domestically based radicals.

The Central Europeans, despite some long lasting regional traditions of fighting abroad, have proven rather resilient to mobilization for foreign conflicts. Their contributions to “jihads” in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq or Syria have been very limited, and one should not expect a surge of new volunteers to come forward in the next months or years. The main reason for this state of affairs is the fact that there simply are not enough Muslims or converts in the region who could be mobilized along the religious lines, and the non-religious mobilization (to an extent available for those wanting to take part in the First Chechen War) is not an option for prospective anti-Assad fighters. The lack of Central European foreign fighters in Syria, a relief for CT officials in the region, also has CT implications for the new EU member states as it firmly puts them in the “quiet” camp in EU discussions on the issue. Such positioning is an indication of a broader lack of engagement on behalf of the Central Europeans with some of the CT discourse emanating either from Brussels or from Western Europe.  The Central European lack of expertise, involvement and interest in development of the likes of de-radicalisation policies (while there is hardly anyone being radicalized into terrorism in Central Europe) is to an extent understandable. In the mid to long term, however, it should be altered to allow for a meaningful preparation for combating terrorism in the future, and also dealing with future cases of foreign fighters.

Kacper Rekawek is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), and a Paul Wilkinson Memorial Fellow at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St. Andrews where he conducts a research project on the issue of counter-terrorism in Central Europe. Contact him at: rekawek@pism.pl