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When the Syria warriors return home

The Returned. They Left to Wage Jihad, Now They Are Back
Forfatter: David Thomson
Forlag: Polity Press (England/USA)
Hundreds of European youth have traveled to join the war in Syria – some have since returned. In the book The Returned, the French journalist David Thomsons claims that many of them bring jihad back home and try to explain how and why. 


Real fucking fun it has to be. European citizens posting photos of themselves on Facebook with a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder, a pair of Ray-Ban in the forehead and a large waffle ice cream in hand under black flag in war-torn Syria – this is one of the phenomena French journalist David Thomson explores in The Returned.

The book portrays young people with vastly different backgrounds, who have a very special thing in common: in the years following the record-breaking uprising in Syria into a brutal and chaotic war, they traveled from their homes in European cities and joined armed groups in a country most of them had no specific relationship to. Thomson indirectly portrays it as if everyone who has traveled to Syria to join the war has had jihad in mind, without following this claim to the door. Not all armed opposition groups in the country profess right-wing Islam. But Thomson has made it his mark to be the one who foresaw the terrorist attacks in Europe carried out by people who had gone out in the name of the Holy War and would sooner or later bring it home.

Along the way, it has become clear to foreign warriors that war is neither fun nor fair.

According to Thomson, 1100 French nationals have traveled to Syria since 2012, and about 700 of them are still there. One fifth have been killed and one fifth have returned. He also mentions a number of 400 children of French nationals in Syria, but it is unclear whether they were born in the country or included in the 1100 who traveled from France. Clearly, on the other hand, Thomson believes these children will become holy warriors as they grow up. Apparently, children in Thomson's universe always follow in their parents' footsteps, at least when they "become socialized into the jihadist movement."


Thomson has "established relationships" with jihadists since encountering one of the groups that feel particularly dedicated to the truths of Islam in Tunis in 2012. According to his own statement, Thomson has since built up such a source network that potential jihadists are following him on Twitter to stay up to date. In contrast to the book's disturbing hints of how large numbers of jihadists with European citizenship are hiding in Syria and among us, Thomson writes at the same time that jihadism is a small world where everyone knows everyone.

When Thomson began arguing publicly in 2014 that the Holy War would come flying back from, say, Syria, he was subjected to verbal assaults by an "ignorant" and "real-denying" intellectual elite. Soon after, the attacks on, among others, Charlie Hebdo came, and today Thomson is named Foreign Policy magazine as "France's favorite intellectual". Thomson has since also been accused of "humanizing" jihadists, and he accuses that accusation. That is precisely the point of the book: to show how jihadist is not someone but is someone. However, the explanatory power is fluctuating. Thomson may have a large and relevant network, but it is difficult to get into the lives of the people whose motives he wants to portray. 

The desire to mean something

At best, the portrait works by Zubeir, who, as a 17-year-old, left his parents' apartment in Seine-Saint-Denis to join first al-Qaeda and then Islamic State in Syria. Today he is back in France working with the authorities to counter Islamist "indoctrination". Zubeir was looking for an alternative to meaningless consumer culture – he wanted to "fill his spiritual void", to feel that he was devoting his life to something significant. The horror and cynicism he found among his so-called cronies in Syria led him to return without illusion and religion. 

Thomson introduces Zubeir as "funny and incredibly gifted, with the ability to express himself accurately and critically and objectively explain the process that made him a jihadist in order to feel important". The portraits are often disturbingly commented on by Thomson, who cannot cope with the role of mediator of (ex) jihadists' own narratives, but constantly appears on the stage as an interpreter of their life choices – which is, of course, what has earned him the title of "intellectual". 

According to Thomson, jihadists represent a small world where everyone knows everyone.

At least it cannot be his sociological or social-historical thoroughness. For example, several of the book's protagonists come from financially stable families with some housing and educational capital – what in everyday speech would be called middle class – and several were in or finishing high school when they traveled to Syria. 

Yet Thomson writes – without reference or evidence – that "sociologically" it is primarily young people with a low educational level who have grown up in "a Muslim culture" (whatever that means – the parents of the recruits have roots in as diverse countries as Yemen, Algeria and Somalia, while some are Franco-French converts) in "the country's working quarters" (read: social ghettos). 

Although Thomson's strength is not exactly class analysis, manufacturing works best when he draws attention to the inequality structures that lock down those at the bottom of the hierarchy and make anyone fall away – either in the fanatical quest for a real alternative or in hedonistic cultivation of the morbid .

The repentant

Most of the main characters of The Returned had a notion of engaging in honor and dignity – and getting on a little adventure – as they traveled to Syria. Along the way, it dawned on them that war is neither fun nor fair, and especially not pious. They discovered that the reality of "jihadism" in Syria is full of coercion, horror and wicked senselessness that can bring about even a racist, colonial and secularism-fundamentalist France to look attractive. 

That those who regretted or changed attitude along the way want to tell their story is understandable. The narrative then becomes a tool for self-examination and self-explanation, perhaps even an attempt to remedy it. 

The life stories of the former Syrian warriors are brilliantly insightful in a way that they are able to point beyond themselves. But often the answers to how they ended up under right-wing Islamist command are unbearably banal. They were bored, didn't feel important enough, didn't score enough ladies, didn't make enough money on unimaginable petty crime, didn't really know what they wanted with their lives, were friends with their parents. 

There is certainly a truth to that: Occasionally, the most incomprehensible choices of life just don't really have a good explanation. Still, one is left with the feeling that The Returned only able to scratch the surface. 

Nina Trige Andersen
Nina Trige Andersen
Trige Andersen is a freelance journalist and historian.

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