Even just by causually glancing at the news it was hard to miss the sickly videos churned out by Islamic State on a daily basis. The question often asked was: who are these Islamic State fighters? How can someone do such things? Why do they have such manifest hatred for the West? The “Crusaders”, as they call us.
Well some of these people were ‘us’ at some point in time. They possess European passports and they travelled to Syria, answering the jihadi call. They once formed part of our communities. But why did they decide to leave their European home to fight a foreign war?
Who are they?
Understanding them and their motivation is important to know precisely how to respond to their threats. More importantly we need to know how to prevent them from going down the route of radicalisation in the first place.
Numerous studies suggest that the same people travelling to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia are now going to Syria. They all share the same demographic and social profile as jihadi fighters.
The huge majority are young, male and usually single. Many are unemployed or are in low-paid jobs. A rather large number of them have criminal records and a troubled personal history, coupled with problematic family situations.
However, not all are social outcasts; some have received a higher education and are employed in high-earning jobs.
Most of them are Europeans of Muslim origin but there are also those who had converted to Islam before they were radicalised.
A sentiment of frustration and discrimination
Interviews with dozens of Muslims across Western Europe reveal a wide range of explanations for why so many are responding to the call of radical Islam.
A common reason is frustration. They are frustrated at the lack of employment opportunities. Some lack a sense of belonging to European societies. Some say they are outraged over the bloodshed in Iraq and the persistent notion - stoked by Osama bin Laden - that the West is waging an assault on Islam.
Many second-generation Muslims in Europe say they feel a part of neither their countries of residence nor their parents' heritage.
Riad, 32, a French citizen who has been unemployed since 2002 and who asked to be identified by his first name, embodies the sense of estrangement. "They say we are French, and we would like to believe that as well," he says, sitting in a café in the Vénissieux suburb of Lyons. "But do we look like normal French people to you?" His friend Karim, 27, says they are discriminated against because of their long beards. "Who will give us a job when we look like this? We have to fend for ourselves and find a way out."
There are also external factors, such as the war in Iraq and Syria. And domestic issues such as the headscarf debate, the socio-economic situation of young Muslims or, more generally, the failure of integration policies.
What are Their goals?
Studies suggest that European converts to Islam are the prime targets for recruitment and they are radicalised through the internet, mosques, and prisons.
In the short term terrorists want to be and to appear to be powerful. In the medium term they want to mobilise more of their base of sympathisers, they want to recruit and train people to actively participate for their cause. In the long term they want to succeed in whatever their cause is: independence, status, power, respect. They want to hurt the enemy - publically. They want to be recognised and express the accomplishments and the goals of their people.
Intensifying integration and de-radicalisation programmes
The EU has at its disposal specific programmes of social and integration projects targeting ‘home-grown terrorists’ and programmes of de-radicalisation, which can be intensified. Better use should be made of the European Commission's Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN).
The EU should also come up with an action plan against radicalisation in prisons. Imprisoned radical Islamists could be separated from other inmates for example, and prison authorities could be given the tools to prevent ‘terrorist inmates’ from planning and executing other attacks from prison.
The EU should quickly address the question whether to return and expel non-EU radicals to their home countries. There should also be support structures for victims of terrorism, as well as structures that help delegitimise and de-glamourise terrorism.
More broadly, the EPP Group has insisted on a number of occasions on the tremendous need for improving the integration policies of EU countries, not only for newly-arrived migrants, but more specifically for second and third-generation migrant youth, who are also Europeans.
In the longer term, the EU strategy for prevention of terrorism must also include adjustment of its foreign and development policies. Poverty, discrimination and marginalisation, corruption and conflicts in some parts of the world are all contributing heavily to the jihadi call. They contribute to the marginalisation of certain groups and sectors in society and thus make them more vulnerable to extremist propaganda. The Group will insist in the coming days that the EU addresses these big problems in its foreign and development policies.
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