When reading about the 2016 Brussels bombings on wikipedia, I came across a paragraph that was a bit difficult to comprehend.

Belgium also has the highest number per capita of foreign fighters in Syria of any western country, with nearly 500 having left for Syria and Iraq as of 2016.

The source of the claim is a CNN article. Searching for '500' brings us to the following paragraph:

Per capita, Belgium has the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria of any Western European nation. Experts say nearly 500 men and women have left Belgium for Syria and Iraq since 2012.

From the context, I gather that people have left Belgium to actually join extremists, but the phrasing first lead me to believe that people were leaving Belgium to fight extremists (as in, deployed by the Belgian Armed Forces).

I am having trouble breaking down this sentence, and essentially would like to ask:

  1. What does it mean to be a "foreign fighter"?
  2. What does it mean for a country (Belgium) to "have foreign fighters"?
  3. What does it mean to "leave Belgium for Syria"?

Am I correct to assume that a lot of critical information is missing from the above quote, and actually needs context to make sense?


3 Answers 3


The term "foreign fighter" appears to be a neologism.

Julie Carter on English Langauge & Usage, found a definition by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian and Human Rights:

A foreign fighter is an individual who leaves his or her country of origin or habitual residence to join a non-state armed group in an armed conflict abroad and who is primarily motivated by ideology, religion, and/or kinship.

PellMell adds commentary on the use of the term by the media of the United States:

Lately, the term is most often used to refer to people who relocate from elsewhere to ISIS-held regions of Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. This is similar to the situation described in @Josh61's Al Jazeera quotation:

The foreign fighters label came to prominence in Iraq about 10 years ago when Coalition officers believed, incorrectly, that the "Sunni insurgency" in that country was being dominated by fighters from outside.


This story is badly written. The main problem is that the writer wanted to start the sentence with "Belgium", either for dramatic effect or to link it to preceding text. If the sentence had been written for clarity, it would have looked more like this:

There are more foreigners from Belgium fighting for ISIS in Syria than there are from any other country

To answer your questions:

  1. What does it mean to be a "foreign fighter"

It means fighting in a country that you are not a national of, for example the Americans in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. It imolies nothing about which side they are fighting for.

  1. What does it mean for a country (Belgium) to "have foreign fighters"

This is the most confusing part of the story. The correct group of words to analyse is "foreign fighters in syria". This descrbes people who are fighting in Syria and are from other countries.

  1. What does it mean to "leave Belgium for Syria"?

When you "leave Belgium for Syria", it means that you are in Belgium and you start a journey to Syria. A better way of expressing it would be "travel from Belgium to Syria"

  • Agreed. 'foreigners' does not add anything. Do you think that 'People' might be a better word?
    – JavaLatte
    Mar 23, 2016 at 13:01
  • 2
    No, it's foreigners. It's people who are not Syrians. It's not Syrians who lived in Belgium for a while and moved back to Syria, it's Belgians or other non-Syrians, therefore foreigners from a Syrian point of view. And as foreigners, they obviously have no business to go to Syria to get involved in fighting.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 28, 2016 at 13:08

This means Syria has more fighters from Belgium than any other country.

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