Supporting families of foreign fighters. A realistic approach for measuring the effectiveness


  • Amy-Jane Gielen Amy-Jane Gielen works as an independent researcher and consultant on counter-radicalisation ( She is currently writing her PhD-thesis at the University of Amsterdam on measuring the effectiveness of counter-radicalisation policy.


Foreign Fighters, family counceling, family hotlines


Recently so-called ´family hotlines’ were launched in the Netherlands, France, Austria, serving as a resource for the parents and relatives who are confronted with the (potential) foreign fighter phenomenon. The hotline connects callers with social and religious services in an effort help prevent the (further) radicalisation of young Muslims or support families whose loved ones have travelled to Syria. In other countries such as Denmark (Aarhus) family talk groups were set up by the municipality or by affected parents, such as ‘Les parents concernés’ in Belgium. Family support is a relatively new approach within counter-radicalisation policy in which the Germans pioneered since 2012.

Supporting families is considered valuable for several reasons and can be provided at different stages (Gielen, 2014):

  • In its earliest stages, family support can be provided to parents of individuals at risk, by addressing their concerns, working on (maintaining) a positive family environment with an open atmosphere in which they can discuss extremist ideas with their child and provide positive alternatives.

  • If radical or extremist ideas lead to travel to a conflict zone abroad, such as Syria or Iraq, foreign fighters quite often remain in touch with their families back home. Family support can then be aimed at maintaining contact with their children or relatives and in creating a positive environment for a child to return home;

  • When extremist views turn into violence and ultimately imprisonment, families can be supported whilst their relative is imprisoned or afterwards in the re-integration and re-habilitation process, such going back to school and helping them find a job.

  • If practitioners are able to create and sustain a relationship with families of foreign fighters, then it will be easier to create an entry point for contact with the foreign fighter upon his/her return. This is of particular importance, as families are also crucial for de-radicalisation and disengagement work.

  • Moreover, family members such as brothers, sisters, cousins, but also peers, form an at-risk group of travelling to Syria. Supporting families and the broader professional network of the family (such as school teachers) should enable practitioners and family members to act upon early warning signals and prevent travel of other family members or peers;

  • Providing family support can work as a very powerful narrative for foreign fighters to come home. A lot of foreign fighters are afraid of returning because they fear prosecution or Guantanamo Bay. In one country were family and individual support was offered on a local level, parents spread the word that ‘the government was there to help them’. This message found its way back to the foreign fighters in Syria, providing a powerful narrative and highlighting the internal/external and local/global dimension of providing support;

  • Finally, foreign fighters cause a lot of grief, anxiety, despair and upset for family members to the point they are no longer actively able to participate in society (not able to work etc.) for which psychological counselling is essential.

This article will focus on family support as part of counter-radicalisation policy. How can its effectiveness be measured? To answer this question, this article will draw on realistic evaluation which revolves around ‘what works, for who, in which context and how? (Pawson & Tilley 1997). It will discuss the different forms and merits of family support across Europe by drawing upon the lessons learned of practitioners engaging in family support within the Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) including two case studies in which support was provided offered to families of foreign fighters by myself. Based on these practitioner experiences hypotheses on family support as part of a counter-radicalisation strategy are developed which in turn could be used for empirical testing.

Author Biography

Amy-Jane Gielen, Amy-Jane Gielen works as an independent researcher and consultant on counter-radicalisation ( She is currently writing her PhD-thesis at the University of Amsterdam on measuring the effectiveness of counter-radicalisation policy.

University of Amsterdam


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