Portrait of a foreign fighter

How did the phenomenon of ISIS foreign fighters come to be, asks Kjell Anderson.
By: /
October 22, 2014
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Researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (NIOD)

Acts of great evil such as terrorism and genocide are so horrifying as to seem entirely incomprehensible. What kinds of people commit such acts?   The answer to this question is as simple as it is disquieting — people more like us than we would like to believe.

It is satisfying, but ultimately misleading, to believe that perpetrators possess certain inborn pathological traits. Rather, their motivations are not so different from our own — the desire for community, respect, security, and the fear of standing apart from the crowd.

So how, then, do people become perpetrators?

Specifically, in light of the current crisis in the Middle East, how did the phenomenon of ISIS foreign fighters come to be?

ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and also known as ISIL) emerged out of the context of the instability and conflict in Syria and Iraq.   It was originally an offshoot of Al Qaeda until Abu Bakr Al Bagdadi (the so-called Caliph of the Islamic State) split with the mother organization over a difference of opinions on tactics. Since the split, ISIS has declared an Islamic Caliphate, and, as such, Al Bagdadi claims direct descent from the prophet Mohammed and authority over all Muslims. Through a series of rapid advances, ISIS has gained territory in Syria and northern Iraq, as well as substantial economic resources including bank reserves and oil fields.

So why do some Westerners travel thousands of kilometres to fight in a conflict to which they have seemingly little connection?

ISIS is currently comprised of around 35,000 fighters, of which approximately a third are foreign fighters. These foreign fighters can be very roughly divided into the fanatical and the naïve. There are those who join ISIS out of a true sense of religious fanaticism and militancy. Yet many other ISIS foreign fighters might be essentially naïve about what war in Syria actually entails.

This is evinced by the naiveté of the questions posed by would be foreign fighters on the online networking site Ask.Fm, such as whether their cell phones need to be switched off during battle, as well as the many ISIS defectors (approximately 80 Canadians and 100 British thus far). Most ISIS fighters are men under the age of 40 but ISIS is attracting far more women than other Jihadist movements (10-15 percent of ISIS foreign recruits are women). These women are part of a kind of “matrimonial jihad” – often being married off to ISIS fighters.   The largest contributors of foreign fighters are Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Russia (Chechnya), with the largest Western contributors being France, Britain, Belgium and Germany. There are currently approximately 130 Canadians fighting with ISIS.

ISIS is more sophisticated in its foreign recruitment strategies than any other Islamic militant group. Most recruits connect with ISIS over the internet rather than in radical mosques (as was the case with Islamic militant groups in the past). In order to gather recruits ISIS makes extensive use of social media, with its messages often being directed at a Western audience through the use of pop-culture savvy colloquial English. For example ISIS’ online English-language magazine Dabiq published in an editorial:

Rush to the shade of the Islamic State with your parents, siblings, spouses, and children. There are homes here for you and your families. You can be a major contributor towards the liberation of Makkah, Madīnah, and al-Quds. Would you not like to reach Judgment Day with these grand deeds in your scales.
Propaganda is often distributed by so-called disseminators, who are broadly supportive of ISIS without being actual members of ISIS. These disseminators are often located in Western countries.

ISIS’ declaration of the caliphate has also helped recruitment as ISIS can draw people to a functioning ‘Islamic homeland’ in a way that Al Qaeda never could.

A diverse call to arms?

The reasons for joining ISIS are diverse.   Many ISIS recruits are actually not very religious, or at least not religious in the traditional sense. Rather they have rejected their parents’ Islam as being “too soft” and ‘tainted by western culture”, in favour of a self-taught form of radical, violent, romantic Islamic militancy.   For example, two would-be ISIS Jihadis from Birmingham bought the books Islam for Dummies and Koran for Dummies from Amazon UK before departing.

Although Islamic stridency is an important factor for some ISIS foreign recruits, there are many recruits who join for irreligious reasons.   Some recruits are merely bored and seeking adventure, while others are motivated by a religious nationalism, rooted less in faith and more in the urge to protect their kin in Syria and Iraq from ‘foreign aggression.’   There are also those who are driven by narcissism. They have suffered narcissistic wounds – experienced as discrimination, marginalisation, or the sense that they are not being respected in the way that they deserve.   To such people ISIS represents an opportunity for increased status. This can also be true of individuals who have not faced discrimination but still seek an increased status, as well as transcendence through joining a movement in pursuit of a higher purpose.

The targeting of civilians by terrorist groups is often justified on the basis of two arguments: collateral damage and reprisal.   Civilians are sometimes said to not be primary targets (or at least not ideal targets) but rather the harm which they experience through acts of terrorism is an unavoidable bi-product of war. Terrorists also sometimes argue that the targeting of civilians is a justifiable response to the killing of civilians by Western states. Indeed, terrorist groups contend that asymmetrical warfare is the only means they have to counter the overwhelming force of powers like the United States.

There are some similarities between the techniques used in terrorist movements to recruit and socialise members and those of criminal gangs.   Individuals who join both gangs and terrorist movements may be violent before they join, or they may become violent through the process of joining, but in all cases the group socializes them to commit acts of violence.   The gang/terrorist group also becomes a primary source of identity and much of the efforts of members are directed at seeking the approval of other members. Moreover, in both gangs and terrorist movements violent acts become a means of establishing masculine identity.

Both terrorism and genocide result in the perpetration of acts of cruelty against innocent victims. Yet, the primary difference between these types of violence is the role of state power. In genocide, the state itself encourages the commission of crimes. Thus, perpetrators of genocide are placed under significant social pressures to join in the campaign of violence. In contrast, terrorist groups like ISIS are formed of individuals who choose to join.

Both terrorist groups such as ISIS and genocidal organizations like the Interahamwe (Rwanda) embrace ideologies that endorse the use of violence as a means of achieving purity within the community.

Although most ISIS foreign fighters, like most other individuals who participate in mass violence, are arguably normal people, the ideology that they practice is genocidal in its implications. This destructive ideology necessitates a response of humanity as a collective.

This piece is adapted from a recent talk for the CIC Saskatoon branch entitled “Understanding Atrocities: From Rwanda to ISIS.”