A new study based on interviews conducted over social media with foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria raises doubts about the commonly held notion that young men in North America and Europe who are drawn to violent Islamic extremism must be marginalized loners looking for an alternative to their dead-end lives.
Three university researchers who contacted dozens of jihadists from abroad in Iraq and Syria, including some Canadians, say they seemed to be drawn mainly by the religious ideas—“no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox”—behind jihadism. Rather than being isolated individuals who self-radicalized in front of their computer screens, the report says they usually found mentors and, at least in the case of the Canadians, joined the fighting in “clusters.”
In the working paper entitled Talking to Foreign Fighters: Socio-Economic Push versus Existential Pull Factors, the researchers caution against assuming that radical Islam appeals only young men on the edges of society, those without good job prospects or supportive family and friends.
They suggest previous academic studies have put too much weight on those “push” factors—the problems and frustrations in the lives of young men who turn to extremist Islam and, ultimately, terrorist violence. “Based on what we are hearing in interviews with foreign fighters—more interviews than anyone has yet to report on—we think more attention and significance should be given to the repeated affirmations of the positive benefits of being jihadists,” they say.
From mid-December 2015 to Feb. 29, 2016, the researchers put questions to 40 foreign fighters, 60 family members, friends and associates, and 30 online fans, recruiters, and potential fighters. (Among the Canadians the interviewed was Aaron Driver, the would-be terrorist killed last week in a confrontation with police in Strathroy, Ont.) Those fighting in Syria and Iraq were interviewed through “extended social media dialogues.” But their working paper, posted recently on the website of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society, is based on an initial analysis of just 20 interviews with foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq.
Related: The real faces of ISIS
The researchers are Lorne Dawson of University of Waterloo’s sociology and legal studies department, Amarnath Amarasingam of George Washington University’s program on extremism, and Alexandra Bain of St. Thomas University’s religious studies department. Dawson told Maclean’s by email that they plan to eventually publish a more complete paper on their research in a peer-reviewed journal, and are also “being pressed to write a book in short order.”
In the working paper, they write that the foreign fighters they contacted “run the gamut from troubled youth with personal problems to accomplished young men and women from stable backgrounds.” In the 20 interviews they analyzed, not one of their subjects suggested “directly or indirectly” that being marginalized socially or economically pushed them onto such an extreme path. “Anger and frustration have their role to play in the process, but it is the positive investment in an alternate world-saving role that matters most, no matter how strange it may appear to outsiders,” they say.
As well, the paper points to the importance of influential radical voices who carry some form of religious authority. “In most cases, we would say the help and encouragement of some other outside mentors is required to complete the process of radicalization, to turn wannabe terrorists into deployable agents or independent martyrs for the cause. The process of self-radicalization needs to be legitimated to be complete.”
To probe the views of radicalized young men directly, the researchers had to assure them that they were not seeking “operational information” that would put them at risk. The questions focused on personal and family background, their sense of identity, and how they became fighters.
Along with information about the individuals, the researchers assembled a sort of group portrait of the Canadians fighting for various terrorist and radical factions in Iraq and Syria. “It is extremely difficult to verify any of this information, however, and for the most part we are merely reporting what one or more individuals have told us,” they admit. Still, the outline they sketch is intriguing.
They say Canadians tend to be radicalized in “clusters” and travel to the conflict zone in small groups. Of those who have made the journey, at least 19 Canadian men have died fighting in Syria and Iraq, five or them converts to Islam, the rest from Muslim backgrounds. Eight were from Ontario, eight from Alberta, and three from Quebec. The researchers say they “have good reason to believe” most of the radicalized Canadians in the war-torn region have joined ISIS, but others are fighting for less well-known groups, like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham, while at least 15 have fought with Kurdish or Christian militias.
The paper estimates that between 10 and 15 women have gone from Canada to Iraq and Syria to back ISIS, often marrying terrorists. “We know that three have given birth to babies as a result of their marriages to ISIS fighters, who are usually other foreign fighters,” they say.
Related: Inside the secret war in Iraq
Throughout the report, the authors repeatedly note that they are summarizing only preliminary findings. “Things may change as more of our existing interviews are analyzed and more interviews are undertaken,” they say. Still, they assert that their interviews with actual fighters have been more extensive than those relied on for previously published scholarly studies.
The report repeatedly stresses the finding that, based on what fighters themselves say, they are “pulled” to Iraq and Syria by religious ideas, rather than being “pushed” by the realities of their lives in the West. “None of our sample indicated coming from familial situations of poverty or marginality,” they say. “On the contrary, many indicated they had fairly happy and privileged, or at least comfortable, childhoods. In general, there was almost no discussion of the economic situation of their families.”
Dawson said today’s Associated Press report on the low level of knowledge about Islam among ISIS recruits might seem to contradict the Talking to Foreign Fighters report, but doesn’t really. He said the sincerity of the religious commitment of newly radicalized individuals “has nothing to do with orthodoxy or depth of knowledge.” In fact, he added, “Converts in general are usually among the least informed practitioners of any religion—they are new. But, as is common knowledge, they are usually the most enthusiastic and fervent in their faith and behaviour.”
Dawson and his co-authors admit that interpreting what Muslim radicals say in social media exchanges is tricky. “The fighters are justifying their actions and that of the groups with which they are affiliated,” they say. Yet the interview subjects turned again and again to religious explanations for what they are doing. “Consequently,” the researchers conclude, “we think their religiosity is pivotal to understanding their motivations, no matter how murky our attempts, as outsiders, to grasp these motivations.”
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.