Unemployed, disillusioned outsider – the profile of an ISIS fighter
Politics and not religion is the main force driving foreign fighters to join ISIS and other terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, new research claims.
The study by academics at the US Military Academy at West Point found that the vast majority of almost 1,200 militants surveyed had no formal religious education and had not adhered to Islam for their entire lives.
Extremist groups may actually prefer secular recruits because they are less able to critically scrutinise the jihadi narrative and ideology and instead blindly follow the extremist organisation’s violent interpretation of Islam, according to the study by The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point.
The researchers said many foreign fighters travelling from the West were attracted to jihadi groups because of cultural and political narratives rather than Islam itself, which is a “secondary consideration”.
“The ability of jihadi groups to recruit foreign fighters is thus based on creating a narrative that is focused on the ongoing deprivation of Muslims, both in specific Western policies, as well as in the international arena,” said the CTC’s report.
The analysis comes as revelations from a cache of ISIS recruitment documents leaked earlier this year showed the majority of those people joining their knowledge of Sharia principles as “basic”.
At the height of ISIS’s recruitment drives in 2013 and 2014, there were reports that two recruits from the UK ordered The Koran for Dummies and Islam for Dummies from an online bookshop.
While anti-radicalisation strategies in the US, Europe and Australia have reached out to mosques to prevent young men joining terror groups, the CTC research found that religious figures played only a “minimal role” and that most fighters were isolated from their own Muslim communities at home.
The researchers analysed the personal information of foreign fighters who attempted to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq from 2011 to 2015, from France, Belgium, the UK, Germany the Netherlands and 25 other countries.
“Foreign fighters are not just engaging in a significant amount of fighting, but they are also doing a large amount of dying,” the report said.
At least 74 per cent of those surveyed had been killed in action, although experts warned the number could be skewed by the fact identities of dead foreign fighters are more likely to be in the public domain than those still fighting.
Three-quarters of British fighters in the sample had been killed, with the death rate standing at 66 per cent for ISIS and 77 per cent for al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which has now renamed itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham after reportedly splitting from its parent organisation.
The death toll of fighters in Syria and Iraq are difficult to confirm, with the absence of impartial authorities on the ground and rival propaganda messaging.
But the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has estimated that over 47,000 foreigners had been killed fighting for anti-Assad factions, including ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra – more than the figure the US Government had estimated has travelled to the region.
The Pentagon estimates that its air strikes alone have killed 45,000 Isis fighters, including foreigners and locals.
The CTC research found there was no single “profile” for the extremists, although most were aged in their 20s, were unemployed or students and had an immigrant background.
Previous studies have shown that many have criminal records especially in gang-related crime.
The CTS researchers suggested ISIS recruiters often preyed on these people by presenting a “redemption narrative”.
The researchers said westerners were used in a variety of roles depending on their experience, and were often sent to terrorist training camps upon arrival in the region.
They were typically used as soldiers, suicide bombers, leaders or support personnel, the report said.
It said westerners also had propaganda value for ISIS and other groups, such as the British Isis recruit Mohammed Emwazi, who became known as Jihadi John after appearing in a series of execution videos.
ISIS frequently used European recruits for videos aiming to incite attacks in their home countries, the report said, citing growing concerns over the potential use of foreign fighters who return, complete with weapons training and battlefield experience.
“For some, exposure to violence may serve to harden their belief in the organisation on behalf of which they are working,” the CTC’s report said.
“For others, the brutal realities of the battlefield may be the first step in their disenchantment with an organisation.
“Wrestling with how to distinguish between returnees who are hardened as opposed to those who are disillusioned, as well as what to do in either case, is a challenge that will only grow larger as fighters return in greater numbers and governments struggle to respond,” the researchers said.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist