October 23, 2014
Portrait of a Foreign Fighter
By Kjell Anderson
Researcher, 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, and 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) emerged out of the instability and conflict in Syria and Iraq. So why do some Westerners travel thousands of miles 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 many ISIS defectors, as well as by the naiveté of the questions posed by would-be foreign fighters on the online networking site ask.fm, such as whether their cellphones need to be switched off during battle.

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), and the largest Western contributors are France, Britain, Belgium, and Germany.

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, often directing its messages at a Western audience through the use of pop-culture-savvy colloquial English. For example, ISIS’ online English-language magazine Dabiq published the following statements 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.

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 – which they see as “too soft” and “tainted by Western culture” – in favor of a self-taught form of radical, violent, romantic Islamic militancy. Two would-be ISIS Jihadists from Birmingham even bought the books Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon before departing for Syria.

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, marginalization, 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.

Terrorist groups sometimes say that civilians are not primary targets (or at least not ideal targets), but that the harm they experience through acts of terrorism is an unavoidable byproduct of war.

They 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.

Both terrorism and genocide involve acts of cruelty against innocent victims. 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 (in 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.

Originally published at opencanada.org

Kjell AndersonDr. Kjell Anderson is a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies (NIOD), as well as being the coordinator of the MA in Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Additionally, he sits on the Council of Advisors of the Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention.