Motivations for Islamic State’s Foreign Fighters Defy COIN Logic.
|Islamic State militants pass by a convoy, Tel Abyad, northeast Syria, May 4, 2015|
By Steven Metz, June 5, 2015
It’s not hard to understand what motivates local Iraqis and Syrians to fight for the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). Most believe they are defending their community, Sunni Arabs, against repression from the Alawite-dominated Syrian dictatorship or the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. The motives of the estimated 20,000 foreign fighters that have joined IS are more complex, tied to deep psychological factors that make them less amenable to political solutions and more difficult to address.
Every insurgent movement includes people with diverse motives. Yet the counterinsurgency doctrine of the United States and America’s NATO partners gravitates to political and economic grievances, assuming that if these are resolved then support for the insurgents will fade away and the diehards can be killed or captured. This may apply to the Islamic State’s local Iraqi and Syrian fighters but offers few insights for addressing the motivation of foreign fighters disconnected from local grievances.
Often foreign fighters are driven by what terrorism experts Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger call “internal motives,” such as a need to belong to something greater than themselves, a quest for personal empowerment or a desire to feel and be seen as heroic. Being a fighter provides celebrity status for bored, disaffected young males who lack power and prestige in their normal lives. It appeals to those too impatient to work toward and wait for the empowerment and other rewards that normally come with age and professional success. For the Islamic State’s foreign fighters, religion is often a less important motivation than youthful rebelliousness and a quest for adventure, both amplified by peer pressure. In fact, as Stern and Berger point out, recent converts with a limited understanding of Islam are disproportionately represented among foreign fighters.
While angry, disempowered or low-status young males have long joined insurgencies, in the past this usually happened at the local level. Recruitment and indoctrination were carried out person-to-person. Now this process occurs via transnational networks and has been raised to an industrial level. As a recent report from the United Nations noted, foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria come from over 100 nations. The Islamic State and other jihadi groups have capitalized on, and in some case even improved, the global recruitment system that al-Qaida pioneered. This used the Internet to reach angry, disempowered young males and inspired them with an ideology that at least makes reference to Islam’s heritage of heroism in pursuit of justice. It also built functioning networks to get recruits from their homes to conflict zones, where they could be trained to kill, as well as to channel funding, whether gained by crime or contributions, into conflict areas. Now this system is used by a range of jihadi groups including the Islamic State.
Other aspects of 21st century life help the Islamic State find foreign fighters and draw them to its cause. The central role that fantasy entertainment and virtual reality play in the lives of so many young people today contributes to a distorted sense of violence, lending IS recruiting tools a game-like appeal. Once recruits travel to Syria and Iraq and find that the violence there is not a game, but rather carried out on real humans, extrication is difficult. Moreover, in what amounts to a vicious cycle, peer pressure among recruits stokes violence, which in turn severs recruits’ psychological ties with the world left behind and bonds foreign fighters more tightly together, thereby increasing the effect of subsequent peer pressure. Meanwhile, the jihadist ideology rationalizes the violence with allusions to Islamic history and writing that resonate with recruits’ narrow understanding of their own religion.
The existence of social safety nets in many parts of the world also makes it easier for young males seeking empowerment and heroic status to leave their homes and families to join violent groups abroad. Historically fighters in warrior societies avoided death if possible, knowing it could leave their families destitute. Now young disaffected males know that their families back home will not pay a tangible price for their death in a faraway conflict. This makes it easier for them to accept, even embrace the idea of a death that they perceive as heroic.
This complex, inward-looking motivational framework that propels many of the Islamic State’s foreign recruits offers a grim prognosis for countering the group’s appeal. Western states are expending great effort to prevent potential recruits from traveling to conflict areas where they can be radicalized. They are also helping local Muslim communities develop counternarratives to undercut the image of empowerment and heroism that the Islamic State and other extremist groups use. But while programs like this can chip away at the extremist narrative, they cannot offer an equal degree of empowerment and self-perceived heroism to replace it. Being a good, productive citizen in a Western nation may be fulfilling to some, but not to those with the most heightened sense of disaffection and the need for intense empowerment.
Tragically there is an almost endless supply of disaffected young males who don’t feel they truly belong where they live and whose distorted view of reality and themselves drives them to seek empowerment by violence and self-perceived heroism. This phenomenon is not driven by Islam, but by society’s inability to integrate restless young males with a fantasy-like perspective on violence. The psychological forces leading foreign fighters to the Islamic State are not that different from the ones leading other young males to criminal gangs. Unfortunately the mechanisms that societies traditionally use to absorb such young males, like military service, offer a limited solution. This suggests that even if the Islamic State is somehow defeated and political stability returns to the conflict-torn parts of Syria and Iraq, the young males currently seeking to join the group will simply stream to another war somewhere else to seek empowerment and a sense heroism there.
Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.