Archive for February, 2015

Munich_Eye_05_15_49_00In a recent testimony to the House Committee on Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas Rasmussen estimated that over 20,000 fighters from across Europe, North America, or elsewhere in the Arab world had left their homes to join militant groups operating inside Iraq and Syria. This figure is striking given global outrage over widely publicized executions, the depth of the US-led coalition, and extensive barriers to entry resulting from European legislation targeting would-be militants traveling to Syria. The common narrative is that despite these deterrents, potential fighters decide to join groups such as the Islamic State (IS) due to a shared religious ideology. However, this explanation is likely more convenient than accurate. Militants do not join IS because they adhere to the group’s specific interpretation or brand of Islam, but rather because of a secular combination of personal and environmental factors pushing and pulling them to the Levant.

Interviews, testimonies, and social media analyses of militants operating inside Syria and Iraq indicate that “pull” factors comraderiesuch as the yearning for adventure, seeking camaraderie, and search for purpose serve as greater internal motivators to join IS than one’s religious fervor. Within many Arab countries, youth seek to fill the “purpose void” in their lives that is the product of a lack of desirable career opportunities or social integration. Coupled with the inherent sense of adventure that most youth, regardless of faith or nationality, grapple with, a militant life in Syria can be as alluring as backpacking through Europe is for many western college graduates. Referring to fighters that had already left for Syria, several Jordanian men in a recent Foreign Policy article called IS militants “our friends and neighbors” – alluding to a pseudo-fraternal perspective of IS.

A bevy of environmental factors also provide the “push” that many militants consider in making the decision to join. An unemp;aforementioned lack of career prospects and youth unemployment rates over 29% region-wide portray IS as “a potential employer more than an ideological kinsmen” said one Jordanian man interviewed by Foreign Policy. Injustices at home in the wake of the 2011 Arab Uprisings, whether in the form of police brutality or community ostracism, perpetuate the “us versus them” mentality at the heart of many regional conflicts. Finally, a lack of faith in the West, particularly the US, to act leads many to think that they alone must turn the tide of the battle against Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad, and/or creeping Iranian influence.

Rather than the common “shared ideology” narrative used to explain why militants decide to join jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, it is more appropriate to attribute such a decision to a complex and secular blend of personal “pull” and environmental “push” factors. However, given that each potential jihadist’s motivations are inherently unique and multifaceted, perhaps a greater focus on the “how” versus the “why” would succeed in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to Syria. While significantly more expensive and intrusive, “how” factors are easier to diagnose, address, and measure. Increased scrutiny of social media, communication surveillance, social network mapping, and enhanced airport security protocols all have the ability to impede the “how” why remaining applicable to all potential militants despite their elaborate spectrum of “whys.”

Despite an uptick in effective military strikes against IS targets in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, the problem of eliminating IS cannot be completely solved with the barrel of a gun or any number of “how” remedies. Insurgencies, by their nature, focus on hearts and minds to appeal to recruits. Therefore governments and societies from which foreign fighters flow must take a critical and introspective look at the conditions they are fostering at home and realize these circumstances are far more likely to send young men and women to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria than any radicalized interpretation of Islam.