Western Muslims volunteering to fight in Syria and Iraq: Why do they go, and what should we do?

In this paper we first put ISIS volunteers in context by considering other examples of Americans citizens fighting in someone else’s war. Next we consider poll results indicating that many U.S. Muslims perceive a war on Islam and prejudice against Muslims; at least ten percent of younger U.S. Muslims justify suicide attacks in defense of Islam. Against this background it is perhaps surprising that only a few hundred U.S. Muslims have volunteered to fight in Syria. In the absence of accurate data about U.S. volunteers, we review what has been learned about the thousands of European volunteers for ISIS, many of whom seem to be pushed to action by individual-level mechanisms described by McCauley and Moskalenko in 2011. Finally, we raise doubt about current efforts to criminalize and block would-be volunteers.

Precedents for volunteering in a foreign war
A front page article in the New York Times provides a useful starting point for understanding Western volunteers for combat in the Middle East(1). “Unsettled at Home, Veterans volunteer to fight ISIS” describes a small number of Americans, many of them  former military, who volunteered to fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. “Driven by a blend of motivations—outrage over ISIS’s atrocities, boredom with civilian life back home, dismay that an enemy they tried to neutralize is stronger than ever – they have offered themselves as pro bono advisers and riflemen in local militias.” The article cites a Kurdish militia spokesman who estimated that over 100 American citizens are fighting against ISIS in Syria.
The first thing to notice about this article is the blend of motives described, in which emotion and personal circumstances are as important as political opinion in moving individuals to volunteer against ISIS.
In addition, this article about volunteers against ISIS differs from articles about volunteers for ISIS by recognizing several previous examples of American volunteers who joined armed groups in another country. “Pilots flew for the Allies in World War I and II long before the United States officially declared war. In the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Americans formed a contingent of more than 2,500 troops.”
In a more recent example, U.S. citizens numbered about 2000 in the Israeli Defense Force at the time of the I.D.F. incursion into Gaza Strip in 2014(2). In short there is history and precedent for U.S. citizens volunteering to fight in someone else’s war.

Many U.S. Muslims see a war on Islam and discrimination against Muslims
There have been two national polls of U.S. Muslims, the first in 2007 and the second in 2011; both were conducted by the Pew Research Center. Each poll included over 1000 respondents in a representative sampling of U.S. Muslims that cost more than a million dollars(3). Results in 2007 and 2011 were broadly similar. When asked about the U.S. war on terrorism, about half (55%, 41%) saw the war as “insincere.” When asked whether suicide bombing or other violence against civilians is justified to defend Islam from its enemies, a small minority (8% both times) said often or sometimes justified. This small minority projects to 80,000 of the approximately one million adult U.S. Muslims. Although the percentage is small, the number of U.S. Muslims with this extreme opinion is not negligible.
The same two polls show that many U.S. Muslims do not feel accepted in the U.S. Most respondents (53%, 55%) report that being a Muslim in the U.S. is more difficult since 9/11. About a quarter (26%, 28%) say that people have acted suspiciously toward them, and about a fifth (15%, 22%) report being called offensive names. In a land of immigrants, U.S. Muslims do not always feel welcome.
Muslims who do not feel welcome in the U.S. are likely to identify more as Muslims and less as Americans. Especially younger Muslims, born in the U.S., are likely to be more open to extreme opinions. Thus U.S.-born Muslims and U.S.-born Black Muslims tend to be more open to seeing suicide bombing as justified often or sometimes (11%, 16% vs. 8% for all U.S. Muslims in 2011).
Of course 2007 and 2011 were years earlier than the rise of ISIS in 2014, and opinions of U.S. Muslims may have changed. But the best polling data available indicate that antipathy to the war on terrorism is not uncommon among U.S. Muslims, and justification for suicide bombing in defense of Islam is not negligible, especially among younger U.S. Muslims. Given this distribution of opinion, it is not surprising that some young U.S. Muslims might be ready to take up arms in defense of Islam. But in fact, only a few turn to violence. Only 100-150 U.S. Muslims have joined or tried to join ISIS(4).  What distinguishes the few volunteers and would-be volunteers from the hundreds of thousands of U.S. Muslims who see the war on terrorism as a war on Islam but do not volunteer?

Unfortunately there is currently no report available that details the characteristics of the 150 U.S. volunteers. In the next section we look instead at the characteristics of European volunteers for ISIS. Study of European volunteers has profited by the fact that they are relatively numerous and that much more information about them is available.

Characteristics of European volunteers for ISIS
The most recent and penetrating report on Euro volunteers to ISIS estimates that nearly 4000 European youth, predominantly male, have gone to fight in Syria since 2012(5). Coolsaet cites CIA estimates according to which ISIS has 20-30,000 fighters, foreign fighters appear to account for over half of these, and fighters from Middle Eastern countries represent the largest contingent among the foreigners. It is important to note that Western volunteers are at most twenty percent of ISIS foreign fighters and U.S volunteers less than one percent of ISIS fighters.

Coolsaet divides his analysis into push factors (situational pressures to leave home) and pull factors (the attractions exerted by ISIS). Cultural push factors begin with the economic weakness and lack of job opportunities that have afflicted Europe since 2010.

Many young people feel depressed and hopeless about the future, and young Muslims in Europe are particularly likely to drop out of school and fail to find work.  Right-wing movements in many European countries make many Muslims feel unwelcome, even those born in Europe. The result is a kind of jihad-cool pop-culture: Young Muslim men who feel hopeless, helpless, and discriminated against can be wooed from crime and drugs to the promises of jihad.

Then there are personal push factors. As described by Coolsaet, these can be categorized in terms of the mechanisms of radicalization suggested by McCauley and Moskalenko(6). Political grievance: some are outraged by Western indifference to the plight of Sunni Muslims suffering from Shi’a in Iraq and from Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite minority government in Syria. Personal grievance: Even educated young Muslims with a job can feel the weight of white European discrimination against Muslims. Love: some go to Syria because a friend or relative has gone, or is going. Unfreezing: some have lost family, friends or job and seek new connections in the brotherhood of men at war. Escape: some go to ISIS to get away from debts or prison or family problems. Status and risk seeking: some seek thrill and adventure, and status as warriors. Coolsaet tellingly describes this factor as the chance to go “from zero to hero.”
After noting that Western hyperbole has given ISIS the cachet of “winner,” Coolsaet identifies the pull factors that bring volunteers to ISIS.
Most important, it has a catalogue of solutions on offer for every one of the
personal motives the potential volunteers carry with them. ISIS seemingly offers
meaning, belonging, fraternity, respect, status, adventure, heroism and martyrdom. It provides an alternative to drugs and petty crime, and an alternative society with clear and straightforward rules. It also offers material improvement: a salary and perhaps a villa with a pool. It offers, for those who join in, power over others, and, for those who would never admit it, the pleasure of sadism in the name of a higher goal. Moral absolutes are part and parcel of the ISIS attraction, and all the more so to the extent that these can be applied immediately in large areas of Iraq and Syria. Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda was never in a position to offer so much(7).

Against a background of poverty, pessimism, and perceived discrimination in Europe, personal push factors move some young Muslims to action and ISIS offers the strongest promise of personal success in a “successful” cause. In Coolsaet’s view, Western volunteers for ISIS will diminish as its military successes diminish and the internal stresses of administering a would-be state increase.

What is to be done?
With the notable exception of Denmark(8), Western governments have begun to criminalize volunteering for ISIS. Some Muslims are caught before leaving their Western country, some are caught after returning from Syria and Iraq. They are charged with something like support for a terrorist organization and sent to prison when convicted.
There are several downsides to punishing ISIS volunteers. Disenchanted ISIS dropouts would make credible spokespeople against setting out for Syria. But effective persuasion is difficult to advance from a prison cell. Also, blocking ISIS volunteers but not volunteers joining other armed groups can alienate Muslims in Western countries, who may see this distinction as another example of Western discrimination against Muslims. Perhaps most important, blocking their departure leaves would-be ISIS volunteers with a choice: forget about fighting for Islam, or stay home and attack fellow citizens with whatever bomb, firearm, or automobile may be available.

A case in point is Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a Libyan-Canadian convert to Islam. In October 2014 he went to Ottawa to apply for a Canadian passport but was held up as Canadian authorities weighed concerns about whether he might go to Syria to join ISIS. He also applied for a Libyan passport renewal, and his application was refused. Days later, on October 22, 2014, Zehaf-Bibeau shot and fatally wounded a sentry at Ottawa’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a short time later Zehaf-Bibeau was himself killed in an attempted attack on the Parliament Building.

Is it worth keeping individuals like Zehaf-Bibeau from going to join ISIS? As already noted, Western volunteers are a minority of ISIS fighters. If all Western volunteers were blocked, ISIS would persevere. Western governments are concerned about the threat of returned jihadists, but many volunteers will die and others will not be interested to return. It might be easier to keep track of returnees – even helping returnees as the Danes do – than to pay the cost of domestic attacks by those blocked from joining ISIS.

The author

Clark McCauley is Professor of Psychology and Co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. He is Founding Editor Emeritus of the journal Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict.

Sophia Moskalenko is a Research Fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responces to Terrorism (NC-START) and a Research Associate at the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College (Bryn Mawr, PA). With Clark McCauley she has authored Friction, How radicalization changes them and us, as well as a number of research articles on political radicalization and terrorism.

Communication relating to this paper to Clark McCauley, Psychology Department, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, 19010, U.S.A. cmccaule@brynmawr.edu

Acknowledgment. The preparation of this paper was supported by the United States Department of Homeland Security through the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), grant number N00140510629. However, any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect views of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

1 Dave Phillips and Thomas James Brennan, “Unsettled at home, veterans volunteer to fight ISIS,” New York Times, March 12, 2015, pp. A1, A12.

2 Eric McClam, “Americans fight for Israel as ‘lone soldiers’ in Gaza Strip,” NBC News, July 22, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/middle-east-unrest/americans-fight-israel-lone-soldiers-gaza-strip-n161441.

3 The Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: No signs of growth in alienation or support for extremism,” August 30, 2011, http://people-press.org/files/2011/08/muslim-american-report.pdf.

4 The White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press briefing by the Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 2/26/15,” February 26, 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/02/26/press-briefing-press-secretary-josh-earnest-22615.

5 Rik Coolsaet, “What drives Europeans to Syria, and to IS? Insights from the Belgian case,” Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations: Academia Press, March 2015, http://www.egmontinstitute.be/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/academia-egmont.papers.75_16x24.pdf.

6 Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, “Friction: How radicalization happens to them and us,” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

7 Rik Coolsaet, “What drives Europeans to Syria, and to IS? Insights from the Belgian case,” Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations: Academia Press, March 2015, http://www.egmontinstitute.be/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/academia-egmont.papers.75_16x24.pdf. p.18.

8 Simon Hooper, “Denmark introduces rehab for Syrian fighters: An innovative rehabilitation programme offers Danish fighters in Syria an escape route and help without prosecution,” Al Jazeera, September 7, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/09/denmark-introduces-rehab-syrian-fighters-201496125229948625.html.