Nearly three-quarters of the foreign fighters who journeyed to the Islamic State maintained communication with their families and friends, even with some regularity, revealed a new report studying jihadists based on interviews with those closest to them.
The report, from Amarnath Amarasingam at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and Lorne L. Dawson at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society and University of Waterloo, combines data from open-ended interviews with 43 parents, siblings, and friends of 30 men and women who traveled to Syria and Iraq. The study sheds light on the motivations of these jihadists and on the difficulties families of foreign fighters face when coming to terms with their loss.
Research is ongoing, and some interviews are still being undertaken and analyzed, so the report is considered a set of preliminary findings and insights.
Out of the sample of 30 foreign fighters — 27 men and three women — 21 are either first or second-generation immigrants, and nine of them were born in the country to parents who were born in the same country as well. Twenty-six are either high school graduates or have some college or university education, and three have bachelor’s degrees.
Half have parents who are still married, most do not appear to come from dysfunctional or neglectful families, and most do not appear to come from poor or stressful economic circumstances, the report continues. Forty-three percent were converts to Islam.
“All the parents noticed changes in their children’s clothing, behaviour, attitudes and friends before they left, but saw these changes as largely positive at the time,” states the report. “In part this was because the turn to more religious, and then radical, worldviews coincided with the typical struggles of adolescence.”
“While some of the young people had engaged in acts of rebellion against the wishes of their parents, most parents characterised them as essentially ‘good kids’ – if often strong willed. Most of the young people had begun the process of religious transformation before they adopted more radical political views, though the two processes are closely intertwined. Often local experiences of marginalisation, mainly related to their religious identity, acted as triggers for radicalisation, or pushed those already radicalising to escalate the process.”
For some of the families, media coverage on Islamic State recruitment helped them realize that what was going on with their relative could be more serious. In most cases, though, “the young people left with little resistance from their families, since the parents had little real grasp of what was occurring.”
A pattern among the foreign fighters was noticed by researchers “We are dealing with individuals who are experiencing an acute emerging adult identity struggle, with a moralistic problem-solving mindset, that is conditioned by an inordinate quest for significance (to make a difference in this world), that is resolved by believing in a (religious) ideology and participating in a fantasy (literally) of world change, that is consolidated by the psychological impact of intense small group dynamics, and perhaps the influence of charismatic leaders, resulting in a fusion of their personal identity with a new group identity and cause.”