An Albanian jihadist with his family in a 2015 ISIS video. (Al-Hayat Media Center)

Who Joined ISIS, and How to Prevent New Members from Signing Up

  • Foreign and local fighters have different motivations
  • Survival, money and local grievances are key drivers
  • Better economic and political prospects in the region would reduce recruitment

Sun Tzu said in The Art of War to “know thy enemy.” How well do we know ISIS? Who joins up, and why? Answering this is key to getting the upper hand on terrorism.

Vera Mironova, a visiting fellow at Harvard, has been asking jihadists these questions, conducting extensive interviews with members of different armed groups in Syria, as well as active and former foreign fighters who came from across the Middle East, Turkey, Russia and Central Asia.

In Syria and Iraq, locals joined for a variety of reasons. These included wanting to fight Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the Kurds or the Shia, leading them join groups with the appropriate focus. But there was more to it than that. There were career options: ISIS offered fighters $300 per month salary as the going rate, but with additional benefits ranging from cell phones to cars. When ISIS established its Caliphate, that opened up civilian job opportunities and other roles away from the fighting and the danger. These attracted skilled professionals. As the conflict continued, more and more local people joined out of desperation, as they had few other options to support their families.

Foreign fighters were a very mixed bag, Mironova’s team found. Some were just mercenaries – professional fighters out for serious money and weapons trade. They didn’t care whether it was Libya or Syria or anywhere else – they were going where money and reputation was to be made.

Some went because they were criminals involved in organized crime or they were on the run for crimes like rape or pedophilia. For them, Syria was somewhere to hide.

Others came because they genuinely wanted to build a Muslim utopia, the research continues. Often they were fleeing places such as Uzbekistan where devout Islam was coming under increasing government scrutiny. Some came to fight, to die, go to heaven and meet their promised 72 virgins. Others came with their families to live as they believed Muslims ought to live.

What happened to them? A lot of the hardcore jihadi fanatics relished serious fighting, and as a consequence were killed, Mironova said. Many low-level fighters, poorly trained and led, lost their lives in the chaos, especially fighting against professional armies. Some of the mercenaries and professional foreign fighters left when interesting conflicts began elsewhere, such as between Ukraine and Russia beginning in 2014. Others made their money and bought or smuggled their way out. Many of the idealists became disillusioned with the actual reality of the Caliphate and got out when an opportunity presented itself.

Mironova concludes that there are three basic reasons why people joined ISIS:

  1. Money – many Middle Eastern countries offer such poor economic opportunities and inadequate government assistance that a regular salary, even from ISIS, was attractive. For foreign fighters, the appeal was self-enrichment.
  2. Grievances in the Middle East – the ancient feuds and interminable hatreds between Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shia, Turks and Kurds, Arabs and Persians – continue to produce generations of angry young men.
  3. Native country grievances – most foreign fighters came from non-democratic countries, where the abuse of law, corruption, and the inability to peacefully protest made life intolerable for them. Pressure on these countries to tighten antiterrorism measures only increased the local opportunities for corruption, and for cracking down on real or imagined opposition, which in turn radicalized the young protesters and drove more of them into criminality or overseas adventure.

A heady mix of idealism, cash and adventure now, and utopia in the future, attracts the disaffected and the desperate. This will not necessarily stop with the defeat of the Caliphate on the ground, Moronova found.

“Because of its perceived effectiveness, the ISIS brand may still attract new members who may have grievances in their home country,” she said. “If those people can travel to a battlefield to join an armed group, they will do so. If not, they will conduct small-scale attacks and solo terrorism attacks against domestic targets.”

The more that the surrounding countries, especially those with resources, can do to reduce their own grievances and give their young populations hope, the less likely it is that some of their most energetic citizens will get drawn into organizations like ISIS, their rivals and their successors.

Read the full research

Phil Price is a multilingual writer and translator based in London, UK. A graduate of Oxford University, Phil went on to hold senior management positions in several major British and German companies, and spent time living and working in Germany and Poland as well the UK. For HSToday, Phil reviews the latest findings from academic research and international studies into all aspects of international terrorism and presents the key trends and insights.

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