RadicalizationReligious beliefs play minimal role in motivating foreign fighters to joined ISIS: UN report

Published 7 August 2017

Young men who leave their home countries to fight in the ranks of ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria mainly come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have low levels of education and vocational skills, and “lack any basic understanding of the true meaning of jihad or even the Islamic faith,” according to a new report by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism. The study found that most of these fighters were “novices” in their religion and some did not know how to pray properly. “Religious belief seems to have played a minimal role in the motivation of this FTF sample,” the report concludes. Rather than being motivated by religion, many of the those who left for Syria were motivated by a sense of identity with — and a desire to help — co-religionists who were perceived as victimized. Specifically, those who left Europe for Syria felt empathy with the Sunni communities in Syria which are seen as being under attack.

In November 2014, the United Nations Centre for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT) launched an investigation into the growing phenomenon of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) in Syria. UNCCT interviewed 43 individuals between August 2015 and November 2016, representing twelve nationalities. Thirty-three (77 percent) of the interviewees reached Syria but subsequently decided to leave, while the remaining ten (23 percent) began the journey but were stopped en route, either on their own or in a transit country. Two interviewees are of Syrian origin, though they were not living in Syria when they were interviewed.

UNCCT says that the responses of the interviewees provide important insights into the motivations of individuals to leave their countries of residence or nationality to join armed groups in Syria. The UNCCT notes that it is important to note that more often than not, individuals do not necessarily select the group they finally join. Rather, once they reach Syrian territory, some seem to join the group that operates closest to their point of arrival. Fighters also seem to be switching groups.

The UN says that the aim of the report is to expand understanding of the FTF phenomenon in Syria by examining why the interviewees chose to act in the way they did. The report records the reasons individual FTFs have given to explain their decision to leave their countries of residence or nationality to join armed groups. It also records their reasons for leaving these groups and returning to their countries of residence or nationality before achieving the goals and objectives they had set themselves. Finally, the report seeks to draw conclusions as to the threat that returning FTFs may pose in the future. 

The UN notes that the purpose of engaging directly with returned terrorist fighters was “to improve international understanding of a global phenomenon that represents one of the gravest current threats to national, regional and international security. By equipping policy makers with greater knowledge and understanding of the motivations of FTFs the United Nations may help them design and implement effective and appropriate responses that can stem the flow of FTFs, redirect the future of returnees, and reintegrate them with minimum risk to public safety.”