TerrorismJames Foley murder: inside the mind of Britain’s jihadists

By Matthew Francis

Published 22 August 2014

As the murder of James Foley appears to have shown, foreign fighters are involved at the heart of the violence abroad — and understanding how they got there and what they might do on their return is an important task to which all carefully researched findings can contribute. There is a long history of people heading off to fight in foreign countries, and recent research has shown that, on balance, foreign fighters are more likely to be involved in high-risk conflicts. An important aspect of successfully recruiting foreign fighters is the creation of a wider communal identity and the sense of a threat to it — so Serbs versus Bosnians becomes Christians versus Muslims, and Assad versus protesters becomes false Muslims (or Alawites, or Shi’as) versus true (in this case, Sunni) Muslims. This process of highlighting the threat to the community and generating a sense of fear is especially effective in people who have a stronger identity to that community than they do to their state identity. So people who might be marginalized within their home countries might be more likely to leave those countries as the ties of state identity are weaker than the sense of duty to their transnational community.

The chilling video showing the apparent murder of the journalist James Foley by the Islamic State has reinforced the terrible risks involved in the brave and important role that journalists play in reporting from overseas conflicts. In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Foley said: “I’m drawn to the drama of the conflict and trying to expose untold stories.” However, as we know from recent accounts, many other foreigners are also drawn to the conflict in Iraq and Syria and indeed it appears that Foley’s murderer was British.

It is easier for us to understand how a foreigner might go to such places to report on the conflicts taking place and to see the need for it than it is to understand why someone might choose to risk their life fighting for people they have never met in a country that isn’t theirs. And yet there are believed to be around 500 British fighters in Syria and Iraq as part of approximately 10,000 foreigners fighting alongside local insurgents.

Of course, there is a long history of people heading off to fight in foreign countries and recent research by David Malet, covering cases such as the Texan Revolution, the Spanish Civil War and more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria has shown that, on balance, foreign fighters are more likely to be involved in high-risk conflicts. In 2007, records of nearly 700 foreign fighters were found in Iraq, which had been compiled by groups affiliated to al-Qaeda. These detailed forms showed that 56 percent of these fighters wanted to be suicide bombers (this was even higher for some nationalities – 85 percent of Libyans preferred martyrdom).

Other research of more than 500 suicide bombings in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 suggested that many, if not most, of the bombings were carried out by people from outside the Arabian peninsula. This research also pointed out that many of these recruits came from countries which didn’t have national military service, so suicide bombing was a way of using to maximum effect these volunteers who lacked the fighting skills to be useful in conventional attacks.