Study: Religion is 'Primary Motivator' of Foreign Jihadists Who Go to Iraq & Syria

Andrew Eicher | January 31, 2017 | 10:29am EST
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Former ISIS minister of war Abu Omar al-Shishani ("Omar the Chechen") was killed in an airstrike in Syria on March 4, 2016. Shishani is believed to have recruited ISIS executioner Jihadi John from Britain. (AP photo)


( – Authors of a new study exploring the motivations of foreign jihadist fighters in Iraq and Syria suggest that the jihadists’ Muslim religion is the “primary motivator for their actions,” and argue that the role of religion in motivating them deserves more scholarly attention.

“It seems implausible to suggest that religiosity (i.e., a sincere religious commitment, no matter how ill-informed or unorthodox) is not a primary motivator for their actions,” according to the study, which was published last month in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.

An estimated 4,000 to 5,000 jihadis are from the West, the study found.

“Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives,” researchers concluded after conducting “largely face-to-face” interviews with more than 80 people, including 25 foreign fighters and 40 family members and friends.

They also set up focus groups with 10 mothers of foreign fighters, and did five interviews with aspiring jihadists and online supporters of jihadism.

Those interviewed were fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra (also known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) and various other jihadist or “rebel” groups.

They are mostly young men in their 20s who hail from Western countries such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and various European nations. All have a Muslim background or are converts to Islam.

While some previous research has emphasized the importance of poor socioeconomic status in motivating foreign jihadists, this study did not find that socioeconomic marginalization played a significant role.

None of the interviewees indicated that they came from a background of poverty or felt influenced by their marginal socioeconomic status, researchers reported.

In fact, many claimed to have come from privileged, comfortable backgrounds. They told researchers that they felt compelled by their religious beliefs to engage in actions “mandated by God, and ones that could easily demand they make the ultimate sacrifice.”

“Life was good,” one jihadist fighter from the United Kingdom recalled. “I was happy with my friends and living a nice easy relaxing life…but wanted to give back to Allah, to prove myself to Allah that I can fight in his way.”

The study also found that in some instances, the “initial turn to religion is fused with a partial process of radicalization.”

“The zeal for jihad always struck me when I would sit in my room and read Qur’an with English translation,” a British fighter with Jabhat al-Nusra said. "At the outbreak of 2011 war in Syria, the thinking of going began and brothers from town who had gone were an inspiration.”

Finding inspiration in the martyrdom of others is also a common theme, researchers noted.

“The status of a Shaheed [martyr] is one of the highest known to attain,” a British jihadist proclaimed, adding that in Islam “there is no death equivalent” to martyrdom. “Jihad is obligatory now as the Muslim blood is being shed and the word of Allah or the religion of Allah has to be the highest…”

Another fighter took issue with the common media portrayal of jihadists as being “bored or looking for adventure,” declaring “this is all for the sake of Allah.”

A Jabhat al-Nusra militant expressed dissatisfaction with the “immoral” nature of the West. “We want to bring back the law of Allah,” he said “and destroy the evils of man…we want to defend the Muslims in their lands from the Western armies and governments that rule it.”

“We don’t want to live in the system anymore, and the system is Western governments," another jihadist said.

We have our own way of life, which is called Islam. It is a complete way of life. It is a religion but also a governance. It has laws and ways in which you do everything from how you go to the toilet, drink water, and brush your teeth to how you worship Allah and how you run a business.

“It lets you see the world for what it is and keeps you away from harmful things in society.”

While the researchers noted the need for caution in evaluating the statements of the jihadi fighters, and acknowledge that the situation is “far more complicated than can be discussed adequately” in their study, they emphasize the importance of the fighters’ religious beliefs as their primary motivating factor in waging jihad.

“Put simply, radical action depends on seeing the world in new ways. Consequently, the Salafi-jihadist religiosity of these foreign fighters, their ideology, is paramount in interpreting their actions.”

“Religiosity,” they conclude, “is pivotal to understanding their motivations, no matter how murky our attempts, as outsiders, to grasp these motivations.”

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