Why Are Foreigners Even Joining ISIS?

March 11, 2015 Updated: March 11, 2015

It’s been well-reported already that a significant portion of ISIS is made up of foreign fighters, but the most significant question of remains: Why are foreigners joining the group to fight its conflict?

One of the most well-known and reviled ISIS terrorists, Mohammed Emwazi, is from the United Kingdom. Emwazi, dubbed “Jihadi John” by the British press, has infamously appeared in ISIS propaganda videos that depict him cutting off the heads of foreign hostages. Also, a recent video showing an ISIS child soldier and militant executing an alleged spy are reportedly from France. A 13-year-old French child soldier was killed fighting for ISIS last month.

“I’m calling on all the Muslims living in the West, America, Europe, and everywhere else, to come, to make hijra with your families to the land of Khilafah,” exclaimed a Finnish fighter of Somali descent, according to Defense One in a report this week. “Here, you go for fighting and afterwards you come back to your families. And if you get killed, then … you’ll enter heaven, God willing, and Allah will take care of those you’ve left behind. So here, the caliphate will take care of you.”

So, how many foreign fighters are actually in ISIS. A report last month from Nick Rasmussen of the National Counterterrorism Center said there’s 20,000 foreign fighters with the terrorist organization, including at least 3,400 from Western countries, and 150 Americans have tried to reach the Syrian war zone, according to The Associated Press.

The majority of ISIS fighters are from the Middle East and North Africa, especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia, says the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence think tank.

Now, what is the typical ISIS fighter like? They’re generally males “between 18 and 29 years old” but there are exceptions, Defense One says. “Some are well over 30, and it is not uncommon to see fighters between 15 and 17.”

A 13-year-old French boy was killed fighting for ISIS, according to reports on Tuesday. (Twitter screenshot)
A 13-year-old French boy was killed fighting for ISIS, according to reports on Tuesday. (Twitter screenshot) 

After that, it gets much, much murkier.

There are no common socioeconomic backgrounds, religious upbringing among people, and no singular pathway to joining the group.

“Four decades of psychological research on who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile,” says John Horgan, who is the head of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

The ISIS fighters from Syria, however, started off as leaders or fighters in small militia groups that were opposed to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, said Lina Khatib for the Carnegie Middle East Center in an analysis last week. “The founders of the Islamic State capitalized on people’s grievances regarding both the opposition and the regime, and offered Syrians an organization that promised to satisfy their anger through an extremism that exceeded that of al-Qaeda,” she noted.

“No matter the threat posed by this organization and other extremist groups, we should not forget their human dimension, for it carries the key to fighting them effectively,” Khatib added.

But whomever these fighters are, the pervasive ISIS propaganda campaign–which includes scenes of brutal violence–appears to be working in getting foreigners to fight its war.

In the ISIS propaganda, “Foreign fighters are overrepresented, it seems, among the perpetrators of the Islamic State’s worst acts,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a scholar on Islamic terrorism, said in an interview with veteran journalist Bill Moyers, according to his website.

“So they help kind of radicalize the conflict – make it more brutal. They probably also make the conflict more intractable, because the people who come as foreign fighters are, on average, more ideological than the typical Syrian rebel,” he said.