Understanding foreign fighters: COMPAS November Breakfast Briefing

Ben Gidley

This summer, it emerged that a young woman brought up near where I live in Lewisham, South London, had travelled to Syria to join ISIS. I spent some time reading her Twitter interactions with other young British women with ISIS ion Syria and Iraq. Most of the Twitter accounts are now deleted, but on the whole they were little different from any tweets by any South London teenagers: written in the familiar shorthand of social media conversation (“LOL”, “c u l8er”), accounts of shopping trips, mentions of best friends, complaining when the wi-fi was poor, comments on the weather. But the Lewisham woman’s profile picture was of an infant boy, presumably her son, holding an AK-47. Sparsely interspersed among the banal chitchat, were casual references to meeting Yazadi slave women or to beheadings. And, in one of the last posts before the account went offline:

Any links 4 da execution of da journalist plz. Allahu Akbar. UK must b shaking up haha. I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorist

Foreign fighters in ISIS and other jihadi groups are regularly reported in the news media, and our politicians have been increasingly talking tough about them. But what do we really know about them, about their profiles and motivations?

muslim militantsNovember’s COMPAS Breakfast Briefing addressed these questions. Our experts were Rachel Briggs, a Senior Policy Analyst with our Breakfast Briefing partner, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and Peter Neumann, a Professor of Security Studies at Kings College London, and the founding director there of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). The evidence was based on a series of important and innovative research projects at ISD and ICSR (listed at the end of this post), using social media analysis and face-to-face encounters with foreign fighters to build up a rich picture of their actions and their networks.

As is our usual practice, the oral briefings are podcast on the COMPAS site, while the discussion afterwards was under Chatham House rules. In this blogpost, I briefly summarise the key points from the briefings, and then discuss some of the wider issues touched on in the discussion, before finishing with links to information on ICSR’s and ISD’s work in this field. You can listen to the podcast here.

Why are westerners drawn to fight with IS in Syria and Iraq? And what can we do in response?

Peter presented the motivations, experience and return of foreign fighters, showing that in all of these there is a great deal of variety. Among the returnees, he identified three key groups, “three Ds”: the dangerous (who pose a real threat to the UK), the damaged (who have experienced trauma) and the disillusioned (who came to see the gap between their motivations and the reality of ISIS). He argued that differentiated motivations and experiences require differentiated responses.

Rachel focused on appropriate responses, before (including both intelligence and preventative work with those at risk), during (including working with families in contact with fighters) and after (addressing the different situations of the “three Ds”). She described the importance of developing tools that can arrest the recruitment process, the importance of winning the loyalty of disillusioned returnees, and the need to develop counter-messaging.

Is failed integration creating jihadis?

Four issues emerged in the briefings which I think are of particular interest to those studying migration and integration. The first is the question of who are the foreign fighters. Are they drawn from particular ethnic groups, from first, second or third generation backgrounds, from particular socio-economic positions?

Rachel and Peter gave a clear answer to this: there is no single profile, but an increasing diversity of profiles. As Rachel and her colleague Ross Frenet have written,

From ignorant novices who view the trips as a rite of passage, die-hard militants looking for combat and martyrdom, and individuals who go for humanitarian reasons but get drawn into conflict, individuals become foreign fighters for a range of reasons: boredom; intergenerational tensions; the search for greater meaning in life; perceived adventure; attempts to impress the local community or the opposite sex; a desire for increased credibility; to belong or gain peer acceptance; revenge; or misguided conflict experience expectations.

Some recruits are converts to Islam. More and more women are joining. Many recruits are well-educated (some went to private schools; many are students or graduates), with extensive networks, good employment prospects and happy home life. Although the “self-radicalised” exist, most of the fighters were recruited through face-to-face networks, as can be seen in recruits’ geographical clusters, often drawn from friendship circles (as in Portsmouth or Cardiff). In short, it is clearly not the least “integrated” of British Muslims who are heading to the war zone.

Another sort of “failed integration” which has been suggested to be driving drives jihadi recruitment in the UK is social segregation. One audience member at the briefing suggested that in Britain today there are fewer opportunities for mixing and understanding across ethnic and religious lines, that all communities are retreating into themselves. Could this be one of the factors in radicalisation?

praying hands on bibleThere is some evidence of on-going social segregation in the UK, along ethnic and religious lines. The Social Integration Commission (which includes Oxford social psychologist Miles Hewstone) shows that our social networks do remain segregated. However, their research also shows that such segregation is less prevalent among British Asian populations (among which 68% of British Muslims are found) than among White populations, and least prevalent among 18-34 year olds (the key age group for radicalisation).

This matches Census analysis conducted by the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) at Manchester University, summarised in a COMPAS Breakfast Briefing by Ludi Simpson and Steven Jivraj last year and a COMPAS Global Exchange Briefing (which will soon be published on the COMPAS website) by Nissa Finney this year. The CoDE research shows that the trend in almost all British ethnic and religious groups is towards forms of mixing – residentially, within households, and in friendship networks – but again most dramatically among British Asians.

In other words, it is hard to attribute radicalisation to the failed integration of British Muslims. In fact, what struck me about the Twitter conversations I described at the start of this post, British jihadis are in most ways strikingly similar to their non-jihadi and non-Muslim peers.

We must look, therefore, to other drivers. Religion is obviously one (although the religious literacy of many foreign fighters is poor). Peter pointed to humanitarian motivations (the suffering of the Syrian people) for early waves of foreign fighters in this conflict, and for the importance of ideological motivations for the current wave. He also highlighted adventure and heroism, though: literally within five minutes of arriving in the conflict zone, British fighters will post pictures of themselves holding an RPG.

Rachel and Ross Frenet, in a paper on counter-narratives, also include identity among the motivations, but not in terms of “Muslim” or “British” identity; instead, they refer to issues such as valour, comradery and adventure:

Much propaganda plays on popular culture, [especially] relating to video games. Go-pro cameras, which provide the viewer with a point of view vision of what the fighter is doing, match almost exactly that shown in popular video games such as Call of Duty. Jihadists have mocked up video game covers mimicking Call of Duty.

Rhetoric and the politics of evidence

A third issue that came up in the briefing is that of narrative. Rachel spoke about messaging, and how Western recruitment increases as the ISIS narrative of victory is dominant. Language, images, airtime: what politicians say, how the media frames the narrative, but also what we all circulate on social media, can add to or subtract from the purchase of ISIS messaging.

Damaged and especially disillusioned returnees, Peter and Rachel argued, could play a powerful role in re-shaping narratives. (For example, they know first-hand that Syrians don’t like foreign fighters, that Western foreign fighters are often given the worst jobs, and that what they see will be traumatic.) Popular revulsion – especially within British Muslim communities – at the beheadings also opens a window of opportunity for new shared narratives to emerge, that can drown out the call of jihad.

A fourth, related, issue is how we bring issues of evidence to bear in policy. Peter convincingly argued that what we know about foreign fighters shows that a punitive response to all returning fighters is the wrong policy: vital for the dangerous, but potentially counterproductive for the damaged and disillusioned. However, in the context of a war on terror, it takes more courage for political leaders to say this than to attempt to talk tough. As Peter noted, it’s hard to talk soft when people are watching beheadings on their screens.

Politics – driven by emotion – can be a barrier to letting policy be based on evidence. An analogy was drawn with what works on drugs, where politicians consistently ignore politically uncomfortable evidence, but we can also see this with the migration topic. Scholars and thinktanks have a duty to place their knowledge in the public sphere in more accessible ways, but this can only make a difference if our political leaders listen.

Further reading

Researching foreign fighters:

Countering recruitment:


Other publications

Media articles