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Juan Cole

Economic Forces Drive the Youths Joining Terrorist Groups in Syria

A water bottle painted with a face representing an Islamic State fighter, left by Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in Raqqa, Syria, in July. (Hussein Malla / AP)

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

A report published by the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism finds that Muslim youth joining terrorist groups in Syria are largely motivated by economic factors. Lizzie Dearden at The Independent reviews the report, writing that the men “mainly come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have low levels of education and ‘lack any basic understanding of the true meaning of jihad or even the Islamic faith.'”

Some 25,000 young men are said to have made their way from Europe to fight the regime in Syria, and as the war winds down, many will return. Understanding what drove them will help in designing programs to help with reintegration.

The report itself makes it clear that the young Muslim men who went off to fight on the rebel side in the Syrian Civil War were not motivated by a detailed knowledge of Islam. In fact, they knew little about their religion.

They say that they did not seek to become terrorists and did not want to commit acts of terrorism in Europe on their return.

Why did they go? They are Sunni Muslims and felt that the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad is mistreating Sunni Muslims.

Many studies have found that those who run off to join terrorist or guerrilla groups are well-educated and middle class. Not this study. For whatever reason, its respondents were mostly poor, urban and hopeless. Most said they hoped to leave that dysfunctional home forever when they went to Syria.

Some one third of those who went to Syria were unemployed, a high rate. The rest had jobs, though in many cases menial ones.

The results confirm an earlier study, that although their sample was from a poverty-stricken background, they were not radicalized by mere poverty but rather by what they perceived as the lack of a ladder of self-advancement:

Our results suggest that it is not so much the lack of material resources that is important for terrorism but rather the lack of economic opportunities: Countries that restrict economic freedom experience more terrorism.

Neither religion nor family motivated the group in this study. Rather it was the guys they hung around with:

The validation of the influence of friendship in motivating individuals to become FTFs supports the ‘bunch of guys’ theory of terrorism put forward by the psychologist Marc Sageman, 81, who argues that the decision to join a terrorist group ‘was based on pre-existing friendship’ ties and ‘that the evolving group of future perpetrators seemed more akin to’ such networks ‘than a formal terrorist cell, with well-defined hierarchy and division of labour.’ This theory has led some observers to call for a ‘social network approach to terrorism.’

Only ten percent thought ideology motivated them, and only 30 percent said that religion did (though they most often knew little about their religion).

The takeaway appears to be that if you want to tamp down Muslim discontent in Europe, give young people more opportunity to make something of themselves. It is those who feel irrevocably blocked who turn to radicalism.

Juan Cole
Contributor
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the proprietor of the Informed Comment e-zine. He has written extensively on modern Islamic movements in…
Juan Cole

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