Prominent public figures and officials often claim that Islam has nothing to do with the jihadist terrorist violence spreading throughout the world. A recent academic study challenges this misguided view – by actually speaking to terrorist foreign fighters.
The authors of "Talking to Foreign Fighters: Insights into the Motivations for Hijrah to Syria and Iraq," University of Waterloo sociologist Lorne L. Dawson, and George Washington University Program on Extremism Fellow Amarnath Amarasingam, published their findings after numerous conversations with 20 foreign fighters, mostly coming from the West. None of the jihadists cited socioeconomic grievances or other forms of disenfranchisement as a major role in their decisions to wage jihad abroad. Rather, the conversations largely revolved around their Islamist beliefs.
Religion dominated discussion so much, the report said, that "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. Religion provides the dominant frame these foreign fighters use to interpret almost every aspect of their lives..."
The authors cite a British Muslim who joined Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate, which is now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
"The zeal for jihad always struck me when I would sit in my room and read Qur'an with English translation," he said. "I would wonder how jihad was fought today. At the outbreak of 2011 war in Syria, the thinking of going began and brothers from town who had gone were an inspiration."
Previous studies on foreign fighter motivations tend to exclusively focus on "push" factors, such as poor socioeconomic status or psychological factors, that encourage Western foreign fighters to fight abroad. Other radicalization studies tend to emphasize that a search for meaning and identity is an important factor explaining why some Westerners, including Americans, adopt the Islamic State's ideology. Another recent report emphasized the criminal pasts among many Western foreign fighters moving to Syria and Iraq.
While these factors may play a role in radicalization processes, they fail to fully explain why some people embrace violence or wage jihad abroad. In some contexts, terrorists come from relatively higher socio-economic and educated status, such as Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists. Ideology and indoctrination clearly plays a major role in their radicalization. Many individuals around the world face social, economic, and psychological issues and many others search for meaning in life, but do not necessarily become terrorists.
In trying to understand radicalization and foreign fighter motivations, researchers need to put more emphasis on the role of religion and radical Islamist ideology. While many American Islamists and their prominent sympathizers argue that Islam or Islamism has nothing to do with the terrorist violence plaguing the world, engaging in an actual conversation with some of these terrorists suggests otherwise.