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Western foreign fighters in Syria: an empirical 
analysis of recruitment and mobilization mechanisms 


Dragon, Justin D. 


Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School 
http://hdl.handle.net/10945/45842 


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NAVAL 
POSTGRADUATE 
SCHOOL 


MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA 


THESIS 


WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA: AN 
EMPIRICAL ANALYSIS OF RECRUITMENT AND 
MOBILIZATION MECHANISMS 


by 


Justin D. Dragon 


June 2015 


Thesis Advisor: Mohammed M. Hafez 
Second Reader: Anne Marie Baylouny 





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June 2015 Master’s Thesis 


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WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA: AN EMPIRICAL ANALYSIS OF 
RECRUITMENT AND MOBILIZATION MECHANISMS 


6. AUTHOR(S) Justin D. Dragon 

7. PERFORMING ORGANIZATION NAME(S) AND ADDRESS(ES) 8. PERFORMING ORGANIZATION 
Naval Postgraduate School REPORT NUMBER 
Monterey, CA 93943-5000 

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11. SUPPLEMENTARY NOTES The views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy 
or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. IRB Protocol number N/A 


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13. ABSTRACT (maximum 200 words) 


Syria has become a beacon for foreign fighters. Estimates in 2015 indicate that over 20,000 men and women have 
gone there to fight for various insurgent groups. This conflict is unique due to the unprecedented number of 
Westerners fighting. The central purpose of this study is to better understand recruitment and mobilization 
mechanisms as they pertain to fighters from Western nations. Why are these men and women leaving the relative 
safety of the West to enter a violent internecine conflict? What will happen if they decide to return home? 

To answer these questions, this thesis constructs 20 Western foreign fighter profiles from open source 
demographic, biographical, and motivational information, and then presents the findings. In particular, three 
variables—networks, anchoring, and group dynamics—are evaluated as critical drivers of recruitment and 
mobilization. 

The findings of this research show that traditional social networks, such as kinship, occupational, and religious 
groups, are most effective at recruiting and mobilizing prospective foreign fighters. Also, the data shows anchored 
individuals rarely mobilize. Furthermore, group dynamics appear critical to the mobilization of foreign fighters into 
Syria. Finally, the findings do not support social media efficacy in recruitment or mobilization. 


14. SUBJECT TERMS 15. NUMBER OF 
Islamic extremism, foreign fighters, transnational terrorism, radicalization, Syria, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra | PAGES 
89 


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Approved for public release; distribution is unlimited 


WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA: AN EMPIRICAL ANALYSIS OF 
RECRUITMENT AND MOBILIZATION MECHANISMS 


Justin D. Dragon 
Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy 
B.S., United States Naval Academy, 2004 


Submitted in partial fulfillment of the 
requirements for the degree of 


MASTER OF ARTS IN SECURITY STUDIES 
(MIDDLE EAST, SOUTH ASIA, SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA) 


from the 


NAVAL POSTGRADUATE SCHOOL 


June 2015 
Author: Justin D. Dragon 
Approved by: Mohammed M. Hafez 
Thesis Advisor 
Anne Marie Baylouny 


Second Reader 


Mohammed M. Hafez 
Chair, Department of National Security Affairs 


ili 


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iv 


ABSTRACT 


Syria has become a beacon for foreign fighters. Estimates in 2015 indicate that over 
20,000 men and women have gone there to fight for various insurgent groups. This 
conflict is unique due to the unprecedented number of Westerners fighting. The central 
purpose of this study is to better understand recruitment and mobilization mechanisms as 
they pertain to fighters from Western nations. Why are these men and women leaving the 
relative safety of the West to enter a violent internecine conflict? What will happen if 


they decide to return home? 


To answer these questions, this thesis constructs 20 Western foreign fighter 
profiles from open source demographic, biographical, and motivational information, and 
then presents the findings. In particular, three variables—networks, anchoring, and group 


dynamics—are evaluated as critical drivers of recruitment and mobilization. 


The findings of this research show that traditional social networks, such as 
kinship, occupational, and religious groups, are most effective at recruiting and 
mobilizing prospective foreign fighters. Also, the data shows anchored individuals rarely 
mobilize. Furthermore, group dynamics appear critical to the mobilization of foreign 
fighters into Syria. Finally, the findings do not support social media efficacy in 


recruitment or mobilization. 


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vi 


TABLE OF CONTENTS 


I. PN TRODUC PION vassicsnsticssdesievssesigsenassidescecssdiviedenieucsensesensseuievedesinecseesyseusssiionvudosseviedes 1 
A. MAJOR RESEARCH QUESTION ..........csccssssscssscsssscscsssssscsscsscssesssessesssessees 1 

B SUG INTE ICAING Busses tiscecapececaseaciasescessnsccetasuvsnedustuusa sauce tceenetunsasuavacssieasserteceel 1 

C. DI PERATURE RE VTE W. cicicsssscacasstcaicssaccdaecincetagatscludecsstoraccsneecciseecaeeaedancutans 2 

D. POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS AND HYPOTHESES ............ccsccssscseees 12 

E. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY 0.0.00... .escssssecssccescceeeeeees 14 

F. THESIS © VEER VTE Wy scsesscicscesevascccauraideie tea ctevacacoieeie saceveiaeasoiaehacieueneeuunsentes 15 

Il. THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR AND THE RISE OF FOREIGN FIGHTERS ........ 17 
A. THE SYRIAN CONFLICT (2011-2015)... eccsccstcsscceecceescecssecesesscees 17 

B. FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA AND IRAQ 2... eececsceccsccsccesccseseeees 19 

i EMERGENCE: i occesscvacesisuscsdstnevenceccsuccecivteadesvevs concesceseecesbscvestnevcaddvouves 21 

2: GROW EEA, isis siecssccaphevies tense ccscopeeidossasdespiesesctbnsoussssbsvesssavesveuspeconucapees 24 

3. FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN 2015............cccsssssscsssssccssscsccessseccecssessees 29 

Ci CONGESTION scsticiislacceesovsevetiveasniasuiestsasvaveeadoetesaban cousaroasssektavedsreatetbesstaseonies 32 

Il. WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA .......... ecssccccsecssccsssceesseessecsseees 33 
A. PNT ROD UC TION csciciccositatanshiosictan sxdseassicassevunedundclenseussiusssuespeausecdsnenasvensebiee 33 

B. WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTER DATA uu... eecesscecsseccsccssccsescnesseceees 34 

I: METHODOLOGY sosicccssiesesicensiinn Geei cates ianiganaens 34 

2 ASSESSED VARIABLES .......sccssssssosssscsesssccsscssesssossencsensecssnessosseosees 35 

a. IN CEWOIKS « sussinstevessuicasina ces dnagassd vendo tsusyansoedeates dosvnagsiiacchartuasvaneceaxs 35 

b. ATICROTIIG ssinsiesucsatasounasivasenasanaetasatesseeeadivanassovaveriasnbeians iosbeeeds 36 

Cc POU DV TAMIIOS Jessi azn Sereda haa isavnlvies adsoeseaiaetasnaaenecnntveass 36 

ay DATA RESULTS AND ANALYSIS .........cscscscsssssccssccssccscsescsessssrees 37 

a. Demographics and Biographical Data...........ccccsccccesscsseseees 37 

b. Networks, Anchoring, and Group DyNdIMicS...........100001000e000 40 

C. WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS: EXISTING STUDIES ..............0000 44 

D. ONCLUSION  eincccsxatauessesaneaistonucssenidcarbavesdecwoutaresielanssvvattokuaiexisdvesselisenseroniive 49 

TVi-. AC ONCLUSION - scsecissvsucsavcsecssicassacsncdecasiovstadssecssnesdensdacssvedssetcacveucsbedusisdusssacsuondoestiscs 51 
A. PN TROD CURION ccsicacctosacentingscssncaatensciraneacseckedSeuidautecatantaccaciaddenaasmcnawuteeents 51 

B. HYPOTHESIS. EVALUATION ‘scssscscscseccescoonscccecoicevssesseccesebsacneconssdcsessbaseoss 51 

1. BL IDE OL OG Y wesissnccsicvnnccesvesescevess ecesansedecsisvs contesevsecvesssteatieveecsvonues 51 

2, H2: TRADITIONAL SOCIAL NETWORKS (TSN) ........:cccsceseseee 52 

3. H3: ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS (OSN))..........cscssssesssesssecsseeees 53 

4. H4: GROUP DYNAMIBCG.......cccssssscsscossoscssssoossecssosssossescsecssnssecsseosees 54 

C. TIMIPLICA TIONS sissccetessnstcecssescassdeseetcenisecseidsnnscceacohcevsdscnctcesSovcassdonuadcsadebassues 55 

D. FOLLOW-ON RESEARCH oi séscssccsscxccts sccssscescevecitedaccvecossésve cdccbadecsus tent edessaee 57 

LIST OF REBE RE NCES o2ssccceccise ci tecevaustchetiescccein sa clavtencdccueetecoin tia ediasneccdvetat cctheiecdiveasccaes 61 
INEDIAL, DISTRIBUTION LIS DB ciscactsecsscctisiecaciatehaniatiseceerasein eaelaeaneitehanteaeuteseeanieees 71 


vii 


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Vill 


Figure 1. 
Figure 2. 
Figure 3. 
Figure 4. 
Figure 5. 
Figure 6. 
Figure 7. 


LIST OF FIGURES 


Foreign Fighter LexisNexis Search Results (2011-2015) wo. eeeeeeeeeee 21 
Foreign Fighter Google Search Results (2011-2015) oo. eee eeeeeseeeneeeeeees 21 
Estimated Foreign Fighter Growth in Syria (* as of January 2015)... 29 
Westerit-Poreien Prehter Stang. cc yG- cesses yal coos aseac estes caheseeossaaseccass 39 
Western Foreign Fighter Mode of Recruitment (MOR)... cee eeeeeseeeeeees 4] 
Western Foreign Fighters Anchored Status .0..... ec eeceeseesseceseeeseeeeseeenaeenseeeees 42 
Western Foreign Fighter Mode of Travel (MOT)... cee eeeceeeseeeseeeeeeeeeetees 42 


1X 


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Table 1. 


LIST OF TABLES 


Western Foreign Fighter Population Data from ICSR, 2014 


Xl 


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Xii 


LIST OF ACRONYMS AND ABBREVIATIONS 


FSA Free Syrian Army 

ICSR International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political 
Violence 

IRGC Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps 

IS Islamic State 

ISI Islamic State of Iraq 

ISIS Islamic State of Iraq and Syria 

JAN Jabhat al-Nusra 

MOR mode of recruitment 

MOT mode of travel 

OSN online social network 

QAP al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula 

QC Quantum Communications 

SMT social movement theory 

TSG The Soufan Group 

TSN traditional social network 


YPG Kurdish People’s Protection Unit 


Xlil 


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XIV 


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 


First and foremost I would like to thank my thesis advisor, Dr. Mohammed Hafez, 
for his insight, support, and encouragement throughout the thesis writing process. His 
expertise on the topic of foreign fighters and transnational terrorism was an invaluable 
resource during a very dynamic research environment. Additionally, Dr. Anne Marie 


Baylouny provided much appreciated critical guidance and mentorship. 


I am also profoundly grateful to my girlfriend, Christian, and my parents, Albert 
and Mirtha, for their unwavering support, patience, and guidance over the past 18 
months. They surely heard more than they would ever want to know about foreign 


fighters. 


Finally, I would be remiss if I did not thank the many excellent instructors and 
fellow students who challenged me throughout my time at the Naval Postgraduate 


School. Without their cumulative support, this endeavor would not have been possible. 


XV 


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XVi 


I. INTRODUCTION 


A. MAJOR RESEARCH QUESTION 


Foreign fighter presence in military conflict is not a new phenomenon. The pace 
of integration of such fighters in a range of conflicts, however, has accelerated at a 
pronounced rate since the beginning of the Soviet—Afghan war of the 1980s. As a result, 
the debate regarding the presence of foreign fighters in conflict has entered a renaissance, 


especially given the existing strife within Syria and Iraq. 


Scholars such as Thomas Hegghammer, Mohammed Hafez, and David Malet 
study the foreign fighter movement in order to better understand why it has resurged, and 
whether its pace can be stalled or reversed.! These studies, while recognizing the 
existence of Western foreign fighters, have placed considerable emphasis on 
understanding the presence of regional combatants—that is to say, fighters that have 
come from within the Arab and North African Muslim world. Less focus has been placed 
on understanding how Westerners, namely Europeans, Australians, and North Americans, 
have been convinced to leave their homes and enter an unforgiving internecine conflict. 
This thesis seeks to better understand why Westerners are volunteering in Syria and Iraq. 
How are they being recruited? What is the demographic profile of these fighters? What 
happens when they enter a conflict, and what happens when (or if) they come home? And 
last, given these questions, this thesis also seeks to provide policy implications and 


recommendations that result from the research. 


B. SIGNIFICANCE 


This thesis is critical on multiple fronts. More easily understood is the security 
implication of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq today. There is legitimate concern that 


these men and women are arriving in the Levant as, at best, idealists seeking meaning to 





! See for example Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the 
Globalization of Jihad,” International Security 35, no. 3 (2010); Mohammed M. Hafez, “Martyrs without 
Borders: The Puzzle of Transnational Suicide Bombers,” in Ashgate Research Companion to Political 
Violence, ed. Marie Breen-Smyth, 2012; David Malet, Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil 
Conflicts (Oxford University Press, USA, 2013). 


their lives or, at worst, partially radicalized groups seeking to gain operational combat 
experience. The immediate effect is the further complication of the chaos enveloping 
Syria and Iraq. The tenuous security environment is a justifiable concern because the 
spread of Levantine sectarian war can impact some of the most travelled energy corridors 
in the world. Moreover, the rising discourse is how to address the issue of Western 


foreign fighters that decide to return home. 


A less acknowledged aspect of this topic is the refinement of definitions. The 
terrorist narrative espoused by the United States, echoed by Europe, and acknowledged 
by the rest of the world readily conflates terrorists, jihadists, foreign fighters, and 
insurgents. While overlaps exist across these groups, there are distinctions, and 
expanding these definitions is critical for international policy makers to accurately and 
articulately address the diverse but related issues within Syria and Iraq. By conflating 
terrorists with foreign fighters, policy-makers reinforce the existing solutions of 
preventing and punishing and fail earnest attempts at dissuading and reintegrating these 
men and women.? There is clear evidence that many foreign fighters arriving in Syria and 
Iraq are neither radicals, nor terrorists.> Unfortunately, however, radicalization appears to 
accelerate once these prospective fighters arrive in country.4 The continued advocacy of 
radicalization off-ramps, or the methods used to halt or reverse the radicalization process, 
appears to bear fruit. Labeling all foreign fighters as terrorists, on the other hand, 
instantly helps the cause of extremist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) or the 
Islamic State (IS), because the legal implications of the terrorist label are far more 


divisive than those of foreign combatants. 


C. LITERATURE REVIEW 


While history is replete with examples of foreign fighters leaving their countries 


of origin to battle on behalf of foreign insurgencies, Abdullah Azzam has been credited 


2 Richard Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria” (The Soufan Group, June 2014), 9, 
http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/TSG-Foreign-Fighters-in-Syria.pdf. 


3 Hafez, “Martyrs without Borders,” 191. 


4 “ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise among Western Europeans,” 
ICSR, accessed September 15, 2014, http://csr.info/2013/12/icsr-insight- 1 1000-foreign-fighters-syria- 
steep-rise-among-western-europeans/. 


2 


with fathering the transnational Muslim fighter.> Beginning in the early 1980s, Azzam 
initiated a distinctive shift in Islamic discourse, using the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 
as a pretext to incite fervor for jihad against those who would defile Islam.° The ghost of 
Azzam still echoes in the present, where through a series of Muslim conflicts from 
Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and now the Greater Levant, the call for jihad continues to 
bring foreigners into insurgent conflicts within the Middle East. In this relatively new 
field of foreign fighter research, scholars are struggling to understand the apparent rise in 


foreign fighters. 


Before addressing the literature, however, there is the challenge of definitions; 
scholars have yet to agree upon what exactly makes a non-resident combatant a foreign 


fighter. This literature review begins with an exploration of definitions. 


There is a confluence of terms to describe an individual who travels from one 
country to engage in war-related activities on foreign soil. The terms security contractor, 
insurgent, jihadist, foreign fighter, and transnational terrorist are often conflated thus 
complicating the origins, motivations, and objectives of these combatants. While 
academia seeks to avoid imprecise definitions, the West, and indeed the world, tend to 
loosely categorize a vast majority of these distinct military elements under the banner of 
terrorism. Identifying the unit of analysis, therefore, is critical to understanding the 


perplexities of foreign fighters and their distinct characteristics. 


David Malet uses the terms transnational insurgent and foreign fighter 
interchangeably in hisanalysis of the foreign fighter phenomenon, Foreign Fighters: 
Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts.’ Malet describes foreign fighters in simple 
terms as, “noncitizens of conflict states who join insurgencies during civil conflicts.’ 
This is a clear division from a standard definition of a terrorist: one who commits “a 


political act, [normally within the confines of an organized group], involving the death or 





5 Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 85. 
6 Malet, Foreign Fighters, 167. 

7 Ibid., 9. 

8 Ibid. 


threat of death to non-combatants.”? Malet further restricts this definition to exclude 
combatants who are typically paid for their services, such as members of state militaries 
or private security companies.!° The body of literature suggests Malet’s definition of 
foreign fighters may be sufficient for broad case-study analysis, but it fails to capture 
critical social aspects. While Thomas Hegghammer agrees with Malet’s definition, he 
refines it by saying that the foreign fighter is also an agent who, “(1) has joined, and 
operates within the confines of, an insurgency, (2) lacks citizenship of the conflict state or 
kinship links to its warring factions, (3) lacks affiliation to an official military 
organization, and (4) is unpaid.”!! These definitional refinements permit a more nuanced 
analysis of the foreign fighter phenomenon; namely, in combination these factors allow 
mobilization—a central concern to researchers of foreign fighters—to exclude causal 
factors such as returning diaspora motivations, monetary compensation, and terrorist 
ambitions.!2 Definitions with respect to foreign fighters are presently moving targets. For 
example, groups such as IS are paying their foreign fighters, albeit at a subsistence 
level.!3 This change in behavior by IS, however, may be more of a reflection of how the 
group perceives itself and does not necessarily require a restructuring of the 


contemporary foreign-fighter definition. 


A final contextual perspective requires the definition of insurgency. Both Malet 
and Hegghammer use the term to describe the physical space in which foreign fighters 
participate in their respective conflicts. Malet borrows the definition of civil war from 
Stathis Kalyvas’s The Logic of Violence in Civil War to help define insurgency: “armed 


combat within the boundaries of a recognized sovereign entity between parties subject to 


9 Jan Screiber, The Ultimate Weapon: Terrorists and World Order (New York: Morrow, 1978), 20, 
quoted in Katerina Dalacoura, “Islamist Terrorism and the Middle East Democratic Deficit: Political 
Exclusion, Repression, and the Causes of Extremism,” Democratization 13, no. 3 (2006), 510. 


10 Malet, Foreign Fighters, 9. 
11 Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 57-58. 
12 Ibid., 58. 


13 Maria Abi-Habib, “Splits in Islamic State Emerge as Its Ranks Expand,” The Wall Street Journal, 
last modified March 9, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/islamic-state-feels-growing-pains- 1425903933. 


4 


common authority at the outset of the hostilities.”!4 This definition is sufficient for the 
purposes of this study. Further, these combined definitions of foreign fighters and 
insurgency provide the appropriate base to begin delving into the specifics of the foreign 


fighter phenomenon. 


Foreign-fighter literature attempts to understand the foreign fighter phenomenon 
by engaging the issue of recruitment, mobilization, and volunteerism through the 
acquisition of data from three broad categories—demographics, Social Movement Theory 


(SMT) variables, and social networks. 


After a period of over 34 years of transnational insurgent conflicts across the 
Middle East and the Balkans, there exists a wealth of information identifying details 
about these foreign fighters. The demographics data category seeks to uncover predictive 
patterns of who these volunteers are or who is recruited based upon readily collectable 
demographic and biographical information. For the second category, Social Movement 
Theory (SMT) variables are used to help determine why people volunteer and why they 
may be susceptible to recruitment. Framing by various insurgent groups, as informed by 
SMT literature, appears to be a critical mobilizer.!5 Additionally, factors such as group 
grievances, ideology, and moral outrage also fall under the SMT category.!© With the 
exponential rise of information technology, some argue that online networks, to include 
social media, are potent facilitators in recruiting and mobilizing transnationally.!7 Others 
argue that traditional networks offer greater explanatory power and causality.!® This third 
social networks category will explore how the literature views the role of online networks 
and traditional social networks with regards to recruitment, mobilization, and 


volunteerism. 


14 Stathis N. Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War, | edition (Cambridge University Press, 
2006), Kindle Edition, Location 457. 


15 Malet, Foreign Fighters, 5. 
16 Tbid., 4-6. 


17 See for example Ines von Behr, Anais Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon, “Radicalization 
in the Digital Era: The Use of the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and Extremism,” RAND Europe 
(2013), http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR453.html. 


18 Mare Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 178-9. 
) 


The Soufan Group (TSG), a strategic security research and analysis firm based in 
New York City, released a comprehensive study in June of 2014 about foreign fighters in 
the Syrian conflict. Aside from the staggering numbers involved—over 12,000 fighters 
were believed to be in Syria with the initiation of this study—the research reveals that 
fighters had arrived from at least 81 nations, and that approximately 3,000 participants 
had come from the West.!? Foreign fighter numbers have swelled to over 20,000 in 
2015.29 Part of the puzzle that TSG and other research institutions and academics have 
attempted to solve is determining the combined demographic profile of foreign fighters. 
The prevailing thought is that through analysis of these fighters—specifically their 
religion, age, socio-economic status, education, gender, and nationality—a general 
pattern will emerge that assists in solutions to mitigate the flow of combatants to conflict 


zones across the globe, or facilitate reintegration when they return home. 


The first step in the process is tracking the demographics; as with all foreign 
fighter data, this is a difficult prospect. In the Syrian conflict, as well as other 
insurgencies, many foreign fighters are ideologically driven, and by virtue of their newly 
chosen profession, they are located in regions of relative chaos. These factors, among 
others, make the acquisition of data a challenge for researchers. Several scholars address 
this challenge. Marc Sageman, for instance, indicates that some foreign fighters may 
obscure their identities due to the clandestine nature of their operations. Even if access to 
some of these members is realized, Sageman states, “they do not grant access to their 
members, and their leaders’ few interviews are well-orchestrated propaganda exercises 
with poor documentary value.”2! Moreover, Sageman indicates that there is evidence of 
acquired data not being representative of the larger sample of combatants.22 Malet largely 


avoids delving into the individual realm, but instead attempts to focus more broadly on 


19 Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” 6. 


20 Countering Violent Islamist Extremism: Hearing Before the House Committee on Homeland 
Security, United States House of Representatives, 114th Congress, Ist Session, on The Threat of Foreign 
Fighters and Homegrown Terror, February 11, 2015, 2, (2015) (statement of The Honorable Nicholas J. 
Rasmussen, Director, National Counterterrorism Center), 
http://www.nctc.gov/docs/Countering_Violent_Islamist_Extremism.pdf. 


21 Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, 64-65. 
22 Ibid., 64. 


conflicts across recent recorded history that had foreign fighters as participants.23 While 
admittedly demographics data-collection presents a challenge, it is not an insurmountable 


one. 


Difficulties aside, the literature does converge into common demographic 
characteristics. While data is constantly changing, contemporary studies indicate that a 
sizeable majority of foreign fighters in present conflicts are between the ages 18-29, 
disenchanted, Muslim or recent converts to Islam, and with minimal cultural or ethnic 
ties to the regions of conflict.24 Furthermore, these fighters are mostly men—although 
women are increasingly involved in Syria—from urban backgrounds that have minimal 
markers of extremism, criminality, or anti-social behavior.2> Interestingly, earlier studies, 
such as Hegghammer’s analysis of radicalization in Saudi Arabia, loosely agree with the 
demographics. Hegghammer’s 2006 report noted that al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula 
(QAP) militants had similar age ranges (19-42) who also were predominately male, and 
from urban centers.2© Ostensibly, then and now the fighters were, “unremarkable in the 


sense that they were neither society’s losers nor winners.”’27 


There are some deviations in the demographic data. Some combatants are more 
educated than others, and it appears that over time, ethnic and national diversity among 
foreign fighters has increased. While necessary to understand the nature of foreign 
fighters, demographics appear insufficient for explaining why these men and women 


leave the comfort of their homes for distant battle. 


Social Movement Theory (SMT) is perhaps the most critical approach that 
investigates the foreign fighter phenomenon through framing influences. In the collection 
of theories that comprise SMT, framing processes are the complex group of ideas that 


lead to the conditioning of a group of people to the presence of a grievance (whether 


23 Malet, Foreign Fighters, 11. 
24 Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” 16-18. 
25 Ibid., 18. 


26 Thomas Hegghammer, “Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalization in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East 
Policy 13, no. 4 (2006): 42-44. 


27 Ibid., 45. 


actual or constructed), and wield the grievance as a tool to mobilize the group with the 


intention of overcoming the grievance.78 


At the time of this writing, the contemporary view on foreign fighters is heavily 
focused on Afghanistan, Iraq, and now the Syrian conflict. The conjoining topics of Islam 
and foreign fighters have become so common that conflation is a topical hazard. Malet, in 
Foreign Fighters and his preceding works, in part seeks to disentangle Islam from foreign 
fighters by analyzing a range of case studies over the past two centuries.2? By exploring 
events such as the Texas Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and the 1948 Arab-Israeli 
War, Mallet’s data reveals interesting information regarding foreign fighters in civil 
conflicts. Aside from data such as the number of transnational insurgencies appears to be 
rising, and that insurgencies that have foreign fighters win more often than those without, 
the ideological implications are profound; recruiters are most effective by employing 
frames that present local conflicts as existential threats to a larger transnational 


community.39 Framing continues to be central to recruiting. 


Malet concludes that, “regardless of the nature of identity shared [between foreign 
fighters and the insurgency they join], recruiters consistently frame the distant civil 
conflict as an eventual threat to the entire transnational community group, and they 
inform recruits that their own government is blind to the threat; it is therefore both their 
duty and in their self-interest to fight now while there is still time.”3! Depending on how 
the frames are delivered to their intended recipients, the line between recruitment and 


volunteerism blurs. 


While Hegghammer does agree that individual recruits likely prescribe to some 


kind of ideological frame, he departs from Malet in that he suggests foreigners, rather 


28 Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing 
Structures, and Framing Processes - toward a Synthetic, Comparative Perspective on Social Movements,” 
in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and 
Cultural Framings, edited by Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy and Mayer N. Zald, (New York: 
Cambridge University Press, 1996), 5. 


29 David Malet, “Why Foreign Fighters?: Historical Perspectives and Solutions,” Orbis 54, no. 1 
(2010): 97. 


30 Ibid., 11-12. 
31 Malet, Foreign Fighters, 208. 


than local insurgents, initialize the mobilization of transnational fighters.32 Moreover, 
Hegghammer is not entirely convinced that ideology is the principle genesis of 
recruitment; particularly with regards to a transnational Muslim identity, Hegghammer is 
troubled by the apparent absence of long-distance foreign fighters prior to 1980.34 
Seeking answers to some of these questions, Hegghammer considers five hypotheses: (1) 
foreign fighters only join insurgencies that are religious, bloody, and involve foreign 
invasion; (2) insurgents that have established social networks across the greater Muslim 
community are more favorable to foreign fighter recruits; (3) government support is 
complicit in the acceptance of foreign fighters into a conflict; (4) advances in 
communications technology facilitates the mobilization of foreign fighters; (5) foreign 
fighters are an aberrant offshoot of Islamist movements; and (6) a combination of some 
or all of theses hypotheses provides an explanation for foreign fighter mobilization.34 
Hegghammer believes that no one hypothesis adequately explains the rise of foreign 
fighters after 1980, and instead proposes that a “qualitatively new ideological movement 
or subcurrent of Islamism” may be at fault.2> His study concludes with several important 
implications for this thesis—some of which go against his initial hypotheses. The most 
critical of which suggests there are two key components for large-scale foreign fighter 
mobilization. The first being “an ideology [or frame] stressing solidarity within an 
imagined transnational community,” and the second “a strong cadre of transnational 
activists.”36 Transnational activists are not always motivated by the desire for violent 
conflict. Examples such as the antinuclear movement of the 1980s and the Zapatista 
solidarity movement in the 1990s saw transnational mobilization without violence.?’ 


Framing in these examples was no less effective in mobilizing support. 


32 Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad,” 64-65. 
33 Ibid., 64. 

34 Ibid., 65-71. 

35 Ibid., 71. 

36 Ibid., 90. 


37 Sidney Tarrow and Doug McAdam, “Scale Shift in Transnational Contention,” in Transnational 
Protest and Global Activism, ed. Donatella Della Porta and Sidney Tarrow (New York: Rowman and 
Littlefield, 2005), 137-139. 


9 


Across the literature, framing reoccurs as a critical enabler for foreign fighter 
mobilization. Mohammed Hafez, for instance, suggests that there are three dominant and 
related narratives that are employed across a wide range of media and communication 
mediums. The first narrative presents the humiliation Muslims are facing in a given 
conflict, and implies that that the blame for this humiliation should be directed externally; 
the West is the commonly preferred target.38 In conjunction with this first narrative, the 
second narrative provides scathing commentary on existing Muslim regimes, calling 
them inept and bound by servitude to the West.39 The final narrative delivers a message 
of hope, indicating that Muslims will eventually be victorious in their struggle because of 


faith and impending military victory.7° 


In addition to framing, the shared factors of group grievances, ideological 
convictions, and moral outrage coalesce to form a potent recruitment driver. Moreover, 
more extreme groups adeptly use these shared factors to build the military capabilities of 


their respective units. 


Hafez suggests three patterns for transnational recruitment that all fall under 
motivational frameworks. The first identifies fighters who, after the fall of the Taliban 
regime, sought to further their skills in additional conflicts.4! Rejected from their 
countries of origin, many of these combatants already had previous jihadi experience and 
established ideological convictions. The second pattern of recruitment features Muslims 
who have no extremist ideology but rather are enraged by the plight of their fellow 
Muslims and volunteer in an effort to redeem their brothers and sisters.42 Rage, common 
identity, and empathy as motivators do not only manifest themselves through a Muslim 
identity. There are examples noted by the ICSR in which British volunteers left for Syria 


not because they felt Islam was under attack, but rather because they were deeply 


38 Mohammed M. Hafez, “Martyrdom Mythology in Iraq: How Jihadists Frame Suicide Terrorism in 
Videos and Biographies,” Terrorism and Political Violence 19, no. 1 (January 2007): 96, 
doi:10.1080/09546550601054873. 


39 Ibid. 

40 Ibid. 

41 Hafez, “Martyrs without Borders,” 190. 
42 Ibid., 191. 


10 


alarmed by the humanitarian crises and were driven to act.43 The third and final pattern 
identified is known as top-down recruitment. Experienced jihadists or insurgents 
deliberately attempt to recruit potential fighters through the use of gatekeepers, or 
personnel placed in strategic locations to look for promising candidates, and direct 
recruiters that approach these promising candidates.44 These gatekeepers and recruiters 
seek to build their existing body of fighters and prepare for conflicts against new rising 


opponents of Islam. 


A subset of scholars increasingly speculates that online networks are a critical 
facilitator of recruitment and mobilization.4> This view competes with earlier studies that 
suggest rather than technologies such as social media, it is traditional social networks 
(TSNs) that provide the most fertile recruitment and mobilization grounds.*® The social 


networks category examines both TSNs and online networks. 


Some contemporary arguments advocating the efficacy of traditional networks in 
recruiting have their beginnings in the information age. SMT scholars suggest that while 
there is much to be optimistic about with regards to the rise of information technology, 
that optimism may be misplaced. Although used within the context of political 
mobilization, Jeroen Van Laer offers that the use of technology can create 
communication cleavages between those who have access to the Internet, and those who 
do not.4”7 This correlates well within the foreign-fighter spectrum; there are still vast 
populations without regular Internet access and thus recruitment and mobilization may be 
substantially limited by Internet calls for jihad. Analysis of the Sinjar records, a 
collection of nearly 700 foreign-fighter records recovered in Iraq in 2007, appears to 


corroborate the suggested meekness of the Internet with one study showing that of 177 


43 Domokos, Rees, and theguardian.com, “Jihad, Syria and Social Media.” 
44 Hafez, “Martyrs without Borders,” 193. 


45 Fora summary see Ines von Behr, Anais Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon, 
“Radicalization in the Digital Era: The Use of the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and Extremism,” 
RAND Europe (2013), http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR453.html. 


46 Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, 178-9. 


47 Jeroen Van Laer, “Activists Online and Offline: The Internet as an Information Channel for Protest 
Demonstrations,” Mobilization: An International Journal 13, no. 3 (2010): 348. 


11 


fighters, only six were recruited online; the rest were persuaded to fight by familial, 


social and religious networks.*8 


In 2015, with Syria’s civil war spilling into Iraq, a renewed vigor arose to 
confront these peculiar challenges. Research in 2014-2015 demonstrates that there is an 
unequivocal rise in the influence of social media towards mobilizing and recruiting 
foreign fighters. A report published by the International Center for the Study of 
Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) studied 190 Western and European foreign 
fighters and determined that, at the time of publishing, social media was a critical tool 
both for recruiting and disseminating essential information.4? 2014 research by the ICSR 
reaffirms social media’s potency. Peter Neumann, a project lead for the ICSR, notes that 
there are several cases demonstrating that the Internet was instrumental in mobilizing 


foreign fighters into Syria.>° 


The approach to understanding the nature of foreign fighter recruitment and 
mobilization is anything but monolithic. Data acquired from the categories of 
demographics, SMT variables, and social networks provide a viable method to determine 
patterns and causal mechanisms as they relate to Western foreign fighter recruitment and 


mobilization. 


D. POTENTIAL EXPLANATIONS AND HYPOTHESES 


Based on the literature review, there are four predominant hypotheses that are 
derived or expanded by evaluating the three proposed data categories: demographics, 


SMT variables, and social networks. 





48 Clinton Watts, “Foreign Fighters: How Are They Being Recruited? Two Imperfect Recruitment 
Models” (Small Wars Journal, June 22, 2008), 2, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/foreign-fighters-how- 
are-they-being-recruited. 


49 Joseph A. Carter, Shiraz Maher, and Peter R. Neumann, “#Greenbirds:Measuring Importance and 
Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks” (The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation 
and Political Violence, August 1, 2014), 1, http://icsr.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ICSR-Report- 
Greenbirds-Measuring-Importance-and-Infleunce-in-Syrian-Foreign-Fighter-Networks. pdf. 


50 John Domokos, Alex Rees, and theguardian.com, “Jihad, Syria and Social Media: How Foreign 
Fighters Have Documented Their War - Video,” The Guardian, accessed September 13, 2014, 
http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/video/2014/apr/15/jihad-syria-social-media-video. 


1 


The first hypothesis, already existing in some capacity, seeks to test the role of 
ideology as an effective mobilizer. Incorporated into this hypothesis is Malet’s 
supposition that transnational threat to an imagined community is a potent recruitment 


and mobilization driver. 


H1; Ideology is the principal catalyst for the mobilization of Western foreign fighters 


in Syria and Iraq. 


While H1 is focused on broader ideological implications, the second hypothesis 
seeks to test the foreign fighter phenomenon by looking at more localized characteristics 
in the form of recruitment and mobilization mechanisms, or functions that directly recruit 
combatants. As discussed, scholars claim that traditional social networks (TSN), such as 
kinship, religious, and employment groups, provide considerable explanatory power with 
regards to foreign fighter recruitment and mobilization in previous transnational conflicts. 
This thesis tests that hypothesis by analyzing the Syrian and Iraqi insurgencies that 
persist still in 2015. 


H2: Traditional social networks are the primary recruitment and mobilization 


mechanism for Western transnational foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. 


The ubiquity of information technology and mass communication has arguably 
had an unprecedented impact on information both entering and leaving insurgency 
battlefields. Although even a decade ago scholars were skeptical of how effective social 
media could be in recruiting and mobilizing combatants, there is a current broad-based 
consensus that social media’s role requires further analysis. The third hypothesis seeks to 
test the efficacy of online social networks (OSN) as a recruitment and mobilization 


mechanism. 


H3: OSNs are critical mechanisms that drive the recruitment and mobilization of 


Western foreign fighters. 


The fourth and final hypothesis examines the role of group dynamics in the 
mobilization of Western foreign fighters. This thesis speculates that unanchored members 
of Western society, under the influence of group pressures, may be more likely to foreign 


fight. Furthermore, a common result of assembling like-minded extreme individuals is 
13 


group polarization. Legal scholar Cass Sunstein states that recruiters “attempt to inculcate 
a shared sense of humiliation, which breeds rage, and group solidarity, which prepares 
the way for movement toward further extremes.”>! A unified identity in the extremist 


context can be a salient motivator for members within a group. 


H4: Group dynamic effects are critical to the recruitment and mobilization of 


prospective foreign fighters. 


It is also a possibility that neither single hypothesis is sufficient in its explanatory 
power. An alternative hypothesis may combine some or all of the previously mentioned 
assumptions. Further still, there also remains the possibility that neither hypothesis, nor 
any combination of them, is sufficient to explain Western foreign fighter recruitment and 


mobilization. 


E. RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODOLOGY 


This thesis will contribute to the existing body of empirical work 
on foreign fighters by constructing and analyzing profiles of Western recruits/volunteers 
who have participated in the conflict engulfing Syria and Iraq at the time of this thesis’s 
publishing. These cases will be assembled by a combination of social network analysis 
and other open-source unclassified information. The author will collect as many profiles 
as randomly as possible. Next, these profiles will be sorted to select the most 


comprehensive and credible 20 profiles. For each case, the following information will be 


collected: 
1. Name 
2: Country of origin 
a: Family country of origin 
4, Age 
a Gender 
6. Religion 
7. Convert (Y/N) 
8. Occupation 
9. Education 
10. Mode of recruitment/volunteering 


51 Cass R. Sunstein, “Why They Hate Us: The Role of Social Dynamics,” Harvard Journal of Law & 
Public Policy 25, no. 2 (2002), 429. 


14 


Li. Earlier history of activism 


2. Social ties or affiliations prior to recruitment 

13. Social ties or group affiliations inside Syria 

14. Nature of activism in Syria (and mode of death) 

15. Self-assessment of why the foreign fighter volunteered 

16. External assessments (such as family or intelligence assessments) of why 


the foreign fighter volunteered 
17. Mode of death 
18. Anchored status 
19. Mode of travel 


The goalis that through the aggregation of biographical and_ other 
information, recruitment patterns and volunteer motivations may be further refined. 
Moreover, additional empirical data will contribute to existing information for use in 


continuing analysis and research. 


The second chapter of this thesis uses Boolean searches in order to reveal the 
pattern of foreign fighter emergence and growth in Syria. The LexisNexis Academic 
database and Google were the two services used to generate data. LexisNexis Academic 
was limiting in that queries would only return up to 3,000 results. This became 
problematic for searches within 2014 because there was no accurate measure of article 
return. Furthermore, LexisNexis Boolean searches did not differentiate between terms in 
quotations (i.e. “foreign fighter”) and terms without quotations, nor did it differentiate 
between plural constructs (i.e. “foreign fighter” versus “foreign fighters”). As such, only 
three unique searches were used: (1) Syria AND “Foreign Fighter,” (2) Iraq AND 
“Foreign Fighter,” and (3) “Foreign Fighter.” Google Boolean searches were more 
discriminating and they recognized nuances between quotations and pluralized words. 
For consistency, the Google searches used were the same as the LexisNexis Academic 
searches. Although variations due to quotations and pluralized words returned different 


order of magnitude results, the data trends were similar across all searches. 


F. THESIS OVERVIEW 


This thesis continues with three additional chapters. Chapter II provides a macro- 
level background to the Syrian conflict and then traces the emergence and growth of 


foreign fighters in the regional conflict. Data searches with LexisNexis Academic and 


15 


Google are used to contextualize the trends. Chapter II also provides the most current 
data on Western foreign fighters along with analysis of that data. Chapter III contains a 
summary of findings regarding the biographical dossiers of 20 Western foreign fighters. 
The graphs and charts included provide an updated perspective on the foreign fighter 
phenomenon, and the included narratives provide context to the quantitative data. The 
core contribution to the foreign fighter research is manifested in these dossiers. Chapter 
If continues with a comparison of the newly researched dossiers with the existing 
secondary source literature on Western foreign fighter demographics. Conclusions are 
then drawn from the comparison. Chapter IV assesses the aforementioned four 


hypotheses and then concludes with policy implications and suggestions. 


16 


UW. THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR AND THE RISE OF 
FOREIGN FIGHTERS 


The escalation of conflict in Syria and Iraq up to 2015 has grown concomitantly 
with the population of foreign fighters in the region. At the time of this research, surging 
foreign fighter populations continue to grow in Syria and Iraq, growing unrest has 
metastasized in Libya and Yemen, and there are increasing concerns of emerging Islamic 
State (IS) support in Afghanistan. While foreign fighters continue to represent both a 
minority of combatants in Syria and Iraq, and a small percentage with respect to each 
nations respective population, in the aggregate, their numbers are a threat. Foreign-fighter 
returnees and travel restricted aspiring jihadists have inflicted casualties across North 
America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Multinational efforts to combat violent 
extremism in Syria and Iraq have shown some promise in the beginning of 2015, but as 
long as the numbers of foreign fighters with Western passports continue to increase, 
threats to the West will only escalate. In order to situate the research, this section will 
provide background on the contemporary Syrian conflict, and analyze the emergence, 


growth, and current status of foreign fighters within Syria. 


A. THE SYRIAN CONFLICT (2011-2015) 


Syria’s continuing civil war, and its systemic spread to Iraq, is bracketed by 
conflagration. On December 17, 2010, street vendor Mohammed Boazizi set himself 
ablaze after a culmination of bureaucratic humiliation, and the event was spread 
throughout the Arab world initially by the Facebook social media network.52 The 
subsequent crumbling of the Ben Ali regime, and the beginning of the then nascent Arab 
Spring would sweep through the region. Today, in contemporary Syria, fires still burn, 


and groups such as IS herald the coming of continued “flames of war.’>? Bashar al-Assad 





52 Marc Fisher, “In Tunisia, Act of One Fruit Vendor Sparks Wave of Revolution through Arab 
World, The Washington Post, last modified March 26, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/in- 
tunisia-act-of-one-fruit-vendor-sparks-wave-of-revolution-through-arab- 
world/201 1/03/16/AFjfsueB_story.html. 


53 Ryan Mauro, “ISIS Releases ‘Flames of War’ Feature Film to Intimidate West, last accessed 
modified September 21, 2014, http://www.clarionproject.org/analysis/isis-releases-flames-war-feature- 
film-intimidate-west. 


rz. 


and his Alawi elite, along with other authoritarian rulers of the greater Middle East 
watched, adapted, and reacted to the fates of their contemporary despots, but ultimately 
actions by Assad were insufficient to stem the rise of dissent and eventual violence within 


his country. 


At the outbreak of peaceful protests in March of 2011, Syria had long been a 
culture cloaked in fear and repression.°4 A Syrian scholar went as far as to describe his 
homeland as “the kingdom of fear, silence, and worshipping Leviathan.”°> Protest and 
collective action, however, was not born simply out of an emerging wave of Tunisian and 
Egyptian protest. Social movement scholars have long stated that three key factors of 
movement emergence—political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing—work 
over time; the political opportunity of Tunisia’s unrest was seized by Syrians who had 
experience mobilizing.>© Although protest to authoritarian rule can be traced as far back 
as the 1960s, it was the “Statement of the 99,” in June of 2000, that established a modern 
foundation from which to build a vehicle of protest.5’ Ninety-nine scholars, seizing the 
moment of Hafez Al-Assad’s death as an opportunity to speak out, decried the repressive 
government and called for reforms; this event would echo into 2011.58 As such, Boazizi’s 
self-immolation was but the ignition of a fuse that had long been strung across the entire 
region. Sadly, the protests devolved into regime atrocities, sectarian violence, and the rise 
of extremist groups. Foreign fighters and the problems they have created in Syria are but 


a microcosm of the entire conflict. 





54 Fotini Christia, What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict,” in The Political 
Science of Syria’s War (Washington, DC: The Project on Middle East Political Science, 2013), 
8, http://pomeps.org/2013/12/19/political-science-and-syrias-war/. 


55 Wael Sawah and Salam Kawakibi, “Activism in Syria: Between Nonviolence and Armed 
Resitance,” in Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism, (Johns Hopkins University 
Press, 2014), Kindle Location 2945. 


56 McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Framing 
Processes,” 2. 


57 Sawah and Kawakibi, “Activism in Syria,” Kindle Location 2988. 
58 Ibid. 


18 


As of 2015, the Syrian conflict has long surpassed the 1,000 battle deaths 
commonly used as a threshold for defining a civil war.59 Furthermore, while armed 
internal conflict in Syria may have begun as one between Assad’s security apparatus and 
an organized armed insurgency such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the opposition is 
now characterized by its completely fractured nature. Late 2013 estimates compiled by 
the BBC suggested that there were over 1000 armed opposition groups operating within 
Syria—and now Iraq.®9 While the number of militant groups may be in constant flux, the 
number of combatants in Syria in Iraq has only increased. These groups span an 
ideological spectrum that runs from moderate, secular, and inclusive to abhorrent, 
ruthless and violent. Aside from the geopolitical concerns that cite regional stability and 
free flow of trade as impacted macro level variables, the conflict has also drawn 
unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters from across the world.6! While foreign 
fighters in state level conflict are not a new phenomenon, the magnitude of fighters seen 
today, and most especially, the magnitude of Western foreign fighters is substantial and 


unprecedented. 


B. FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA AND IRAQ 


Initial reports of foreign fighters in Syria originated from the Assad regime in late 
2011 and early 2012.63 These reports, however, drew pronounced skepticism from an 


international community that was receiving conflicting reports of foreigners supporting 





59 Fotini Christia, “Syrian Conflict,” 8. 


60 “Guide to the Syrian Rebels,” BBC, last modified December 13, 2013, 
http://m.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24403003. 


61 Richard Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria” (The Soufan Group, June 2014), 6, 
http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/TSG-Foreign-Fighters-in-Syria.pdf. 


62 “Foreign Fighters Flow to Syria,” The Washington Post, last modified October 11, 2014, 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/foreign-fighters-flow-to-syria/2014/10/1 1/3d2549fa-5 195-1 le4— 
8c24—487e92bc997b_graphic.html. 


63 Liz Sly, “As peace eludes Syria, fears of extremism rise,” The Washington Post, Suburban Edition 
(April 23, 2012): A, Al4; <http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 7, 
2015]. 


19 


Assad’s regime.®* As violence became more prevalent in Syria, spaces for militant 
groups to operate opened, and foreign fighters began entering at an ever-increasing rate. 
The following section analyzes the rise of foreign fighters in the Syrian civil war by 
tracing their emergence and growth beginning in 2011. The section concludes with an 


analysis of the current 2015 foreign-fighter data. 


Specificity in tracing foreign-fighter growth is difficult to achieve but by utilizing 
the LexisNexis Academic Database and the Google search engine with key search terms, 
an approximate indication of foreign fighter progression in Syria becomes apparent. I 
used the Boolean search expression “Syria” AND “Foreign Fighter” across all available 
English language sources in yearly blocks beginning in 2011. In addition to utilizing 
LexisNexis Academic, similar searches were conducted using Google to verify the data 
trend.© The results are depicted in Figure 1 and Figure 2. The quantity of results provides 
preliminary insight into the growth of the foreign fighter phenomenon within Syria; the 
results also begin to blend with Iraqi news reports as the years progressed and the conflict 
began to erode the Syrian—Iraqi border. The LexisNexis searches yielded 67 articles in 
2011, 495 articles in 2012, 1,117 articles in 2013, and over 3,000 articles in 2014.6 2015 
results at the time of writing returned 1,761 articles.©7 An analysis of the results with 
particular emphasis on newspapers and news services with high circulation provides 


more detail to the evolution of Syrian foreign fighter presence. 


64 “Syrian regime importing foreign fighters- FSA,” Asharg Alawsat, November 28, 2011, 
http://www.aawsat.net/2011/1 L/article55244219/syrian-regime-importing-foreign-fighters-fsa. 


65 See Chapter 1, Section E for details on methodology. 


66 LexisNexis Academic will return only 1,000 relevant articles if the search terms used result in over 
3,000 potential articles. Determining specific search result numbers over 3,000 is therefore not possible. 
Searches last conducted on April 7, 2015. 


67 Search last conducted on April 7, 2015. 
20 

















3500 - 

3000 
s 2500 - e=eee Syria AND "Foreign 
& 2000 Fighter" 
FE 1500 e=== "Foreign Fighter" 
& 1000 

500 ~ ese |raq AND "Foreign 

0 Fighter" 
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 
Year 








Figure 1. _ Foreign Fighter LexisNexis Search Results (2011-2015) 




















18000 
16000 
» 14000 + 
~ 
12000 5 ese Syria AND "Foreign 
@ 10000 Fighter" 
<= 
5. eae e=ee "Foreign Fighter" 
S 6000 
® 4000 
2000 em |raq AND "Foreign 
0 Fighter" 


2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 
Year 








Figure 2. Foreign Fighter Google Search Results (201 1—2015) 


1. EMERGENCE 


Of the 67 results for 2011, it was not until late November that articles began 
mentioning potential involvement of foreign combatants inside Syria. London-based 
Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat reported on November 28, 2011 that Free Syrian 
Army (FSA) personnel identified the Muqtada al-Sadr group, Iranian Revolutionary 
Guard Corp (IRGC), Hezbollah, and Amal Movement as groups active within Syria in 


support of the Assad regime.’ While these organizations do represent foreign 


68 “Syrian regime importing foreign fighters- FSA,” Asharg Alawsat. 
21 


involvement within Syria, they rest on the cusp of the Hegghammer—Malet definition of 


foreign fighters due to their state-related sponsorship and possible payment for services.° 


In January 2012, Guardian reporter Ian Black travelled to Syria to make sense of 
the growing internal conflict. The conversations Black had with the residents of 
Damascus were foreboding. While hope among the locals remained high in the 
bourgeoning opposition, there was also concern of a rising Islamist threat.’? A local 
Syrian lawyer was quoted as saying, “I have no doubt the regime will be toppled. The 
problem is that the longer it takes, the more powerful the Islamists will become. Those 
that advocate violence will gain ground. It’s a question of time and cost: time is getting 
shorter but the price is getting higher.”’”! Increased reporting on the role and presence of 
foreign fighters in Syria—to include the emergence of JAN—began to appear in April 
2012.72 In May, amid the growing concern regarding foreigners fighting in Syria, the 
Sunday Times (London) was one of the first newspapers to mention initial estimates of up 
to 150 foreign fighters; UN observers, however, were unable to corroborate the 
information.’3 The same UN observers, under the command of Norwegian General 
Robert Mood, temporarily ceased patrol operations in June due to escalating violence 


partially credited to the increase in foreign combatants.’4 





69 See Hegghammer, “Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 57-58; Malet, Foreign Fighters, 9. 


70 Ian Black, “Syria: beyond the wall of fear, a state in slow-motion collapse,” The Guardian, January 
16, 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jan/16/syria-collapse-damascus-change. 


71 Black, “Syria: beyond the wall of fear.” 


72 See Sly, “As peace eludes Syria, fears of extremism rise;” BBC, “Free Syrian Army denies western 
reports Jihadist elements have joined its ranks,” BBC Monitoring Middle East — Political (April 11, 2012): 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 8, 2015]. 


73 See Hugh Macleod, Annasofie Flamand, and Rami Aysha, “Iraq-style chaos looms as foreign 
jihadists pour into Syria,” The Sunday Times (London) National Edition 1 (May 13, 2012): News, 26; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 7, 2015]; Suzy Jagger, 
“Regime’s web of lies holds grains of truth,” The Sunday Times (London) National Edition 2 (May 28, 
2012): News, 6; <http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 9, 2015]. 


74 Hala Jaber, “Jihadists involved in Syrian carnage; Foreign fighters are adding to the slaughter that 
has forced the UN to suspend its peace mission, reports Hala Jaber in Damascus,” The Sunday Times 
(London), Ireland Edition 1 (June 17, 2012): News, 19; available from LexisNexis Academic 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 7, 2015]. 


Ze 


June also saw the rise of Sunni religious leadership across the Middle East issuing 
various fatwas’> that instructed fellow Sunni Muslims to take up arms and travel to Syria 
to fight Bashar al-Assad.7© Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, a prominent Jordanian Salafi- 
jihadi sheikh, issued a representative statement in 2012 that captured the themes of many 
fatwas of the mid-2012 period: “Muslims in Syria have been oppressed by Assad’s brutal 
and barbaric regime; therefore, according to Islam, it is obligatory for any able-bodied 
Muslim to support his brothers there.”’? Statements such as al-Tahawi’s grew in 


frequency as the conflict escalated.’8 


Determining a discrete period for Syrian foreign fighter emergence is difficult to 
ascertain due to difficulty gathering data in the region. It is reasonable, however, to 
establish the second half of 2012—specifically May and June—as the temporal genesis of 
foreign-fighter discussion in international media, primarily due to the aforementioned 
religious decrees from Sunni religious leadership. Furthermore, the beginnings of 
theological legitimization by Muslim religious leaders in June of 2012 also represent the 
onset of foreign fighter growth within Syria. Also in June, a little known group, then 
known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), released a one-hour video entitled The Clanging 
of the Swords; the video was a call to arms and quietly revealed ISI to the world as a 


rising threat.79 


75 A fatwa is a religious decree made by a Muslim scholar. 
76 Jaber, “Jihadists involved in Syrian carnage.” 


77 Suha Philip Ma’ayeh, “Jordanian Jihadists Active in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6, no. 10 (October 2013), 
10, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/jordanian-jihadists-active-in-syria. 


78 Jaber, “Jihadists involved in Syrian carnage.” 


79 Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 
2015), xx. 


22 


2. GROWTH 


Concern with foreign fighters reached higher levels of international attention with 
the publishing of a United Nations Human Rights Council report in September 2012.89 
The report highlighted that foreign fighters were increasingly present in the Syrian 
conflict, and even more alarmingly, they appeared to have a radicalizing effect on anti- 
government local fighters.8! Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near 
East Policy, lends credence to UN concerns, stating that by mid-2012 there were 
approximately 700—1400 foreign fighters who had either attempted to reach Syria or were 


actively engaged in the conflict.82 


While these numbers represented a small minority of combatants within Syria, 
reports at the beginning of 2013 supported an undeniable trend: foreign fighters were 
becoming a problem not only for Syria, but also for the nations that were supplying the 
fighters. A January 2013 the Times (London) article revealed Hezbollah 
acknowledgement of Assad regime support.83 March saw additional English newspapers 
reporting on hundreds of British Muslims allegedly fighting within Syria; and some of 
these young men were being killed in the conflict.84 A watershed moment for empirical 
foreign fighter research evaluation occurred a month earlier in February when the 


International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) 





80 Richard Hall, “Foreigners flood into Syria to join battle to overthrow Assad; UN investigators say 
number of human rights abuses by either side has risen dramatically,” The Independent (London), Fourth 
Edition (September 18, 2012): World, 29; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 7, 2015]. 


81 Hall, “Foreigners flood into Syria.” 


82 Aaron Y. Zelin, “Foreign Fighters Trickle into Syrian Rebellion,” The Washington Institute for 
Near East Policy, July 11, 2012, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/foreign-fighters- 
trickle-into-the-syrian-rebellion. 


83 Nicholas Blanford, “Evidence mounts of foreign fighters taking up arms to aid Assad regime,” The 
Times (London), Ireland Edition 1 (January 23, 2013): News, 23; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 8, 2015]. 


84 See Richard Kerbaj and Malik Al-Abdeh, “Dead at 21: Britain’s veteran jihadist,” The Sunday 
Times (London), National Edition 1 (March 3, 2013): News, 6; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 8, 2015]; James Kirkup and 
Andrew Hough, “‘Up to 100’ British Muslims fighting in Syria,” The Daily Telegraph (London), National 
Edition 2 (March 27, 2013): News, 12; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 8, 2015]. 


24 


completed a yearlong study chronicling the rising foreign fighter problem in Syria.8>° The 
ICSR report, published in April, was the first to highlight the extent of Western foreign 
fighter participation, and it established a baseline from which to evaluate the continued 
growth of foreign fighters in Syria both from within the Middle East and from more 
distant nations. Acknowledging the limitations in obtaining accurate census information, 
ICSR estimated that approximately 5,500 foreign fighters had participated throughout the 
length of the entire conflict.8° Moreover, the report highlighted initial motivations of 
these combatants: Assad and the alleged atrocities by his regime remained the primary 
reason for volunteerism.8? April 2013 also saw a pronounced increase of scrutiny by 
states vis-a-vis the threat posed by returning foreign fighters. British Secretary of State 
for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs William Hague highlighted the dangers of 
uncontested spaces within Syria as potential grounds for terror-based training camps.88 
Citing national security concerns, Mr. Hague stated, ““We assess some of the individuals 
being trained will seek to carry out attacks against Western interests in the region or in 
Western states now or in the future.”’8? Similar concerns appeared across global media. 
On April 17, 2013, the New York Times reported the arrest of six men by Belgian police 
for attempting to recruit fighters to Syria.2° A continent away, concerns that Canadians 
could return as radicals was front-page news.?! Jihadist groups such as JAN and IS had 


yet to fully enter the international media spotlight—but this would occur, and soon. 





85 Aaron Y. Zelin, “ICSR Insight: European Foreign Fighters in Syria,” International Center for the 
Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, February 2, 2013, http://icsr.info/2013/04/icsr-insight- 
european-foreign-fighters-in-syria-2. 


86 Zelin, “European Foreign Fighters in Syria.” 
87 Ibid. 


88 Damien McElroy, “Hague warns of threat from Syria fighters,” The Daily Telegraph (London), 
National Edition 1 (April 25, 2013): News, 16; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 8, 2015];April 25, 2013 Daily 
Telegraph 

89 Ibid. 


90 James Kanter and Rick Gladstone, “Belgian Police Arrest Six on Charges of Recruiting for Syrian 
Insurgency,” The New York Times, Late Edition (April 17, 2013): A, 8; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 8, 2015]. 


91 Stewart Bell, “Conflict; Canadians at war in Syria could return as radicals,” The National Post 
(Canada), National Edition (April 27, 2013): News, Al; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 9, 2015]. 


25 


The subsequent months leading into the summer of 2013 heralded the 
establishment of a second beacon of foreign fighter growth. This period of growth 
origination was characterized by the increased international attention drawn to jihadist 
groups operating in Syria, and also the justification of a Syrian jihad by prominent Sunni 


Muslim theologians. 


Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the ISI, announced the creation of the 
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in April, and concomitantly makes failed overtures 
to co-opt the better-known group JAN.%2 Operating as independent entities, JAN and ISIS 
begin driving international media attention. In May 2013, JAN forces overran oil fields in 
Syria and begin selling barrels for profit.?3 July and August thrust ISIS further into view 
with their freeing of approximately 500 prisoners—many of whom were convicted 
terrorists—in Iraq, and the conquering of Raqqa in Syria.9* While the actions and 
advances by JAN and ISIS likely resonated with a minority of Sunni Muslims, the 


message reached global audiences. 


In late May, statements made by prominent and respected Sunni cleric Yusuf al- 
Qaradawi reached a more moderate Muslim audience.?> With a following that numbered 
in the millions, Qaradawi’s call for all Muslims to fight against Assad’s regime was not 
only influential in and of itself, but his words also unshackled escalatory reservations of 
other prominent Sunni clerics in the region.?© Following Qaradawi’s statements, the 
grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, and Islamic clergy in Yemen voiced 


support of a Syrian jihad—and many others followed.’ 





92 “Syria crisis: Al-Nusra pledges allegiance to al-Qaeda,” BBC, April 10, 2013, 
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-22095099. 


93 Stern and Berger, ISIS, xix. 
94 Ibid. 


95 Thomas Hegghammer and Aaron Y. Zelin, “How Syria’s Civil War Became a Holy Crusade,” 
Foreign Affairs, July 3, 2013, Accessed April 10, 2015, 
http://www .foreignaffairs.com/articles/139557/thomas-hegghammer-aaron-y-zelin/how-syrias-civil-war- 
became-a-holy-crusade. 


96 Ibid. 
97 Ibid. 


26 


The second half of 2013 continued to display a trend of increasing foreign fighter 
numbers, and larger Western involvement. What had started as a regional pull for fighters 
from within the greater Middle East was starting to shift into a global pull bringing in 
more fighters from Europe, Australia, and North America. The Times (London) reported 
in August of United States intelligence estimates indicating that up to 10,000 foreign 
fighters were, or had been, involved in Syria.98 The same American source indicated that 
the fighter numbers could be as low as “a few thousand.’9? In December 2013, ICSR 
published a second comprehensive empirical study numbering foreign fighters in Syria in 
the realm of 11,000 combatants.109 The ICSR report confirmed concerns in Western 
nations; more Westerners were leaving for Syria with numbers tripling from up to 600 
fighters in April to 1,900 in December.!°! By the end of 2013, foreign fighters were no 
longer media outliers in the Syrian civil war, but rather they had created a narrative that 
ran parallel to the enduring conflict. Moreover, groups such as ISIS were recruiting 
fighters globally by disseminating sophisticated propaganda via social media 


platforms. !92 


2014 presented the continued trend of increasing foreign fighter participation in 
Syria. A report released in June by American security consultant firm The Soufan Group 
revealed that over 12,000 foreign fighters had gone to Syria, and approximately 3,000 of 
them had come from Western nations.!93 This updated benchmark represented a number 


that exceeded all foreign fighters who had participated in the 10-year Soviet-Afghan war 


98 Nicholas Blanford and Michael Evans, “Up to 150 Britons join rebels fighting to overthrow Assad,” 
The Times London, National Edition 2 (August 19, 2013): News, 28; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 9, 2015]. 


99 Blanford and Evans, “Britons join rebels.” 


100 Aaron Y. Zelin, “ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria; steep rise among Western 
Europeans,” International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, December 17, 
2013, http://icsr.info/2013/12/icsr-insight- 1 1000-foreign-fighters-syria-steep-rise-among-western- 
europeans. 


101 Ibid. 


102 Richard Barrett, “The Islamic State,” (The Soufan Group, November 2014), 51-56, 
http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/TSG-The-Islamic-State-Nov 14.pdf. 


103 Barrett, “Foreign Fighters in Syria,” 6. 
27 


of the 1980s.!04 More disturbing, however, was that these combatants appeared to mostly 


join groups that espoused a violent and extreme ideology. ! 


Aside from increasing fighter numbers, 2014 introduced three major complexities 
into the foreign fighter problem. First, ISIS ascended to unprecedented levels of power 
resulting in substantial territorial control within Syria and Iraq. The increased ISIS 
presence and influence was reflected not only by territory gains and Baghdadi’s 
declaration of a new caliphate, but also by increased propaganda attempting to recruit 
Muslims to Syria and Iraq.!°° Second, Western foreign fighters returning home and ISIS 
supporters living in the West conducted attacks in Belgium, Canada, and Australia.!07 
These attacks reified Western government concerns of returning Syrian combatants. 
Methods to address Western foreign fighter returnees had gained newfound urgency and 
importance. The third and final complexity was the introduction of American and 
coalition combat power into Syria and Iraq in order to confront ISIS. Although foreign 
fighters represented but a small subset of groups such as ISIS, the efficacy of ISIS’s 
media campaign showing foreigners burning passports and renouncing citizenship 
inexorably tied the threat posed by militant groups to the threat posed by their foreign 
combatants.!08 As 2014 came to a close, ISIS and foreign fighters were central to state 
security concerns across all continents; and further, these worries had materialized into 
bloodshed, continued recruitment efforts, and media headlines that indicated the flow of 
combatants to Syria had not abated. Figure 3 shows the growth from 2011-2015 based on 


media reporting and government estimates. 


104 Ibid. 

105 Ibid. 

106 Stern and Berger, [SIS, xx—xxi. 
107 Ibid., xx—xxii. 


108 Shiv Malik, “French Isis fighters filmed burning passports and calling for terror at home,” The 
Guardian (London), November 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/20/french-isis- 
fighters-filmed-burning-passports-calling-for-terror. 


28 





25000* 


Foreign Fighters 
N 
8 
8 








15000 
10000 
5000 
¢) 
2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 
Year 





Figure 3. Estimated Foreign Fighter Growth in Syria (* as of January 2015) 


3. FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN 2015 


So what is the status of foreign fighters in Syria now? At the time of writing, the 
available figures, even with their acknowledged shortcomings, are harrowing. A February 
2015 hearing before the United States House Committee on Homeland Security indicated 
that over 20,000 foreign fighters had traveled to Syria from 90 different countries.!0 
Further, the assessment stated that a minimum of 3,400 of these fighters had come from 


Western nations. !!0 


There are some critical implications that can be drawn from the macro data. The 
enduring nature of the threat posed by foreign fighters is not solely a contemporary issue, 
but rather is rooted in a pattern that can be traced as far back as the Arab—Afghan War of 
the 1980s. Written a decade ago in Foreign Affairs, Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds 
warned that the insurgency in Iraq, which included many foreign combatants, would 
produce blowback globally once the conflict came to an end.!!! Assuming that security 


conditions facilitating the emergence of stable state would come to fruition, Bergen and 


109 Countering Violent Islamist Extremism: Hearing Before the House Committee on Homeland Security, United 
States House of Representatives, 114th Congress, Ist Session, on The Threat of Foreign Fighters and Homegrown 
Terror, February 11, 2015, 2, (2015) (statement of The Honorable Nicholas J. Rasmussen, Director, National 
Counterterrorism Center), http://www.nctc.gov/docs/Countering_Violent_Islamist_Extremism.pdf. 


110 Ibid. 


111 Peter Bergen and Alec Reynolds, “Blowback Revisited.” Foreign Affairs. April 15, 2015. Accessed April 15, 
2015. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61 190/peter-bergen-and-alec-reynolds/blowback-revisited.Top of 
FormBottom of Form. 


29 


Reynolds speculated that foreign fighters would then be left with the choice of pursuing 
conflict elsewhere or returning home.!!2 Sure enough, the wave of foreign fighters and 
local jihadists in Iraq birthed the precursor to ISIS in the form of al-Qaeda in Iraq 
(AQD.!!3 Although the vast majority of foreign fighters in the mid-2000s Iraqi 
insurgency were from the Middle East, there still existed limited Western nation 
involvement. Mohammed Hafez studied the ideology of suicide bombers during the 
height of the insurgency, and his research indicated kinship and activist ties facilitated 
network activity in several European nations.!!4 The perpetuation of foreign fighter 
waves originating with the Arab—Afghans suggests that the current war in Syria will 
produce a new generation of foreign fighters who seek another conflict. Furthermore, 
because the Syrian conflict has attracted unprecedented numbers of Western foreign 
fighters, the threat to Western nations will grow concomitantly with Western foreign 
fighter involvement. The same can be said for other global regions that are contributing 
fighters to Syria and Iraq. In a 2013 report, Thomas Hegghammer empirically grounded 
the threat of returning combatants. Hegghammer found that of 945 analyzed fighters, 107 
returned to commit attacks in the West.!!5 Applying the Hegghammer Factor to foreign 
fighter estimates gathered by the ICSR, Table 1 provides an approximation of threat 


severity. 


112 Ibid. 
113 Stern and Berger, ISIS, xv-xix. 


114 Mohammed Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom 
(Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007), 195-207. 


115 Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists’ 
Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (February 
2013): 10, doi: 10.1017/S0003055412000615. 


30 


Table 1. | Western Foreign Fighter Population Data from ICSR, 2014 
























































Nation Foreign Per Capita(Up | Per Capita (Up to; | Hegghammer 
Fighter to; per million per ten thousand Factor* 

Population population) Muslim population) 

Austria 100-150 18.2 4.3 17 

Belgium 440 42.3 7.1 48 

Denmark 100-150 | 45.0 11.2 28 

Finland 50-70 13.3 66.4 8 

France 1,200 18.1 1.8 132 

Germany 500-600 | 7.4 2.0 66 

Ireland 30 6.2 5.6 3 

Italy 80 1.3 0.8 9 

Netherlands 200-250 14.8 3.0 28 

Norway 60 11.7 aye | 7 

Spain 50-100 2a 0.9 11 

Sweden 150-180 18.5 oe 20 

Switzerland 40 5.0 1.0 4 

United Kingdom | 500-600 | 9.4 21 66 

Australia 100-250 11.1 DL 28 

Canada 100 22 0.9 11 

United States 100 0.3 0.5 11 























* The Hegghammer Factor is in reference to a 2013 study performed by Thomas 
Hegghammer indicating that out of sample of 945 foreign fighters, one in nine returned to 
the West to commit attacks. 


The numbers of foreign fighters in the aggregate are substantial, but ICSR reports 
indicate that these figures likely contain some margins of error. Specifically, 2015 report 
figures represent Syria—Iraq conflict totals across the 2011-2015 periods.!!© As such, 
ICSR estimates that 5-10 percent of combatants have died, and 10-30 percent are no 
longer in Syria or Iraq.!!7 Taking the ICSR estimates into account and applying the 
Hegghammer Factor yields over 400 men and women with North American, European, or 
Australian passports who would seek to commit violence in the West. Due to geographic 
isolation and the lower numbers involved, the potential impact on North America and 


Australia is considerably less than Europe. ICSR numbers, however, do not take into 





116 Peter R. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan 
conflict in the 1980s,” International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, January 
26, 2015, http://csr.info/2015/01/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan- 
conflict-1980s. 


117 Ibid. 
31 


account those prospective foreign fighters who have been unable to leave their respective 
nations to go and fight within Syria and Iraq. An illustrative example is the case of 
Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau; unable to acquire a passport for Syria, he proceeded on 
a shooting rampage in Ottawa on October 22, 2014.!!8 Policy implications given this data 


will be explored in the final chapter of this thesis. 


C. CONCLUSION 


The Arab Spring in Syria has devolved from a promising social protest in 2011 to 
a vitriolic and internecine sectarian conflict that has eroded state borders, killed 
thousands, and displaced millions. The increasing numbers of foreign fighters and the 
violence that they have committed both within the Middle East and abroad represent 
security concerns that are being actively addressed by both national and supranational 
institutions. The evidence in this chapter has culminated in a point of reference to 
understand the macro scope of this foreign fighter threat. Moreover, by tracing the 
emergence and growth of foreign fighters through the aforementioned search metrics, the 
data supports the supposition that the foreign fighter problem continues to grow. While 
admittedly the search metrics do not indicate causality regarding recruitment or 
mobilization within the foreign fighter problem, they do indicate a near exponential 
growth that, based on historical trends, should be a cause for alarm. The following 
chapter seeks to provide insight into potential causal mechanisms at the individual level 


by examining existing secondary source literature alongside newly collected data. 


118 Saeed Ahmed and Greg Botelho, “Who is Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the man behind the deadly 
Ottawa attack?,” CNN, last accessed April 15, 2015, http:/Awww.cnn.com/2014/10/22/world/canada- 
shooter. 


32 


HI. WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS IN SYRIA 


A. INTRODUCTION 


Analyzing the rise of the foreign fighter problem at the macro level is instructive 
in that it demonstrates a continuing trend of recruitment, radicalization, and mobilization 
of prospective combatants worldwide. There are, however, considerable difficulties in 
tracking the whereabouts of tens of thousands of people as they move across international 
borders and seek entry into Syria and Iraq. Global polities at the national and 
supranational level continue to levy a diverse set of tools to combat the flow of foreign 
fighters—and this is a necessary burden. As discussed in Chapter II, The Hegghammer 
Factor!!9 suggests that at the beginning of 2015, approximately 400 Western foreign 
fighters may return to the West with the intention of causing harm to their respective 
populations. Individual foreign-fighter analysis may provide insight into patterns unique 


to Western nations, but a sufficient sample size is required to support such analysis. 


Previous conflicts replete with foreign-fighter demographics and influence data 
have proved useful in identifying loose data trends of a generic foreign fighter. Although 
validating trends, such as age ranges, gender, or religion, are helpful for analysis, more 
detailed profiles in the aggregate can help identify or validate additional patterns in the 
areas of recruitment prevention, de-radicalization, and threat-severity assessment. 
Moreover, there is much promise with emerging big data analysis technology, 


particularly in the social media realm. !2° 


This chapter is structured in three parts. The first section begins with a description 


of methodology, and then presents and analyzes 20 newly constructed foreign-fighter 


119 The Hegghammer Factor refers to studies done by Thomas Hegghammer that indicate 
approximately 11% of Western foreign fighters return to the West with the intention of committing acts of 
violence; See Thomas Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western 
Jihadists’ Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 
(February 2013): 10, doi: 10.1017/S0003055412000615. 


120 Anand Varghese, “Social Media Reporting and the Syrian Civil War,” United States Institute of 
Peace (June 7, 2013), 2, http://www.usip.org/publications/social-media-reporting-and-the-syrian-civil-war. 


33 


profiles. The second section evaluates how the constructed profiles compare with existing 


Western foreign fighter data. The chapter concludes with a summary of findings. 


B. WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTER DATA 


This section is built on the analysis of 20 profiles I have constructed. While 
capturing traditional data that many other analysts focus on, such as age, gender, or 
country of origin, I also focus on three variables that I argue are critical to understanding 
foreign fighters: networks, biographical availability as measured by degree of anchoring, 
and group dynamics. The section begins with an explanation of my methodology and key 


variables. 


i METHODOLOGY 


As noted by previous endeavors in foreign fighter research, I acknowledge the 
difficulty of collecting and coding foreign fighter demographic, biographical, and 
influence information. While some of this data is readily available, personal narratives 
are by their definition subjective and thus difficult to confirm. Furthermore, social media 


sources tend to be ephemeral in nature due to corporate content policies. 


I built the profiles by collecting a minimum of three news articles or media 
interviews for each foreign fighter. The primary tool used for profile searches was 
LexisNexis Academic with supplemental data from Google’s search engine. Social media 
networks and blogging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr were also 
searched for corroborating information. The focus of the searches was on North 
American, European, and Australian foreign fighters. While the profiles presented do not 
represent a true random sample of Western foreign fighters, I sacrificed randomness of 
data for specificity of information. Although this approach may present some limitations 
from a statistical standpoint, the challenges in acquiring robust foreign fighter data make 
it likely that these profiles are no less random than previous similar studies. Another 
potential limitation with my methodology is reporting biases. At the onset of the Syrian 
civil war, reporting on Western foreign fighters was likely underrepresented. This sample 


also includes foreign fighters who fought against extremist groups, such as ISIS, to 


34 


determine whether there are any common patterns that exist across the foreign fighter 


ideological spectrum. 


Overall, I collected 117 profiles, of which 97 were discarded for lack of sufficient 
information. 20 core profiles were retained for this study. Of the 20 retained profiles, 
three were prospective foreign fighters who were arrested prior to travel, and two were 
aspiring foreign fighters who were obstructed from traveling and thus committed acts of 
violence in their respective nations. The remaining core profiles completed their journey 
into Syria. All core profile individuals will be referred to as foreign fighters by virtue of 


their demonstrated intent to fight in Syria. 


2 ASSESSED VARIABLES 


In addition to standard demographic and biographical data (e.g., age, gender, 
religion, nationality), this thesis sought to evaluate three variables—networks, anchoring, 
and group dynamics—in order to better understand foreign fighters and the nature of their 
recruitment and mobilization. These variables were readily extractable from the collected 


demographic and influence data. 


a. Networks 


Networks have long represented a necessary condition for foreign combatant 
entry into a conflict area. In his study of Iraqi suicide bombers, Mohammed Hafez argues 
that among many factors, mobilizing networks were critical for jihadists to engage in 
suicide operations.!2!_ Marc Sageman, in his seminal work Understanding Terror 
Networks, concluded that social networks, even those comprised of peripheral 
acquaintances, were more potent than ideology in recruiting and mobilizing 
individuals.!22 Thus networks behave as both a beacon to draw prospective combatants, 
and a vehicle to deliver them. Network effects are particularly critical for understanding 
how foreign fighters are recruited and mobilized from the West. Within the greater 


Middle East and North Africa—the origin of most foreign fighters in the Syrian 


121 Hafez, “Martyrdom Mythology in Iraq: How Jihadists Frame Suicide Terrorism in Videos and 
Biographies,” 96. 


122 Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, 178. 
35 


conflict—unity of culture, religion, and language facilitate the existence of various 
institutions that can function as mobilizing networks. Western prospective foreign 


fighters are likely faced with scarcer options for mobilization. 


In order to test for network effects, recruitment and mobilization mechanisms 
were categorized under mode of recruitment (MOR). The coding options for MOR 
included: (1) Traditional Social Network (TSN): the foreign fighter was recruited or 
mobilized through peer, family, professions, or religious networks; (2) Online: the 
foreign fighter was recruited or mobilized via online networks (e.g., chat rooms, social 
media platforms); (3) Volunteer: the foreign fighter made the decision to fight based on 


internal motivations and not due to a network-based influence. 


b. Anchoring 


The second variable assessed was whether or not each respective foreign fighter 
was anchored. In the context of this thesis, a foreign fighter was coded as anchored if he 
or she was bound by obligation to a profession, spouse, child, or other family member. 
This definition is an adaptation of Scott Jasper’s concept of “biographical 
availability.”!23 This variable tested how anchoring impacted recruitment or 
mobilization. The entering supposition was that the more a person was anchored, the less 
likely they would be recruited since subsequent mobilization would result in the 
severance of existing bonds of obligation. Coding for the anchoring variable is binary 


with options being either “yes” or “no.” 


Cc. Group Dynamics 


The final critical variable tested was group dynamics. Abstractly, a common 
result of assembling like-minded extreme individuals is group polarization. According to 
legal scholar Cass Sunstein, recruiters “attempt to inculcate a shared sense of humiliation, 
which breeds rage, and group solidarity, which prepares the way for movement toward 


further extremes.” !24 The physical manifestation of a unified identity should result in 





123 Scott Jasper, Art of Moral Protest: Culture, Biography, and Creativity in Social Movements 
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 173-174. 


124 Sunstein, “Why They Hate Us,” 429. 
36 


groups traveling to Syria with much greater frequency than individuals venturing alone. 
Previous studies support the impact of group dynamics in mobilization. In the context of 
Iraq’s insurgency beginning in 2003, transnational suicide bombers overwhelmingly 


traveled in small groups, and rarely did they travel alone.!2> 


In order to test for group-dynamic effects, mobilization to Syria was categorized 
under mode of travel (MOT). The coding for MOT was either “group” or “alone.” A 
“group” coding indicated that the foreign fighter traveled or attempted to travel with a 
group. An “alone” coding indicated that the foreign fighter traveled or attempted to travel 
individually, and without any expectation of meeting a known in-group member during 


his or her voyage. 


a DATA RESULTS AND ANALYSIS 


This section begins with the presentation and analysis of the demographic and 
biographical data. Network, anchoring, and group dynamic effects are then highlighted 
with respect to the constructed profiles. Narratives of some foreign fighters are also used 


to provide context to the data results. 


a. Demographics and Biographical Data 


The core profiles were comprised of citizens from the United States, Australia, 
Canada, France, and the Netherlands. As with previous studies, the majority of the 
foreign fighters were male, with only one of the 20 being female. The ages of the fighters 
ranged from 18-32 with a median age of 22 and a mean age of 23. It bears mentioning 
that many of the discarded profiles contained much younger individuals, with 16 being 
the youngest. While the sample age range is consistent with existing studies on foreign 
fighters, the average age of the group is younger. Previous foreign fighter mobilizations 


contained fighters with an average age closer to 27.!26 


125 Hafez, “Martyrs without Borders, 191. 


126 The average age of Iraqi foreign fighters profiles collected during the 2003-2007 insurgency was 
27; see Mohammed M. Hafez, “Martyrs without Borders: The Puzzle of Transnational Suicide Bombers,” 
in Ashgate Research Companion to Political Violence, ed. Marie Breen-Smyth, 2012, 189. QAP militants 
in Saudi Arabia during a 2007 study also had an average age of 27; see Thomas Hegghammer, “Terrorist 
Recruitment and Radicalization in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Policy 13, no. 4 (2006), 42. 


a7 


All profiled combatants who fought with extremist groups were Muslims, with 38 
percent of them converts to Islam. Of note, most converts to Islam experienced online 
effects in their recruitment. Future studies would benefit from understanding the links 


between conversion, recruitment, and online effects among Westerners. 


Additionally, and validating the effectiveness of their propaganda, ISIS affiliation 
was attributed to most of the extremist foreign fighters. One combatant, however, was 
affiliated with JAN, and there were some foreign fighters with unknown affiliations. The 
most commonly cited reasons for foreign fighting were defense of Islam and moral 
outrage directed at either the Assad regime, or in the case of the anti-extremist fighters, 


ISIS and similar extremist groups. 


There are other findings that require further scrutiny. Figure 4 shows that 43 
percent of the sampled fighters are deceased, with 33 percent being killed in Syria and 10 
percent being killed by law enforcement (LE) officials. This rate is considerably higher 
than the estimates put forth by King College’s International Center for the Study of 
Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR).!27 There is some speculation as to the 
cause of this unusually high death rate. Some suggest that foreign fighters are 
disproportionately used as “cannon fodder” during initial assaults; although this premise 


is difficult to prove, existing interviews give some rationale to the higher death rates. !28 





127 Neumann, “Foreign fighter total 20,000.” 


128 Eli Lake, “Foreign Recruits Are Islamic State’s Canon Fodder,” Bloomberg View, February 11, 
2015, http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2015—02-11/foreign-fighters-are-islamic-state-s-cannon- 
fodder. 


38 


Killed by 
LE 
10% 





Figure 4. | Western Foreign Fighter Status 


Another potential pattern emerged with regards to family country of origin. Ten 
of the 16 foreign fighters who espoused desire to join extremist groups came from 
families that had emigrated from Muslim majority nations in recent generations. 
Although the evidence is not conclusive regarding each sampled fighters’ specific 
generation, there is warranted speculation that children of second- and third-generation 
Muslim families face a crisis of identity, and thus may face increased risk of 
radicalization.!29 Not understanding fully the reasons their parents brought them to their 
new home, and not identifying with the culture of their new nation, these men and 
women may be more susceptible to ideas that dichotomize East-West society and ideas. 
Future studies that are able to determine specific generational information would be 


useful in refining these findings. 


Last, three profiles supported previous studies by Thomas Hegghammer. 
Canadian Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, responsible for shootings in Ottawa, and Abdul Numan 


Haider, the Melbourne stabbing perpetrator, were men who sought travel to Syria, but 


129 Peter G. Mandaville, Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (New York, NY: 
Routledge, 2001); Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York, NY: 
Columbia University Press, 2004). 


a9 


were obstructed by authorities in obtaining passports.!20 Both of these men confirm 
research indicating those who are obstructed from foreign fighting are often motivated to 


attack at home for lack of another option.!3! 


Another Hegghammer research result demonstrated that foreign fighters who 
return to the West and commit attacks are often more deadly in their execution.!32 Mehdi 
Nemmouche, the Frenchman who was charged with killing four people at a Jewish 


museum in Brussels, may provide supporting data to this end.!33 


b. Networks, Anchoring, and Group Dynamics 


Regarding network effects, the MOR data results, which are shown in Figure 5, 
indicate that TSN influence was overwhelmingly the primary mode of recruitment. 
Although seven of the 12 TSN-impacted foreign fighters showed signs of online 
influence, the Internet was cited as a means to access information, and not as a driver of 
recruitment or mobilization. With only 15 percent of the foreign fighters recruited from 
online methods exclusively, this research confirms previous studies that indicate the 
Internet is more a purveyor and disseminator of information, and less of a direct recruiter, 
radicalizer, or mobilizer.!34 Proximate human networks appear crucial for recruitment 
and mobilization, but even virtual human networks via the Internet showed some limited 


SUCCESS. 


130 See Mike Hagar, Tara Carman, and Matt Robinson, “Gunman battled crack addiction; Michael 
Zehaf-Bibeau was a Familiar Face in Downtown Eastside,” The Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), Final 
Edition (October 24, 2014): News, Al; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 10, 2015]; Melissa Davey, 
“Abdul Numan Haider ‘may not have been alone’ in Endeavour Hills car park,” The Guardian, 
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/25/abdul-numan-haider-may-not-have-been-alone. 


131 Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” 11. 
132 Ibid. 


133 Anne Penketh, “Man Held Over Killings at Jewish Museum in Brussels Fought with Jihadists in 
Syria,” The Guardian (London), Final Edition (June 2, 2014): International, 12; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 11, 2015]. 


134 von Behr, Reding, Edwards, and Gribbon, “Radicalization,” xii. 
40 


Although there were five volunteers,!35 they were unique in that all of them had 


previous military experience, and four of them went to fight against ISIS. 





5 
: - 


Online Volunteer 





@ Online Effect 








Figure 5. Western Foreign Fighter Mode of Recruitment (MOR) 


Anchoring also provided some telling observations. As is shown in Figure 6, there 
were zero instances of an anchored individual mobilizing or attempting to mobilize to go 
to Syria. Lack of anchoring is not unexpected, however, as the sample revealed some data 
trends: the foreign fighters were predominantly young, unmarried, unemployed, or 
students. This lack of anchoring is relevant as it may provide insight into targeted 
recruitment campaigns by groups such as ISIS. The evolution of ISIS, however, 
complicates the anchoring variable because ISIS’s pseudo-state structure proclaims 


support to entire families, and not only to those members who would fight. 


135 Volunteer profiles did not have any strong indication of outside actor influence in effecting their 
mobilization to Syria. 


41 


20 19 








15 
10 
5 
0 1 
(@) _— 
Yes No Unknown 


mw Anchored? 








Figure 6. Western Foreign Fighters Anchored Status 


The final variable describes how the sampled foreign fighters traveled to Syria 
from a group dynamics standpoint. Figure 7 shows that a majority of the 20 foreign 
fighters were either recruited as a group, or traveled to Syria as a group. Interestingly, this 
majority included foreign fighters across the ideological spectrum, with some going to 
fight against ISIS, and some going to join ISIS and other similar groups. As mentioned 
earlier, the group-dynamics effects seen in this sample are consistent with existing 


foreign fighter literature. 











14 
12 
10 
8 
6 
4 
2 
2 
0) 
Group Alone Unknown 
@ Mode of Travel 








Figure 7. Western Foreign Fighter Mode of Travel (MOT) 


42 


Some narratives help showcase how the three variables of networks, anchoring, 
and group dynamics function in the recruitment and mobilization of foreign fighters. 
Muhammad Mehdi Hassan was by all accounts a normal British teenager from 
Portsmouth.!36 Affected and inspired by the images of war in Syria, 19-year-old Hassan 
and a group of four other Bangladeshi converts to Islam left to wage jihad in October 
2014.!37 Hassan and his group of friends were not, however, the first Portsmouth 
residents to leave for Syria. The evidence suggests that a network of like-minded 
individuals had formed several years prior. Ifthekar Jaman, a 23-year-old native of 
Portsmouth killed fighting with ISIS in 2013, was the first of this network to leave for 
Syria.!38 Another Portsmouth native, Mushudur Choudury, followed Jaman shortly 
thereafter.!39 By all accounts, a network of real-world social bonds had created a 
common identity among a small group of Bangladeshi-British men. Unencumbered by 
familial or professional obligations, and emboldened by a pre-existing social network, a 
self-labeled “Britani Brigade [of] Bangladeshi Bad Boys,” of which Hassan was a 
member, traveled together to Syria.!40 Hassan and his cohort were killed in combat 


within a month of their arrival.!4! 


These network and group dynamics effects are not isolated; similar stories have 


emerged from the British cities of Brighton and Cardiff.'42 According to ICSR director 


136 Lizzie Dearden, “Teenage jihadist Mehdi Hassan is fourth Portsmouth man killed fighting for ISIS 
in Syria.” The Independent (London), accessed December 3, 2014, October 25, 2014, 
http://www. independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/portsmouth-teenager-mehdi-hassan-killed-fighting-for- 
isis-in-syria-98 17906.html. 


137 Ibid. 


138 Josh Halliday, Ewen MacAskill, and Karen McVeigh, “Family of British jihadist killed in Syria 
are arrested,” The Guardian, Final Edition (October 15, 2014): Home Pages, 9; 
<http://www.lexisnexis.com.libproxy.nps.edu/hottopics/Inacademic> [April 3, 2015]. 


139 Ibid. 


140 Dearden, “Teenage jihadist Mehdi Hassan is fourth Portsmouth man killed fighting for ISIS in 
Syria.” 


141 Karen McVeigh, “Peer pressure lures more Britons to Syria than Isis videos, study finds,” The 
Guardian (London), November 6, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com. 


142 Ibid. 
43 


Peter Neumann, “While online recruitment plays a role, people go because they know 


people who are in Syria. It’s all about networks in the real world.” !43 


There are also examples on the other side of the ideological spectrum. For 
instance, two British friends and former infantrymen James Hughes and Jamie Read 
fought alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in late 2014.!44 Both men, 
outraged by the killing of aid worker Alan Henning, made contact with YPG-liaison and 
American foreign fighter Jordan Matson, and made their way together to fight against 


ISIS. !45 


While my sample size is relatively small, the results show there is merit in 
aggregating additional profiles to refine the data trends. Based upon the data I have 
collected, I can cautiously conclude that it appears Western foreign fighters 
overwhelmingly are mobilized or recruited through traditional networks, unanchored, and 
travel to Syria in small groups. Next, I examine the few existing studies on Western 


foreign fighters and compare their findings to my data and conclusions. 


C. WESTERN FOREIGN FIGHTERS: EXISTING STUDIES 


There are many existing studies on previous foreign fighter mobilizations, but 
very few have attempted to de-construct the contemporary Syrian conflict, let alone 
analyze individual Western combatants. For instance, Mohammed Hafez documented 
transnational suicide-bombers during the Iraqi insurgency between 2003 and 2006.!46 
Additionally, various institutions and academics have methodologically deconstructed the 


Sinjar records, a collection of approximately 700 foreign-fighter dossiers discovered by 


143 Ibid. 


144 Mark Townsend, “Revealed: UK ‘mercenaries’ fighting Islamic State terrorist forces in Syria,” 
The Guardian (London), November 22, 2014. 


145 “Ex-British soldier fighting Isis in Syria ‘motivated by Alan Henning murder,’” The Guardian 
(London), December 5, 2014. 


146 Mohammed M. Hafez, Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom 
(Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007); Mohammed M. Hafez, “Martyrs without 
Borders: The Puzzle of Transnational Suicide Bombers,” in Ashgate Research Companion to Political 
Violence, ed. Marie Breen-Smyth, 2012. 


44 


the American military in Iraq.!47 Thomas Hegghammer also researched militant Islamist 
recruitment in Saudi Arabia between 2002 and 2005.!48 These are but a small sample of 
previous foreign fighter scholarly work. Although contemporary Syrian foreign fighter 
data is still in its infancy, the reified threat of Western foreign fighters has begun to 
generate increased interest in analysis at the individual fighter level. It appears that 
patterns from previous foreign fighter individual studies may hold similar results for 


Western foreign fighters. 


Michael Noonan and Phy! Khalil presented one of the first individual analyses of 
North American foreign fighters in a 2015 Journal for Deradicalization article.'49 The 
study analyzed 46 constructed Canadian and American profiles of foreign fighters whom 
had gone to Syria, and potential foreign fighters who for various reasons were unable to 


depart their respective nations.!5° 


For the 26 foreign fighters who traveled to Syria, Noonan and Khalil establish 
five recruitment influencers: 1) Internet, 2) Religion, 3) National Corruption, 4) Boredom 
and 5) Romance.!5! Only nine of the 26 profiles, however, had sufficient information for 
categorization. Religious influence accounted for six of the nine cases.!52 An in-depth 
discussion of what accounts for religious influence, or any of the other factors, is beyond 
the scope of their article. Regardless, religion has long been a beacon for violence across 
all strata of society, and further, religious influence is a difficult metric to measure or 


code. 


Noonan and Khalil also presented data regarding what happened to the 26 foreign 


fighters over the course of their collective experiences. The more salient information 


147 Palantir Blog, “Analysis of Al Qa’ida Foreign Fighters in Iraq: Analysis of the Sinjar Records,” 
accessed on April 30, 2015, https://www.palantir.com/2009/02/sinjar. 


148 Hegghammer, “Terrorist Recruitment and Radicalization in Saudi Arabia.” 


149 Michael Noonan and Phy] Khalil, “North American Foreign Fighters,” Journal for 
Deradicalization 1, no. 1 (2015). 


150 Ibid. 
151 Ibid., 74. 
152 Ibid. 


45 


indicated that 39 percent of the sampled fighters were killed, 35 percent were still 


fighting, and nine percent had returned home.!53 


The 39 percent death rate is consistent with the 38 percent death rate calculated 
for this thesis, and as such is also significantly higher than the 5—10 percent 2015 
estimates by ICSR.!54 This is another data point that indicates Western foreign fighters 


are killed in Syria at a greater than average rate. 


Noonan and Khalil then assessed how the 20 potential foreign fighters were 
radicalized. Again, unknowns were substantial, with only seven of the 20 profiles 
providing sufficient information for categorization.!>> Using the same influencers for 
recruitment, the authors attributed online radicalization to six of these fighters.5° An 
explanation of how online means affected radicalization was not addressed. The authors 
claimed, “The Internet [appeared] to be a strong tool for radicalization.” The role of the 
Internet in radicalization, however, remains highly debated.!°’ This is not to doubt the 
veracity of Noonan and Khalil’s data, but rather to show that the data is inconsistent with 
contemporary studies on online radicalization. For instance, a 2013 RAND report 
concluded that radicalization could not be attributed solely to online sources.!58 
Moreover, this thesis also found very few instances in which radicalization or recruitment 


was attributed exclusively to online means. 


In a separate 2015 study, Quantum Communications (QC), an American strategic 


consulting firm, analyzed ISIS combatants. Based on footage from 18 hours of media 


153 Ibid. 


154 Peter R. Neumann, “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan 
conflict in the 1980s,” International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, January 
26, 2015, http:/Acsr.info/2015/01/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan- 
conflict-1980s. 


155 Noonan and Khalil, “North American Foreign Fighters,” 74. 
156 Ibid. 
157 Ibid. 


158 The 2013 RAND study reported that the Internet provided access to extremist information but 
evidence suggesting a causal relationship between Internet and recruitment was circumspect; See Ines von 
Behr, Anais Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon, “Radicalization in the Digital Era: The Use of 
the Internet in 15 Cases of Terrorism and Extremism,” RAND Europe (2013), xii, 
http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR453.html. 


46 


interviews,!5? QC compiled 49 profiles of which nine were categorized as “Western 
external fighters” from the United States and Europe.!® Only these nine will be analyzed 
for the purposes of this thesis. The methodological approach used for QC’s study was an 
ego-ecological psycho-contextual analysis that gathered keywords from the interviews 
and used them to categorize aspirational information for all the sampled fighters.!61 
There is some degree of subjectivity in this analytical framework, as the model does not 
simply take what each fighter says overtly in their interviews, but also codes their word 
selection in a way to approximate how the fighter perceives their social environment and 


social status. !62 


In order to structure the data, QC separated the foreign fighters into nine discrete 
“seeker” categories that summarized each respective fighter’s internal motivation.!63 The 
seeker categories included: (1) Status, (2) Identity, (3) Revenge, (4) Redemption, (5) 
Responsibility, (6) Thrill, (7) Ideology, (8) Justice, and (9) Death.!6+ Western external 
fighters overwhelmingly fell into two categories: identity seekers and thrill seekers, with 
the former category representing a sizable majority.!©5 The definitions for identity and 
thrill seekers are worth quoting in their entirety: 

Identity Seekers: Need the structure, rules, and perspective that come from 

belonging to a group, because belonging defines them, their friends, and 

their interaction with society. They often feel like outsiders in their initial 

unfamiliar/unintelligible environment and seek to identify with another 


group. In this context, the ‘Islamic Ummah’! provides a pre-packaged 
transnational identity. 





159 “Understanding Jihadists in Their Own Words,” The White Papers 1, no. 2 (March 2015), 
Quantum Communications, 7, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/specialreports/565067-understanding-jihadists- 
in-their-own-words. 


160 Ibid., 7. 

161 For more information on the methodological approach, see “Understanding Jihadists.” 
162 “Understanding Jihadists,” 7. 

163 Ibid., 5. 

164 Ibid. 

165 Ibid., 10. 


166 The term Ummah refers to the global Muslim community. 


47 


Thrill Seekers: Are filled with energy and drive. They want to prove their 
potential/power by accomplishing an arduous task or surviving a 
harrowing adventure. They are mostly in it for the opportunity to engage 
in action while enjoying a certain level of impunity for their acts.!67 


Additionally, QC refines its fighter profiles by establishing five influencing 
factors: (1) Personal, (2) Group, (3) Community, (4) Socio-political, and (5) 
Ideological.!68 In the case of the nine Westerners, ideology and_ sociopolitical 
environment were attributed most frequently in interviews.!© The QC report defines 
their ideology influencer as “factors that are related to the fighter through which the 
individual perceives their reality, e.g., world view, religious duty, in addition to 
influential figures that contribute to the individual’s perception and understanding of their 
reality.”!70 The sociopolitical influencers are “factors related to the individual’s 
perception of the different events outside their direct environment; and how these events 


affect them as well as the group with whom they identify. 


While the sample of 49 profiles as a whole was helpful to understand foreign 
fighter motivations, the subset of nine Westerners was too limited. Moreover, the 
categorization lacks sufficient specificity or measurable metrics as they relate to 


recruitment or mobilization. 


The QC report did identify that group identity—and by correlation, group 
dynamics and networks—appeared particularly salient for Western external fighters. The 
most that can be confirmed by QC’s report is that it supports group dynamic and network 


effects data from this thesis. 





167 “Understanding Jihadists,” 5. 
168 “Understanding Jihadists,” 12. 
169 Ibid. 

170 Ibid. 


48 


D. CONCLUSION 


The individual Western foreign fighter data analyzed in this chapter contributes to 
existing research in five significant ways. First, influence and motivation factors 
identified by all studies reaffirm existing research. Namely, that it is very difficult to 
determine a comprehensive set of attributes and motivations that predispose someone to 
foreign fighting. John Hogan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at 
University of Massachusetts Lowell has said, “four decades of psychological research on 
who becomes a terrorist and why hasn’t yet produced any profile.”!7! This trend appears 


to continue into the foreign-fighter domain. 


Second, Noonan-Khalil’s data regarding foreign fighter death rates was testable 
with the addition of more Western profiles, and indeed this thesis also concludes that the 
death rate for Western foreign fighters appears to be greater than the conflict-wide 
average. Whether Westerners die more frequently because they are deemed more 
expendable by leadership, or other factors, the information could be useful as one means 
of deterring prospective fighters from leaving the West. Conversely, however, true 


believers may see this statistic as a beacon for martyrdom. 


Online radicalization effects are the third issue identified. Consensus on how the 
Internet impacts recruitment, radicalization, or mobilization varied. While Noonan— 
Khalil’s data supports radicalization via online means, the profiles in this thesis does not 
support that premise. The paucity of profiles—their nine versus my 20 profiles in this 
study—is likely a contributing factor to Noonan—Khalil’s conclusion about online 
radicalization effects. I agree with the 2013 RAND report and conclude that it appears the 
Internet can act as a behavior catalyst, but rarely does it function as the sole determinant 


of radicalization, recruitment, or mobilization. 


A separate research effort that collects profiles of Internet recruited or mobilized 
foreign fighters may prove useful. Instead of placing too much credit on social media or 


other Internet methods, it would be beneficial to try and determine patterns among those 


171 Stern and Berger, JS/S, 81. 


49 


recruited online. Such analysis may help identify other issues such as underlying societal 


maladies or grievances. 


Fourth, this thesis finds that my core profile demographic data falls with the 
bounds of previous foreign fighter studies. Aside from the younger age median and mean, 
fighters were predominantly male and cited moral outrage or defense of Islam as their 
pivotal motivators. Outside of these general details, it appears unlikely that a general 
profile that captures the essence of a foreign fighter, Western or otherwise, will emerge. 


There are simply too many variables. 


Last, the data gathered supports the importance of the three critical variables of 
networks, anchoring, and group-dynamics. The majority of the profiles experienced one 
or more network, anchoring, or group-dynamics effects. Expanding the application of 
these variables to more profiles will be beneficial in refining the results. Regardless, the 
data indicates that networks, particularly proximate social ones, are critical to recruiting 
and mobilizing foreign fighters. Further, individuals who are responsible for their 
family’s livelihood, or who hold a steady job, are highly unlikely to mobilize regardless 
of their societal grievances. Additionally, and supporting the existing literature, Western 


foreign fighters are far more likely to travel to Syria in small groups instead of alone. 


With the growth and current status of foreign fighters established, and conclusions 
derived from Western foreign fighter data, the final chapter will return to the original four 
hypotheses for evaluation, address implications, and conclude with suggestions for 


follow-on research. 


50 


IV. CONCLUSION 


A. INTRODUCTION 


This chapter reviews the major findings of the thesis, formulates implications 
from the data, and makes suggestions for future research. In addition to the demographic, 
biographical, and motivational data presented, Chapter III proposed three critical 
variables—networks, anchoring, and group dynamics—to help refine the knowledge of 
Western foreign fighter recruitment and mobilization mechanisms. The data, comprised 
of 20 comprehensive Western foreign fighter profiles, was useful in providing 
preliminary answers to the four hypotheses presented in Chapter I. These hypotheses 
sought to determine principle drivers of recruitment and mobilization for Western foreign 
fighters by investigating the efficacy of (1) ideology, (2) traditional social networks 
(TSNs), (3) online social networks (OSN), and (4) group dynamics. 


The chapter continues in three parts. First, data findings are reviewed within the 
context of the four hypotheses. The second section examines potential implications 
derived both from the research process and the presented data. The chapter concludes 


with suggestions for future research within the foreign-fighter field. 


B. HYPOTHESIS EVALUATION 
1. H1: IDEOLOGY 


H1 attempted to confirm previous theoretical research on foreign fighter 
motivations, namely, that ideology is a principal driver of recruiting and mobilizing 
prospective combatants.!72 The ideology hypotheses included the notion of a 
transnational threat against an imagined community. Trying to empirically validate 
ideology as a principal driver of recruitment and mobilization was problematic. Although 
approximately 50 percent of those profiled claimed that the defense of Muslims and 


Islam were central motivators, distinguishing between piety and propaganda was difficult 


172 See David Malet, Foreign Fighters; Thomas Hegghammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign 
Fighters.” 


51 


without direct access to the individual. Even then, extracting true motivations from a 


compelling individual frame was not a guaranteed outcome. 


Prior history of activism, however, is a measurable variable that may indicate an 
individual is genuinely motivated from an ideological perspective. Nevertheless, of the 
20 fighters sampled, two had a tenuous history of activism characterized mostly by 


criminality, and only one fit firmly within the activist milieu. 


Furthermore, given the diffuse nature of radical ideology, one would expect a 
more random distribution of fighters in the nations sampled for this study. Instead this 
thesis found distinct cases where recruitment appeared to concentrate in cities where pre- 
existing radical networks resided. The city of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, for 
example, was the home of five foreign fighters killed in Syria.!73 In another case, six 


Minnesota men were arrested for attempting to join ISIS.174 


Given the data, although Western foreign fighters often prescribe to an ideological 
frame, other variables, such as networks and group dynamics, demonstrated greater 


recruiting and mobilizing potential. 


2. H2: TRADITIONAL SOCIAL NETWORKS (TSN) 


H2 questioned the efficacy of proximate TSNs in driving recruitment and 
mobilization to Syria and Iraq. TSNs can include networks made up of family, friends, 
religious members, or co-workers. TSN effects within the data set were compelling: 80 
percent of the sampled Western foreign fighters were recruited or mobilized via some 


form of TSN. 


The TSN types among the sampled individuals varied. In the United Kingdom, 
five members of the Portsmouth Dawah Team were killed in Syria.!75 This proselytizing 


group was connected to the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA), a Salafist 


173 Dearden, “Teenage jihadist Mehdi Hassan is fourth Portsmouth man killed fighting for ISIS in 
Syria.” 

174 “Americans Linked to ISIS,” CNN, updated April 23, 2015, 
http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2015/04/us/americans-isis. 


175 Samuel Westrop, “UK Salafist Group Linked to British ISIS Fighters,” Gatestone Institute, 
November 19, 2014, http://www. gatestoneinstitute.org/4892/iera-isis-fighters. 


52 


group with questionable preaching practices.!76 One sampled individual was likely 
radicalized via a Salafi prison network, which supports previous studies that note the 
impact of prison networks in recruiting and radicalization individuals. !7”7 Even family 
networks were effective. An American from a Chicago suburb convinced his two teenage 
siblings to write farewell letters and journey to Syria.!78 Military service networks 
facilitated the mobilization of two former British soldiers to go and fight against ISIS.!79 
These examples are not all-inclusive, but they demonstrate the breadth of networks 


whose effects resulted in recruitment and mobilization. 


Ideological conviction among prospective foreign fighters may draw everyone to 
the same table, but overwhelmingly, personal network effects appear to drive individuals 


to pack bags and board planes for a distant conflict. 


3. H3: ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKS (OSN) 


Discussion over social-media impact on various societal issues is pervasive in 
both the media and academia. H3 looked at online social network (OSN) effects as a 
distinct query within the networks variable. While OSN effects are most commonly 
attributed to social-media networks, the Internet and mobile devices also provide a wide 
range of tools that facilitate social interaction. Chat rooms and question sites such as 


Ask.fm remain active purveyors of extremist dialogue. !80 


Analysis of the data shows that in only 15 percent of cases, OSN effects drove 


recruitment and mobilization. These findings confirm previous studies that suggest the 


176 Westrop, “UK Salafist Group Linked to British ISIS Fighters.” 


177 Scott Sayare, “Suspect Held in Jewish Museum Killings,” The New York Times, June 1, 2014, 
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/02/world/europe/suspect-arrested-in-jewish-museum-killings-in- 
belgium.html. 


178 Jason Meisner, “Officials: Siblings with Bolingbrook Teen in Bid to Join Islamic State,” Chicago 
Tribune, November 3, 2014, http://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/bolingbrook-plainfield/chi- 
prosecutors-2-siblings-joined-bolingbrook-teen-in-bid-to-join-isil-20141103-story.html. 


179 “UK Fighters in Syria ‘Not Mercenaries,” BBC, November 24, 2014, 
http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-30172856. 


180 Caitlin Dewey, “Inside the battle for Ask.fm, the site where Islamic State recruited three American 
teens,” The Washington Post, December 12, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the- 
intersect/wp/2014/12/12/inside-the-battle-for-ask-fm-the-site-where-islamic-state-recruited-three-american- 
teens. 


33 


Internet is, at best, a catalyst for recruitment and mobilization, but not an independent 
causal mechanism. Despite OSN’s minimal direct impact on recruitment and 
mobilization, at least 50 percent of all profiled individuals used the Internet as a means to 
access a TSN. The online realm has become a virtual gatekeeper effective at passing both 
extremist doctrine and the means to contact a local or online network. As such, although 
OSNs may not effectively recruit and mobilize individuals, they provide an anonymous 
method to access people with the relevant ideological or logistical knowledge. While 
there is cause for concern due to the ubiquity of Internet access in the West, malevolent 
OSN overtures to prospective foreign fighters are a double-edged sword since they are 
exploitable by law enforcement and intelligence organizations. Ultimately, although 
OSNs will continue to play a role in the dissemination of extremist content, the data thus 
far does not suggest causality in recruitment or mobilization for a majority of the 


analyzed cases. 


4. H4: GROUP DYNAMICS 


The fourth and final hypothesis evaluated the impact of group dynamics in 
recruitment and mobilization. The assumption was that for Westerners, as a subset of all 
foreign fighters, recruitment and travel to Syria and Iraq overwhelmingly required the 


psychological and physical support of a group. 


While networks facilitate points of contact for sharing logistical and ideological 
information, group dynamic effects supplant individual fears and inculcate group 
members with a sense of solidarity.!8! Testing for measurable group-dynamic effects, 
however, was difficult due to the subjective nature of individual and shared identity. In 
order to determine some measure of group dynamic effect, this thesis assessed how 
individuals traveled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq. The majority of the sampled 
fighters—approximately 70 percent—departed their homes in the company of a small 
group of like-minded individuals. This figure provides an initial indication that group 
dynamics may indeed drive mobilization of prospective foreign fighters. Future studies 


would benefit from measuring other variables that relate to group dynamic effects. As an 


181 Sunstein, “Why They Hate Us,” 429. 
54 


example, social network analysis could be used to substantiate Donatella Della Porta’s 
concept of “spirals of encapsulation,” in which militants deepen their radicalization by 


surrounding themselves with similar people, and isolate themselves from out groups.!82 


Additionally, the anchoring variable was described within H4 because it measures 
the degree of availability among prospective foreign fighters. An individual was coded as 
anchored if he or she was bound by obligations at home to either family or profession. 
The speculation was that anchored individuals would be less susceptible to recruitment 
and mobilization. The converse assumption was that unanchored individuals, those that 
had no tethers to their place of residence, would be more likely to join and identify with 
extremist groups. From the available demographics and biographical data, 100 percent of 
the sampled fighters were unanchored, and thus notionally more susceptible to group 
dynamic effects. Again, the high percentage of foreign fighters traveling in groups may 
be an indicator that unanchored individuals are more likely to join groups, assume a 


group identity, and mobilize to Syria and Iraq. 


C. IMPLICATIONS 


Although this thesis does not attempt to soothsay, there are several critical 
implications that result from both the trend data and the profile analyses. First, from a 
strategic outlook, foreign fighting is not a new phenomenon. In the realm of Islamic 
fundamentalism, Syria represents yet another foreign fighter wave whose genesis was 
1980s Afghanistan.!83 As such, it is reasonable to expect that when the conflict in the 
Syria and Iraq is settled, another generation of unemployed foreign fighters will be left 
searching for an emerging conflict zone. ISIS appears prescient in this matter as they 
begin to send new recruits to a still politically fragile Libya.!84 Prescriptive policy is 
beyond the scope of this research, but there is a need to both recognize this future threat 


and to design appropriate measures to mitigate and contain the impact. 





182 Jeroen Gunning, “From Social Movement Theory and the Study of Terrorism,” in Critical 
Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda, ed. Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth, and Jeroen Gunning 
(New York: Routledge, 2009), 168. 


183 Hegshammer, “The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters,” 85. 


184 Dion Nissenbaum and Marie Abi-Habib, “Islamic State Sends Fighters to Libya,” The Wall Street 
Journal, May 19, 2015, http://www.wsj.com. 


ay) 


Second, and more proximately, the trend data from Chapter II shows that the rate 
of foreign-fighter growth in Syria and Iraq continues to accelerate. While the 
preponderance of combatants come from the Middle East and North Africa, more 
combatants will come from the West. The Hegghammer Factor suggests that 11 percent 
of those who decide to fight in Syria and Iraq—as of 2015, that equates to approximately 
400 foreign fighters—will return to the West with the intention of causing harm in their 
respective nations.!85 While in the aggregate these numbers may be alarming, they are 
mitigated by several factors. First, the data in this thesis suggests that Western foreign 
fighters die at a much higher rate than their Middle Eastern or North African 
counterparts. Second, for the majority of Western nations the numbers are small. For 
instance, according to Table 1 in Chapter II, France’s 1,200 estimated foreign fighters 
represented 18 fighters per million French citizens, or 0.02 percent of France’s Muslim 
population. With Canadian or American numbers between 100—200 foreign fighters, the 
percentages are far less. A 2014 Brookings Institute policy paper on the subject begins its 
title appropriately, “Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid.”!8© Among several conclusions, the 
paper states “the threat of Westerners traveling to Syria and Iraq is not negligible, but nor 
should it be overstated.”!87 As many terrorist attacks have shown, small numbers can 
have a strategic impact, but to call Western foreign fighters a grave national security 
threat is arguably hyperbole. National intelligence, law enforcement, and military 


organizations must remain vigilant but also recognize the scope of the problem set. 


At the individual level, the final critical implication relates to foreign fighter age 
and religious conversion. With an average age of 23, the sampled fighters were 


disproportionately young when compared to the broader pool of historical foreign 





185 Hegghammer, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” 10. 


186 Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro, “Be Afraid. Be A Little Afraid: The Threat of Terrorism from 
Western Foreign Fighters in Syria and Iraq,” Brookings Institute, Policy Paper 34 (November 2014). 


187 Thid., 23. 
56 


fighters.!88 Also notably, 38 percent of Western extremist foreign fighters were converts 
to Islam. This percentage appears to be unusually high.!89 It is no surprise that groups 
like ISIS target younger prospective recruits, but the data gathered in this study 
demonstrates that their outreach appears to be effective in a limited capacity due to both 
this youth, and the unusually high conversion rate. Methods to counter these effects 
should seek to bridge rifts between Muslim communities and the nations to which they 


belong. 


D. FOLLOW-ON RESEARCH 


If there were a clear consensus among scholars regarding recruitment and 
mobilization mechanisms, it would be that the issue is extremely complex. More 
specifically, identifying and then empirically validating a causal mechanism that reliably 
predicts a recruitment or radicalization outcome appears out of reach. The data is difficult 
to acquire, the potential available data is vast in quantity and unsorted, and adequate 
computational analysis is still an emerging technology. Previous studies led by Marc 
Sageman lend credence to this difficulty. Sageman et al. conclude in a 2009 study that it 
may very well be impossible to determine specific causal mechanisms due to the number 
of variables.!9° A parsimonious theory that clearly identifies these mechanisms may 


simply be restricted by current explanatory limits. 


So how does this field of study move forward? A primary need is reliable data 
and data analysis. To support any hypothesis that provides causal mechanisms, the field 
needs more information from these men and women who have gone to fight in Syria and 


Iraq. Excellent data would come from interviews asking probing questions as to how 





188 The average age of Iraqi foreign fighters profiles collected during the 2003-2007 insurgency was 
27; see Mohammed M. Hafez, “Martyrs without Borders: The Puzzle of Transnational Suicide Bombers,” 
in Ashgate Research Companion to Political Violence, ed. Marie Breen-Smyth, 2012, 189. QAP militants 
in Saudi Arabia during a 2007 study also had an average age of 27; see Thomas Hegghammer, “Terrorist 
Recruitment and Radicalization in Saudi Arabia,” Middle East Policy 13, no. 4 (2006), 42. 


189 Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet, “From hip-hop to jihad, how the Islamic State became a 
magnet for converts,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com. 


190 Office of Naval Research (Program Officer: Harlod Hawkins), “Theoretical Frames on Pathways 
to Violent Radicalization,” ARTIS Research and Risk Modeling (August 2009), 5, 
http://www. artisresearch.com/articles/ARTIS_Theoretical_Frames_August_2009.pdf. 


a7 


these people became foreign fighters. Aside from the subjective nature of this data, the 
reality of gaining access seems implausible due to various constraints; the current 


security environment and the availability of willing subjects remain considerable hurdles. 


There are some other options that could help advance research on the matter. One 
possibility is to sample the Westerners who have gone to fight against groups such as 
ISIS. Although their numbers are small, since they have not been criminalized by their 
respective governments, these men and women would likely be more forthcoming in 


providing information about what drove them to leave the comfort of home. 


There is also great promise within the fields of big-data analysis and data mining. 
I concur with perspectives posited in a 2013 United States Institute of Peace (USIP) 
report on the Syrian Civil War: the vast amount of available online data combined with 
emerging big-data analysis tools show great potential for determining causal mechanisms 


related to recruitment and mobilization.!9! 


A methodological limitation of this thesis was the breadth of the selected profiles. 
By selecting North America, Europe, and Australia, this thesis attempted to reduce 
distinct cultures and political systems into a singular Western construct. This approach 
was useful during the research process due to the limited amount of available data. Future 
studies, however, might benefit from pursuing profiling methodology through a national 
comparative approach. By building profiles for individual Western nations, patterns may 


emerge that identify unique national trends affecting recruitment and mobilization. 


A final closing perspective relates to integrative collaboration. Throughout the 
research process, data was difficult to acquire. Some of the more useful information was 
compiled in court records. Understandably, there are measures put in place to prevent the 


inadvertent release of information that may impede ongoing law enforcement or national 


intelligence efforts. Regardless, all interested parties would benefit from mechanisms that 


191 Varghese, “Social Media Reporting and the Syrian Civil War,” 2. 
58 


facilitate collaboration between academia, law enforcement, and the intelligence 
community both at the national and international levels. This is not a Pollyannaish 
perspective, but rather one rooted in reasonable expectations of collaboration, protected 
by authentication or clearance measures. As research in the foreign fighter field addresses 
the fundamental complexities of human interaction and behavior, it would benefit from 


greater cross-institutional and interdisciplinary collaboration. 


59 


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60 


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