ISIS’ Western recruits - why are they leaving home?

What drives youths to leave their societies and fight in the Middle East?

Diana Moukalled

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“We will go to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon; wherever Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wants us to go, we will go . . . the hope of the nation is in your hands, Sheikh.” The person who uttered these words is not an Iraqi, Syrian or even an Arab jihadist. He is a young Briton of Yemeni origin, born and bred in Britain. He studied there and was successful in his work.

His father, who is stricken by the sight of his son fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), explains that four British universities offered his son places in which to read medicine; but Abu Muthana al-Yemeni, as the son now calls himself, chose to go to fight for ISIS in Syria, and persuaded his 17-year-old brother to join him.

Here he is now declaring his readiness to give his life on the command of the Iraqi leader of ISIS, the mysterious and bloody figure, Baghdadi.

What drives youths to leave their societies and relatively stable lives, some even successful lives, to put themselves in jeopardy?

Diana Moukalled

Yemeni appeared with a group of other young men from the UK and Australia in a promotional video for ISIS, speaking in English and calling on other Western youth to join the “mother of all battles,” which they believe is raging in the Levant.

This video, in addition to other videos, websites and pictures of fighters arriving from Europe to fight for ISIS, have shocked the Western world.

A steady wave of Western recruits

We are not looking at the youth from our own countries, who are forced through a feeling of political and social hopelessness to embrace extremism and fight; we are looking at a steady wave of Western recruits being attracted to fight alongside this group.

According to security information, we are talking about 3,000 fighters from Belgium, France, the UK and Australia, with the British jihadists making up the largest force among them.

These facts take us back to the situation that concerned Western societies following the New York and Washington attacks in 2001, which formed the birth of the globalized generation of al-Qaeda, including those members who studied and lived in the West.

The concern doubled with the group’s rebirth, which was represented by Westerners joining Salafist jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. And now the second rebirth has come, represented by ISIS.

Here we are witnessing a greater influx of fighters from the West to an organization that is possibly the cruelest and most violent in the name of religion in terms of their actions.

What drives these youths?

The same question arises again: What drives youths to leave their societies and relatively stable lives, some even successful lives, to put themselves in jeopardy? Is it a crisis of identity and inability to integrate in Western societies, or an attraction to a belief, religion and greater affiliation?

What is the lure of a jihadist culture in its ISIS incarnation that drives the youth to leave their previous lives and join a way of life that could easily end in ghastly death?

There are many explanations for the frustration these youths feel for their communities in the West, their eagerness to follow an extremist discourse and their adoption of a cause which rejects their lifestyles and the lifestyles of their families, leading them to see the fighting they are about to take part in as an exciting adventure, which is what seems to be expressed in their videos and testimonies on social media.

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard blamed media portrayal, which he saw as an ally to globalization and Western hegemony, for most of the consequences of terrorism, from a philosophical and psychological point of view, that sees that every dominant power bears within it the seeds of self-destruction, and even its desire and its peoples’ will to die.

Baudrillard then depicted the events of September 11 as if they were a collective Western dream that came true—due to the intensification of the violence shown in pictures and broadcast around the clock.

Now, following the great eruption of violence in our region, it seems that the world is revolving around a frightening vacuum, where no one, neither in the West nor here, has the slightest idea about the outcome of these phenomena.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on July 1, 2014.


Diana Moukalled is the Web Editor at the Lebanon-based Future Television and was the Production & Programming Manager with at the channel. Previously, she worked there as Editor in Chief, Producer and Presenter of “Bilayan al Mujaradah,” a documentary that covers hot zones in the Arab world and elsewhere, News and war correspondent and Local news correspondent. She currently writes a regular column in AlSharq AlAwsat. She also wrote for Al-Hayat Newspaper and Al-Wasat Magazine, besides producing news bulletins and documentaries for Reuters TV. She can be found on Twitter: @dianamoukalled.

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