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Violent Jihad

What Motivates Foreign ISIS Recruits?

ISIS recruits need not be Islamic jurisprudents in order to "fight for the sake of Allah." They comprise a significant threat all the same.

BY Immanuel Al-Manteeqi · @Al_Manteeqi | April 19, 2016

Yassin Musharbash, a German journalist, has recently published a study of approximately 3,000 ISIS documents that catalogs foreign recruits to the Islamic state. The complete findings of the study have been written in German; however, Musharbash was kind enough to give a summary of the results on his blog. Some of the results that he lists as “most important” are as follows:

–“Roughly three quarters [of foreign recruits] think of their own knowledge of Sharia as ‘weak’.”

–“The large majority of recruits is aged between 20 and 30 and appears to have had no real jobs or jobs that require little training or have had no advanced schooling.”

From these results, some may draw the conclusion that foreign-ISIS recruits are typically uneducated—both generally and religiously—and economically disenfranchised[1] young people who are driven to ISIS precisely because of their lack of education and economic well-being. However, this is too hasty an inference. For one, the inference from

(1) foreign-ISIS recruits are typically uneducated and economically disenfranchised young people,

to

(2) foreign-ISIS recruits are driven to ISIS only (or primarily) because of their lack of general education, Islamic literacy, and economic well-being,

is simply a non-sequitur. Sufficient evidence is needed to bridge the divide between (1) and (2), and no sufficient evidence appears forthcoming from these documents. Correlation does not imply causation.

While lack of education and wealth may make would-be recruits more open to leaving their first-world countries in order to seek what is sure to be their own demise in the Islamic State,[2] it is not an adequate explanation of their choice. Such factors do not adequately explain why so many people from different first-world countries would choose to travel to the third-world Islamic State, knowing that they would face almost certain death.

Indeed, if economic disenfranchisment and lack of education were the only crucial factors motivating these foreign recruits, then we would expect non-Muslims to be lining up to join the Islamic State as well. But we do not observe this phenomenon because there is a crucial factor motivating their decisions—a thread that ties all such foreign recruits, without exception, together—viz., their shared commitment to a militant Islamist ideology. Only in light of this factor can a relatively complete explanation be given. Although economic and social factors probably do give a partial explanation for these recruits’ decisions,[3] ideological factors play a crucial role. They should not be discounted, and the West ignores them at its own peril.

So, (1) neither entails nor makes it probable that (2) is true.

But what about (1)? is it true? and if so, is it significant? The answer to the former is that it is probably true that most foreign-ISIS recruits are typically young people who do not know much about religion, and do not have great paying jobs. However, it is important to note that this is only a reportedly general trend, to which there are exceptions. As Musharbash points out, the ISIS documents

give us an idea of the spectrum we can find within the IS: veterans of Jihad next to beginners, professionals next to scared people, educated and skilled people next to untrained and probably not very intelligent recruits.

But while (1) is probably true, it is insignificant.

First, it is to be expected that the average foreign ISIS recruit is young. The average age for people in the world’s militaries in general is pretty low—ISIS’ average military age is no different, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

Second, it is not at all surprising that a majority of foreign-ISIS recruits believe that their own knowledge of shariah is ‘weak,’ for some may be underestimating their knowledge out of humility. But more importantly, it is quite uninteresting that most foreign-ISIS recruits are not well-versed in Sharia (Islamic law). Religious people in general are poorly versed in their religious traditions; so it is not at all surprising that most foreign—not to mention native—ISIS recruits are not very knowledgeable about Islam. This is even more true of young religious people aged 20-30, like typical ISIS recruits. ISIS recruits need not be Islamic jurisprudents in order to “fight for the sake of Allah.” It is simply unrealistic to expect that they would be. Most devoutly religious people are not very knowledgeable about their religious traditions, and we should not expect the average Islamist to be, either.

Third, it is not surprising that many ISIS recruits aged 20-30 do not have high-paying jobs—many people the world over do not at such an age. And, once again, ISIS recruits are no exception. Just as not many people in the United States would leave high-paying jobs to join the military, so not many people would leave high-paying jobs to join ISIS.

Therefore, although (1) is true, it is quite insignificant. These statistics are just reflective of general trends, and a conclusion that can be drawn from (1) is that ISIS members—qua humans—generally act in statistically predictable ways. But to use such mundane facts in order to derive (2) is just irresponsible.

On a separate but related note, some may infer from Musharbash’s results that would-be recruits would be dissuaded if they had access to a better and more authentic Islamic education. However, if the better and more authentic Islamic education flows from the well springs of the mainstream Islamic tradition, then this is unlikely.

For the mainstream Islamic tradition contains much that is conducive to ISIS-like Jihadism. For example, the four major schools of Sunni thought (the Hanbali, Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi’i schools), and the major Shi’i school of thought (the Ja’fari school), teach that an apostate should be put to death. In mainstream Islamic tradition, the People of the Book (or dhimmis) must be fought until they pay a poll tax “out of their hand in humiliation” (Q 9:29). In mainstream Islamic tradition, an ideal Islamic society is one where the Islamic umma (nation) lives under a caliphate, where laws are legislated according to the will of God as revealed in the Qur’an and the Sunna.

So the solution to dissuading these would-be ISIS recruits is not more mainstream Islamic education. Rather, a reformist Islamic education, one that teaches principles that are consonant with, and not inimical to, Western values, is a step in the right direction. But it is Muslims themselves who must seek to reform Islam; reform cannot be imposed from without.


[1] I stipulatively define “economically disenfranchised” individuals to mean individuals who are not very well-off economically. By this usage, I do not thereby mean to imply that these individuals’ economic situations are consequences of injustice, or a “disenfranchiser.” Neither do I mean that that such individuals are economically destitute.

[2] At least, subsequent to the U.S. led air campaign against the Islamic State.

[3] Ceteris paribus, it is less probable that a European millionaire would throw his life away in the Islamic State than for an economically disenfranchised individual to do so.