Although terrorist groups often respond to local situations, some common traits can be identified among several of these groups; these will be discussed later in this report. In order to determine motives, one needs to look at the variety of background factors motivating individuals to join terrorist groups, as well as the narratives presented by these organisations.
One of the best sources for understanding individual motivations for joining IS is the large collection of IS registration files that were smuggled out of Syria by a former IS fighter. A study of these documents suggests common characteristics among people who join IS. For example, the average fighter at the time of joining IS was between 26 and 27 years old, single, had travelled to less than two foreign countries, had the educational equivalent of a high school degree, had basic religious knowledge, had no reported previous fighting experience, and was the professional equivalent of someone between an unskilled labourer and a blue-collar worker.
However, one should not jump to the conclusion that all those who take up jihad are poor and uneducated. A study of the one hundred prominent jihadis has showed that 47% of them had attended higher education. Interestingly, 57% or these had in turn studied natural sciences, mathematics or technology. In fact, it has often been suggested that the more logic-based ‘black-and-white’ approach often taken in these subjects lends itself useful to embrace a black-and-white jihadi narrative. It should however be noted that the selection concerns jihadis in either high positions or those considered as ideologues in international terrorist groups, meaning that it would not be entirely correct to claim that a relatively large part of jihadis are educated as well.
AOAV has, through analysis of our Explosive Violence Monitor and the leaked IS files, as well as a detailed look at both relevant literature on the matter and primary source materials, identified more common denominators among both individuals and the groups they join.
Religion as an outlet for socio-economic disparity and disenfranchisement
It is important to note that the array of regions and countries from where fighters identified in the leaked IS registration forms originate, each have their own unique problems. This strongly suggests that there is a wide spectrum of reasons as to why people join IS.
For instance, in the eastern Libyan city of Derna, which IS controlled significant parts of between 2014 and 2016, there seems to be a traditional communal penchant towards extreme Salafism. The city was even put under curfew in the 1990s because of local support for the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. This was purportedly the result of Dernawi veterans of the Afghan campaign returning and radicalising their fellow Dernawis in the 1980s. There are also poor socio-economic circumstances in the city, providing a perfect cocktail for radicalisation.
In Kebili in Tunisia, the country’s highest per capita contributor of fighters to IS, there are poor economic opportunities for local citizens. The city is located in the centre of the country, far away from the lucrative coastlines and from the Libyan or Algerian border areas, and has played a peripheral role in the country’s politics. Moreover, since Tunisians were denied religious education during the years of ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, there has according to Tunisia observer Haim Malka, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, been a desire among Tunisians to let religion play a greater part in their lives.
However, economic deprivation cannot be understood to be the only drive towards extremism. Qassim in Saudi Arabia, another large per capita exporter of IS fighters, is a more affluent region than both Derna and Kebili, and yet is also known to be one of Saudi Arabia’s most conservative regions. For example, Qassim is the home region of IS Yemen governor Abu Bilal al-Harbi. In spite of the region’s relative wellbeing, Qassim has often been a hotbed for anti-regime sentiments. For example, local cleric Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shatri, was very vocal in his disagreements with the government after the decision to integrate men and women at a research facility at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. This was something he was later fired from the Council of Senior Clerics for. The region also saw widespread unrest in 2013, when a group of local women protested against their sons being held on ambiguous terrorism charges.
Religion has, in these regions, played an important role for why people may join IS. However, the religious contexts between the three locations are too different and diverse to simply pinpoint their one common denominator as religion. The conservative regions of Derna and Qassim have, for instance, very little in common with religious practice in Kebili. Rather, religion seems to have provided an output for disenfranchisement and disappointment felt by those with poor economic opportunities or those who are angry at an incumbent regime.
Such religious sentiments towards rebellion have also been exploited by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.[i] This suggests the universality of the revolutionary politics of religion felt among terror recruits. Religion is not the root cause, but it seems to provide a vessel through which sentiments of disenfranchisement can be expressed.
Identity and alienation
The sentiment of disenfranchisement is all too often connected to identity. People from all over the world joining jihadist groups seem to identify with these organisations rather than their own communities and countries – some of which effectively become enemies as soon as they join a jihadist group. Shiraz Maher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) has noted this, highlighting how the four homegrown terrorists responsible for the London bombings on 7 July 2005 justified their actions by claiming that the UK was inflicting harm on ‘their people’ (Muslims) through the war in Iraq. However, none of the bombers were Iraqi, or even Arab. Three out the four bombers were born in Britain, and they all grew up and attended school in the country. Logically, one imagines they should have felt kinship with the people they killed by detonating their suicide vests. But instead they identified with the extreme ideology of al-Qaeda, and they felt more affiliation with the people of Iraq (whom they had never met).
This alienation and identity crisis is something that has been skilfully exploited by IS, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra in terms of attracting foreign fighters, as well as by the likes of the Taliban and Boko Haram among their domestic targets.
Maher has encouraged the attempt by UK authorities to promote British values in order to quell this sense of alienation. However, as the French example demonstrates, this may be both insufficient and even counter-productive. According to a study by William McCants and Christopher Meserole, there is a higher propensity among young Muslims in Francophone countries to embrace jihadism. For example, both France and Belgium have seen higher proportions of their respective Muslim community travel to Syria than the UK and Germany have. The authors conclude that this is a result of French political culture and Francophone countries’ ‘aggressive’ approach to secularism, which stipulates laïcité as the one and only French (or Belgian) way of life. This is paired with policies and legislation addressing matters portrayed as problems with the Muslim population in particular. For example, both Belgium and France are the only two European countries who have banned the full veil in public schools,[ii] and the recent ‘burkini’ ban in certain French towns is another sign of this.
Interestingly, fighters joining IS from China’s Xinjiang province, also called East Turkestan, seem to react to similar grievances as those in Belgium and France. Many of the Chinese IS fighters are ethnic Uyghurs, a Muslim group which has seen restrictions on their religious freedoms. This includes laws restricting beard growth and the age at which young men can attend prayers at mosques. These restrictions have been matched with an intense Chinese counter-terrorism campaign, which has effectively portrayed Uyghur Muslims as a security threat. Furthermore, economic opportunities in the area are bleak, with none of IS fighters from Xinjiang reported to have attended university and less than 2% reported as having a professional job.
Whilst AOAV is in no way implying that France or Belgium are the European equivalent of China, there are some interesting parallels that can be made in this instance. Besides the restrictions of the full veil in public schools, France has since the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 enforced some of the toughest anti-terrorism laws in Europe. The new legislation has been labeled ‘draconian’ in its way of targeting the Muslim community and prompted Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira’s resignation in January 2016. Essentially, the ‘Francophone way’ seems to have created communities that feel disenfranchised, targeted, and cut-off from the rest of society. This has become apparent in the suburbs of Paris and the Brussels neighbourhood of Molenbeek. Salah Abdeslam, the only surviving participant in the 13 November 2015 Paris attacks, hid in Molenbeek before his arrest and Abdelhamid Abaadi, the chief planner of the attacks, lived there. IS recruits from areas like Molenbeek have often struggled with unemployment, which again enforces a sense of alienation and disenfranchisement.
In France, Belgium and the Xinjiang province, despite its vast political and cultural differences, the mix of restrictions on religious practice, harsh anti-terrorism laws and peripheral societal positions, seem to have contributed to a sense of alienation. This has in turn created an environment in which individuals are able to identify more strongly with extreme jihadist ideologies, rather than their fellow citizens and countries of residence. Both al-Qaeda and IS have been skillful at targeting these sentiments, painting a picture of a black-and-white world where there is one problem (the hypocritical West and their support for corrupt Arab regimes), and one solution (the strand of Islam preached by either of the two organisations). Supported by slickly produced propaganda videos, portraying life as a jihadi like an ‘adventure camp for young men’, this message has evidently proved to be efficient.[iii] This suggests that although there are local reasons for alienation, there are global similarities in the motivations for which people take up arms in the name of terrorist organisations.
The political context
Although the countries worst affected by IED violence have vastly different local contexts, some common denominators can be identified. The most obvious one is the level of armed conflict experienced in these countries. Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all among the ten countries who suffered most internal conflict deaths in 2016.
This is reflective of IED usage. Although the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have foreign powers invested in them, they are primarily internal conflicts that started because of local disputes. Similarly, the IED violence experienced in countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia and India is all an expression of an insurgency undertaken by a group adverse to the central government. This is highly indicative of IED attacks, as they are overwhelmingly carried out by non-state actors such as insurgent groups. Non-state actors’ impact on conflict has grown significantly over the last few years, something indicated both by the internal conflict deaths as well as IED usage.
Lack of political freedom
Many factors unite these countries besides them experiencing armed and explosive violence. The low level of political freedom is one. Among the countries examined in this report, only Nigeria and Pakistan qualify as ‘partly free’ in Freedom House’s 2015 Index. Syria and Somalia rank at the very bottom of the list, with Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan and Yemen all considered ‘not free’. Clearly, the rankings in Syria and Yemen have worsened in the last few years due to the countries’ civil wars, but one should keep in mind that demands for greater political freedom was also what helped ignite the current conflicts.
The lack of political freedom is inevitably linked to radicalisation, at least in some of the countries examined here. In Syria, several people who protested peacefully against Bashar al-Assad in 2011 were tortured and had threats made against their families. Hamza al-Khateeb, a 13 year old, who was detained whilst attending a protest in Deraa in southern Syria, was killed in custody. When his body was dumped outside his family’s house by the Syrian security services, it became apparent that he had been burnt with cigarettes, had his bones broken and had suffered several gunshot wounds. There have also been reports of the Assad regime employing so called ‘rape campaign’ early in the protests, where soldiers would break into families houses and force themselves upon some family members whilst the others were forced to watch. It is safe to say that such a harsh crackdown has contributed to radicalisation.
In Saudi Arabia, the use of anti-terrorist legislation to jail human rights activists and dissidents, in addition to supporters of IS terrorist plots and others, reportedly “incites violence and feeds terrorism rather than combating it” by creating a sense of rage and frustration, that risks propelling more angry young men, already well-versed in Salafi doctrine, into the arms of terrorist groups.
Without wishing to generalise, several regimes in the Middle East, such as Egypt, Iraq and Libya, have been known to use force indiscriminately against opposition figures. Within modern Salafi-jihadism, there is a long tradition of influential jihadi fighters and thinkers being radicalised either in prison or through torture. Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, for example, transformed into arguably the most influential modern Salafi-jihadi thinker during his time in prison under Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is believed to have been radicalised during his time in Abu Ghraib prison and the Camp Bucca detention centre in Iraq, along with several other prominent IS commanders. Many individuals have undergone the same ideological transformation in prisons or detention centres throughout the Middle East.
For many, joining a jihadi organisation may simply be the best chance to get revenge for the injustices and violence they have been put through by their governments. This became clear relatively early in the Syrian Civil War, where jihadi groups were among the best armed and funded organisations in the country. This pragmatism also extends to the fact that people will join whichever group they perceive as protecting their interests at a specific time. Therefore, joining a jihadi organisation is not always a result of a distorted view of Islam or the world, but may simply be a result of rage and convenience.
Keeping in mind the very local dynamics of each conflict, many have raised tribalism as a conflict driver in the Middle East and West Asia. Tribes do play an important role in most of the countries examined, and may be a factor in driving violence. Many of those that rebelled against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya were from the eastern part of the country and had purposely been shut out of the country’s political system by Qaddafi. Similarly, many of the tribes antagonised by Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh were also the ones who first turned on him. Reciprocally, the fluid nature of Yemen’s tribal alliances has allowed local tribe chieftains to negotiate better than any other foreign mediator so far.
Similar points may be made in the case of the Taliban. A Pakistani counter-terrorism expert, Sohail Tajik, claims that 90% of recruits at suicide bomber training centres in South Waziristan were Pashtuns and of these, 70% came from one specific tribe – the Mehsuds, which might point at the level of sheer tribal frustration in areas beset by chronic underdevelopment, corruption and the constant threat of violence.[iv] In Afghanistan, tribal feuds may be a direct cause for people joining the Taliban. However, this often reflects local feuds rather than sudden radicalisation, as people may join the Taliban as a means to get back at the other party in the conflict. Occasionally, people shift between being on the government’s side and the Taliban, depending on what local warlord pledges allegiance to whom.[v]
IS invested heavily in gathering tribal support since its resurgence after 2011. In its magazine, Dabiq, the group devoted four pages to describing how they wish to co-opt tribes into their state building project. While certain tribes do pledge allegiance to IS out of resentment of the Iraqi government or opportunism, this isn’t common practice. In January 2014, there was a broad tribal revolt against IS. In a violent response, houses of tribal leaders were blown up and many tribesmen were massacred. This demonstrates that although tribalism may be a driver in both exacerbating and mitigating conflict, it is probably not a reason behind IED diffusion.
Another thing these countries share is corruption. According to Transparency International, Somalia was the most corrupt country in the world in 2015, ranking at 167, with Afghanistan right behind it. Iraq and Libya were tied at 161, and Yemen and Syria tied at 154. Nigeria and Pakistan were, again, doing a bit better, ranking at 136 and 117 respectively. Simultaneously, these countries are also very poverty stricken, with most of them ranking in the lower half even among other under-developed countries.[vi]
All these factors provide a perfect platform for diffusion of the victimhood narrative which has been exploited by terrorist groups. As is well-known, this narrative and subsequently much of terror groups’ recruiting takes place online. Surprisingly, many of the countries examined have widespread access to the internet. Although some of them have very low internet access, such as Somalia (where only 1.7% of the population have internet access), Afghanistan (6.8%) and Iraq (13%), it is higher in Syria (29.6%), Nigeria (46.1%), Egypt (33%), Yemen (24.7%) and Libya (21.1%). This access serves two crucial purposes. Firstly, it exposes people to income inequalities and other injustices in their societies, and consequently drives demand for more political freedom. This also plays in to the victimhood and marginalisation narrative. Secondly, it can expose people to propaganda from terror groups that play on the aforementioned sentiments.
The jihadi narrative: ‘Corrupt regimes’ and the defence of Islam
Based on the local and regional contexts discussed above, it is easy for terrorist networks to present a narrative of an unfair world in which Muslims are discriminated against, and in which even the Muslim world is run by authoritative leaders who have failed to create functioning economies and prosperity (in addition to mistreating their populations), but despite this continue to have the support of the world’s major powers. The fight against ‘corrupt regimes’ does to a large extent inform the narrative presented by terrorist groups to potential recruits and the rest of the world.
This phenomenon is in no way new or exclusive to Islamist terrorist groups. George Joffé argues that extremism is concomitant of unhappy interactions between governments, societies and inter-state conflict. Islamist extremism thus follows a pattern of populist responses to autocratic governments and state interventions. What is unique about it is not their black-and-white world view, but rather the ideology through which they express it.[i] However, this does not mean that these groups’ aversion towards government actors should be neglected. Instead, one needs to look at how this seemingly one-size-fits-all narrative works in each context.
Often, if not always, these regimes are portrayed in jihadi propaganda as being directly supported by foreign powers with diabolic agendas. In many cases, such as Afghanistan and Somalia, these foreign powers are Western countries or organisations perceived as Western, such as the United Nations. However, Syria’s conflict has also highlighted the outrage among some terrorist groups against countries like Iran and Russia, which indicates that this is not simply about anti-Western sentiments. Jabhat al-Nusra has, for example, displayed their hatred of both the United States and Iran.
AQIM stated that their attack on the Grand Bassam resort in Côte d’Ivoire in March 2016 was retribution against France and their allies in the region. Given AQIM’s origins as a group emerging out of the chaos of the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, this is not surprising. The group has consistently, in its various forms, contested what they see as the Algerian regime’s betrayal of Islamic and anti-colonial values. These values were prominent during the Algerian War of Independence, a war from which the Algerian regime still draws considerable legitimacy.[ii] However, as Algeria is currently a loyal ally of France in the global war on terror, which is – in turn – led by a foreign power that many groups believe to be imperialistic (United States), this has been framed as a betrayal and ‘neglect of the Algerian people’. IED attacks on regional Sahelian security forces have therefore become AQIM’s standard tactic, as many of the states they have targeted (Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso) are portrayed as corrupt regimes with foreign support. Provided that the Sahel is a poor region heavily affected by climate change, poverty and lack of human rights, this paints an appealing black-and-white picture of one problem (corrupt regimes) and one solution (al-Qaeda).
Al-Shabaab paints their context in similar black and white colours. The FGS and the Kenyan government are both internationally backed in their struggle against regional terrorism, but both have also been accused of major human rights abuses. Moreover, the Kenyan government has been accused of scapegoating the Somali refugee community residing in the country, and their counter-terrorism effort has been notorious for targeting and torturing Somalis. Kenya is – like Algeria – a country with a proud anti-colonial history. This, to some extent, enables al-Shabaab to portray them as hypocrites who are targeting the country’s Muslim community. Al-Shabaab is known to recruit in the Somali refugee camps in Kenya, hoping to exploit the grievances they have against both the Kenyan and Somali state. Local Kenyan media has also reported on Muslim Kenyans fighting for al-Shabaab, suggesting that the narrative presented resonates with some within the country’s disenfranchised Muslim community.
The Taliban have also managed to exploit anti-Western sentiments in Afghanistan. This is evident in their efforts to connect their attacks on civilians to either foreign powers or the Afghan ‘puppet regime’, justifying civilian casualties through their supposed links to either of the two.[iii] This means that a USAID worker becomes ‘an agent of the United States’, and someone working on a construction site commissioned by the Afghan government becomes ‘an agent of the Afghan state’.
The presence of the global anti-terror campaign should also be noted, as it has been used as a justification for violence. In Pakistan, the TTP justified their attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed 132 children and 9 staff by stating that the attack was carried out against Pakistan’s apostate army due to its role as ‘the agents of the Jews and the Christians’, because of its support for the international war on terror.
Similar tendencies can be identified with Boko Haram. Military repression is even seen as a direct cause of Boko Haram’s turn to extreme violence in 2009.[iv] This is because the Nigerian military killed moderates within Boko Haram that, in turn, directly contributed to the group’s radicalisation.[v] Moreover, extra-judicial killings and arbitrary arrests on the part of the Nigerian military led many civilians to seek protection from Boko Haram.[vi] Nigeria has, in this manner, seen a harsh counter-terror campaign which has deeply affected civilians and has provided Boko Haram with an opportunity to rally support for their cause. Boko Haram’s former leader Abubakar Shekau has also referred to Nigeria’s political system as polytheistic unbelief (shirk), which once again indicates the links established between counter-terrorism, perceptions of corruption within government, and the justification of IED usage.
IS’s hatred for corrupt regimes and the West is well established, as is al-Qaeda’s. With IS, however, we have seen their objection to the United States’ war on terror take a more dramatic turn with it being used directly in their tactics. IS prisoners wear the same orange prison suits as prisoners in Guantanamo, something a top US defence official says is a result of the symbolic value the prison suit carries – a close link to the US detention centre. This, again, highlights the importance of anti-counter terror and anti-state intervention narratives employed by IS, and many other groups.
The motivations listed above are all based on local dynamics. At the same time, they also fit into a universal jihadi narrative of a black-and-white, polarised world in which Islam is under attack. Individuals may, when exposed to jihadi propaganda, find that it resonates with their own lives. In this way, a legitimate feeling of alienation and disenfranchisement as a Muslim in Europe, or a legitimate feeling of being let down by one’s supposedly Muslim government (that is supported by a powerful foreign government), may motivate an individual to embrace violence and carry out IED attacks against civilians. Similarly, local grievances against Shia groups may also find endorsement in the extreme anti-Shia rhetoric and tactics of the likes of IS and al-Qaeda.
A tricky path for governments to tread is how to handle these things in their ‘war on terror’. Armed action against these groups, such as air strikes, may be deemed necessary, but governments should keep in mind that military intervention or counter-terror campaigns often serve perversely to fuel and strengthen jihadi narratives. In order to stop the spread of explosive violence, a more rounded strategy than armed action alone is needed.
This post is part of the report, “Understanding the regional and transnational networks that facilitate IED use”. To see the sections of the report please go here. This research was undertaken with assistance from the NATO Counter-IED Centre of Excellence.
[i] Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency, Chatham House 2014.
[ii] France has banned all religious symbols from their public schools in the Law on Religious Symbols in French Public Schools passed in 2004, but critics of the law state that it disproportionally targets the Muslim headscarf.
[iii] Jessica Stern & J.M. Berger, ISIS: the State of Terror. William & Collins 2016.
[iv] Quoted in Hassan Abbas, “The Taliban Revival: Violence and Extremism on the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier,” Yale University Press, 2 May 2014.
[v] Interview with Emily Winterbotham, RUSI, 2 August 2016.
[vi] Alkire, S., Jindra, C., Robles, G.,Vaz, A. (2016). “Multidimensional Poverty Index 2016: Brief methodological note and results.” OPHI Briefing 42, University of Oxford.
[i] George Joffe, “Global Jihad and Foreign Fighters, Small Wars & Insurgencies Vol 25, No 7.
[ii] Malika Rahal. “Fused Together and Torn Apart: Stories and Violence in Contemporary Algeria”.
History and Memory, Indiana University Press, 2012, 18 (5), pp.118-151.
[iii] Interview with Emily Winterbotham, RUSI.
[iv] Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency, Chatham House 2014.
[v] Interview with Elizabeth Donnelly, Chatham House, 9 August 2016.
[vi] Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency, Chatham House 2014.
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