Fatal attraction: foreigners who fight in Syria

What motivates idealistic Muslims, mostly the children of immigrants in their teens and twenties, to abandon lives of promise in their parents’ adopted countries to fight for a faraway cause? The National's Colin Randall finds out

Picture from Twitter of Akram Sebah, right, and his older brother Mohamed in Syria before they were killed. The young men from London were killed in combat with militants linked to Al Qaeda in Syria
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MARSEILLE, FRANCE // One, a bright student from Wales, wanted to be the first Asian prime minister of Britain.

Another, a product of the forbidding Parisian suburbs, was making something of his life with a family and good job. Others were initially driven by humanitarian concerns, anxious to help those in peril and distress.

All ended up as combatants in Syria's civil war, which has become a magnet for global Islamist extremists for whom the overthrow of Bashar Al Assad's regime would be just a start.

In many countries of the West, the magnet has proved powerful, with thousands of impressionable young people answering a call they typically encounter on the internet.

But what motivates these idealistic Muslims, mostly the children of immigrants in their teens and twenties, to abandon lives of promise in their parents’ adopted countries to fight for a faraway cause? Case studies from Europe and North America offer a guide, but perhaps not a full answer.



To one British expert on Islamist radicalisation, the prospect of adventure and camaraderie plays a significant role in the recruitment of youth to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Sasha Havlicek, who co-chairs the European Union’s internet radicalisation working group, told the BBC the numbers attracted to Syria dwarfed anything seen since the Afghan-Soviet conflict.

Ms Havlicek, also chief executive of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, quoted estimates that 6,000-10,000 foreigners engaged each year in fighting the Assad regime, 10 per cent of them from Europe.

Many have joined the Islamic State group active in Syria and Iraq even though, she said, it had little popular support and was responsible for a number of atrocities.

“Evidence on the ground points to the fact [Islamic State] doesn’t have broad-based popularity,” Ms Havlicek said. “People are afraid and really disgusted by the sort of activities [Islamic State] has been pursuing.”

Against this, she argued, the appeal of such groups to outsiders was strengthened because “the narrative of the recruiters is in line with mainstream western analysis around Assad, his brutality, his oppressive regime”.

But she added: “Much of the [Islamic State] support is really adventure-seeking, the camaraderie, kids who want to be part of a gang.”

In the same discussion, Laith Al Saud, visiting professor of religious studies at DePaul university in Chigaco, said there was a clear socio-economic basis for the recruitment of militants.

Mr Al Saud also cautioned against suggestions that Islamic State was making “ideological inroads” in Iraq and Syria, since the evidence was that the movement was unpopular.

He accepted that the group had nevertheless been able to “mobilise young guys aged 15 to 25”.

“I would suggest a lot of that has to do with testosterone and boredom for people of that age group… we have seen in the past and historically that in places [where] there are no jobs, there’s little hope, there’s a sense of alienation, it is easy to encourage and excite young men who don’t seem to have much future in their lives.”

British and other western officials are especially concerned about the huge task of monitoring those who return to their home countries after becoming battle-hardened.

Britain’s foreign ministry’s budget for projects, notably in Yemen and Pakistan, to counter the spread of terrorism is being halved, from the current annual outlay of £30 million (Dh189m). According to critics of the policy, this will leave it with insufficient capacity to keep returning militants under scrutiny.

Richard Barrett, a former director of global counterterrorism for Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, said about 300 fighters had returned to the UK after fighting in Syria. The estimated figure grows ten-fold when Muslims from other western countries are included, he said.

“There’s a big difference I think about being motivated to go as a foreign fighter and coming back as a domestic terrorist. But nonetheless, it doesn’t take many. And if it’s only one per cent of 3,000 people already and counting, then that’s going to be quite a problem,” he told the US network CNN.

Recruitment levels have risen steadily throughout the anti-Assad conflict.

Professor Mohamed Ali-Adraoui, a French political and social scientist from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, said that not all those drawn from the West to Syria start out with strongly anti-western sentiments. It was possible for an individual to join Syrian rebels because of genuine concern about the civil war, and only then come under anti-western influence.

Mr Ali-Adraoui, whose book From the Gulf to the French Banlieue: Globalised Salafism, was published last year, said, "By far the biggest recruiting agent for Syria is Bashar Al Assad.

“Young people are very sensitive to television and online pictures and some wish to act heroically in the name of Islam. Among a whole set of factors, by far the most important basic reason is Assad’s policies and his crimes against his own people.”