UN study: Extremist fighters lack good education and jobs

A female jihadist walks with her daughter at Reform and Rehabilitation Foundation in Tripoli

A UN study of 43 people who left their coun­tries to become “for­eign terrorist fighters” in Syria concluded that most were from disadvantaged backgrounds, lacked good educa­tion and decent jobs and saw their Muslim religion “in terms of jus­tice and injustice rather than in terms of piety and spirituality.”
The study for the UN Counter- Terrorism Centre said that, based on interviews with the 42 men and one woman, a typical “foreign ter­rorist fighter” (FTF) is most likely to be young, male and feel “their life lacked meaning.”
Professor Hamed el-Said of Man­chester Metropolitan University and British terrorism expert Rich­ard Barrett, who conducted the study, said beyond that it’s diffi­cult to generalise why the extrem­ists wanted to go to Syria.
They cited “a mix of factors,” saying “social networks often seem to play a key role” and “equally important is the role and identity of the recruiters, who are not necessarily members of armed groups” but are more likely to be sympathisers.
Almost 40% of the sample group said they were motivated to go to Syria by “an obligation to defend their fellow Sunnis from the Syr­ian government and its allies by force,” the report said. “This con­firms that many Muslim youth, re­gardless of where they come from, perceive the conflict in Syria in community more than in religious terms.”
The authors said this perception of a duty to defend their group during a war “is an important ele­ment in understanding what may motivate an individual to become an FTF.”
Other responses confirmed “the lack of ideology” as a motivating factor, they said, noting for exam­ple that “very few of this sample believe in the idea of an Islamic State or of establishing a caliphate in the Levant.”
A UN estimate in March 2015 stated there were more than 25,000 FTFs from more than 100 countries.
The authors said that while the issue of FTFs has risen on the po­litical agenda in many countries, there is a lack of detailed knowl­edge about why people choose to join terrorist organisations and why some return home.
The authors stressed that their study is not a random sample but they said it was one of the largest samples of face-to-face interviews conducted with FTFs and there­fore they believe the report “adds significantly to current research.”
The 43 people interviewed rep­resented 12 nationalities and 33 reached Syria but subsequently de­cided to leave, the report said. The other ten were either intercepted by authorities in their home coun­try or stopped en route to Syria by authorities in a transit country.
The authors said 26 of the sub­jects were interviewed in prison and the remaining 17 in official premises or public places arranged by security officials from the host country, though generally not in their presence.
Despite an appeal to all UN mem­bers, the authors expressed regret that only seven countries — three from the European Union and four from the Middle East and North Africa — agreed to participate in the study.
The report said the participants “claimed they did not go to Syria with the intention of becoming a terrorist nor did they return with that purpose in mind.” In Syria, most said the only military expe­rience they received was a simple course on how to shoot with no bullets “as shooting draws the at­tention of the enemy.” Five of the 43 admitted to participating in fighting in Syria, the report said.
The authors said families had “a powerful influence” in convincing those interviewed to leave Syria, as well as their own “disillusion­ment” and “disappointment.”
Said and Barrett expressed hope that the study “will assist member states to design and implement policies and programmes that dis­courage those who are about to or are thinking of going to Syria, and reintegrate those who have already returned, or who are about to do so” with minimum risk to public safety.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.