UN Report: Muslim Youth going to fight in Syria mostly not Motivated by Islam

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Lizzie Dearden at The Independent reviews a new report by the United Nations Office of counter-terrorism report.

Some 25,000 young men are said to have made their way from Europe to fight the regime in Syria, and as the war winds down, many will return. Understanding what drove them will help in designing programs to help with reintegration.

The report itself makes it clear that the young Muslim men who went off to fight on the rebel side in the Syrian Civil War were not motivated by a detailed knowledge of Islam. In fact, they knew little about their religion.

They say that they did not seek to become terrorists and did not want to commit acts of terrorism in Europe on their return.

Why did they go? They are Sunni Muslims and felt that the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad is mistreating Sunni Muslims.

Many studies have found that those who run off to join terrorist or guerrilla groups are well-educated and middle class. Not this study. For whatever reason, its respondents were mostly poor, urban and hopeless. Most said they hoped to leave that dysfunctional home forever when they went to Syria.

Some one third of those who went to Syria were unemployed, a high rate. The rest had jobs, though in many cases menial ones.

They confirm an earlier study that although their sample was from a poverty-stricken background, they were not radicalized by mere poverty but rather by what they perceived as the lack of a ladder of self-advancement:

“Our results suggest that it is not so much the lack of material resources that is important for terrorism but rather the lack of economic opportunities: Countries that restrict economic freedom experience more terrorism.”

Neither religion nor family motivated the group in this study. Rather it was the guys they hung around with:

“The validation of the influence of friendship in motivating individuals to become FTF s supports the ‘bunch of guys’ theory of terrorism put forward by the psychologist Marc Sageman, 81 who argues that the decision to join a terrorist group ‘was based on pre – existing friendship’ ties and ‘that the evolving group of future perpetrators seemed more akin to’ such networks ‘ than a formal terrorist cell, with well – defined hierarchy and divisi on of labour .’ This theory has led some observers to call for a ‘social network approach to terrorism’


Only ten percent thought ideology motivated them, and only 30% said that religion did (though they most often knew little about their religion).

The take-away appears to be that if you want to tamp down Muslim discontent in Europe, give young people more opportunity to make something of themselves. It is those who feel irrevocably blocked who turn to radicalism.


Related video:

CNN: “UAE diplomat warns Muslims of Islam ‘ignorance'”

15 Responses

    • Presumably Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Erdoganist Turkey, perhaps also American NGOs or even the US government, whose relation with radical Sunni Islam seems to be complex and by no means purely hostile.

      • To my knowledge there is no investigation on it which suggest suppression of evidence.
        The 25,000 people were “mostly poor, urban and hopeless.” Were they hired to help to destabilize Syria? If so who financed the operation?

  1. Much hay has been made on various sides about the supposed lack of religiosity of the various terror groups operating in Syria. But such an analysis is making over-determinative assumptions about what “religion” is. Religion is not defined strictly by beliefs or practices; it is a complex of beliefs, practices, and identities. A clear and significant cause for the flow of jihadists to Syria is Sunni chauvinism: “They are Sunni Muslims and felt that the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad is mistreating Sunni Muslims.” This makes it quite evident that they were motivated by religion, even if not united in the practice of praying five times daily or a detailed knowledge of tafsir literature.

    • That’s not religion, that is ethnic chauvinism. Your argument makes Catholicism a motive for Hitler.

      • Are Sunni Muslims an ethnicity? Especially in societies where religion is always there even if in the background, like a pattern in the wallpaper, religious motivation might intermesh with other motivations (facing poverty at home, search for adventure, feeling blocked in a social sense).

        • We are talking about Sunni Muslim minorities in Europe, where it is certainly an ethnicity as sociologists define it.

  2. the graph above about the importance of peer pressure is confusing because the circle shows 5 colours. yet the explination of what the colours in the circle mean show six colours underneath the circle.

    • Indeed that pie chart is hard to decipher.
      If you read the report, it actually depicts influences on pressure *to defect* from Syria, not to go there.
      Then, is the blue “not sure” or “fairly important” ?
      It’s implied in the report that for defections, family beseechings are most important.

  3. Peer group identity and participation as an accepted member contributing to the groups actions, its reason to exist, and thus the affirmation of the value of the individuals contribution by their peers. Be it a gang, a battalion, a clergy, a sports team, whatever. A basic, timeless, human and predominantly male dynamic. What more to understand?

  4. Nairba is correct in my humble opinion and Professor Cole is as well. You are both saying the same thing.

  5. I’ve always maintained that Daesh was a bunch of gangsters who hit on the most awesomest way ever to rationalize and purify their gangsterism. 20 years ago these guys were Iraqi Baathists, 10 years ago Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. So it makes total sense that the feedstock for this infernal machine is tribally outraged bros from around the globe, not folks who had two brain cells to rub together about religious doctrine.

  6. Feeling of disenchantment is one reason. The more important one is the hypocrisy and double standards of many western and ME nations! Especially the blind support to Israel and strong support to India.

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