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Here’s Why Americans Join ISIS

December 12, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Syed Rizwan Farook
In this handout provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Syed Rizwan Farook poses for a photo at an unsepcified date and location. The FBI announced that it is investigating the San Bernardino shooting and suspects Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and wife Tashfeen Malik, 27, that left 14 people dead and many wounded as an act of terrorism. (Photo by FBI via Getty Images)
Handout Getty Images

After authorities disclosed an American couple killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, December 2, the question has become urgent: What causes Westerners to join Muslim extremist groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?

A Lebanese market research company says it has coaxed out a more complete profile of their motivations, according to an article in Defense One, a national security news website. The Beirut-based firm Quantum Communications studied televised one-on-one interviews with former and current fighters shown on Saudi and Iraqi channels.

According to the study, released earlier this year, Americans and other Westerners are more likely to be drawn to Islamic extremist groups as they search for identity. They feel like outsiders in Western culture and seek out the rules, structure and cohesiveness of the group to provide them a sense of belonging, the report says.

“Belonging defines them, their role, their friends, and their interaction with society,” as the group of “identity seekers” is described in the report; more than 60 percent of this group was from the West that included U.S. French and British nationals. “In this context the Islamic Ummah (identity) provides a pre-packaged transnational identity.”

The report succinctly describes Western converts as “confident naïfs with an axe to grind.” Among the identity seekers the report identified Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a 22-year-old Florida man who, according to authorities, blew himself and others up using a truck bomb in Syria in 2014. He was fighting with an al-Qaeda splinter organization known as al-Nusra Front.

The 2015 study uses a psy­cho-con­tex­tu­al ana­lyt­ic­al technique developed by a Canadian psychologist to glean people’s motivations. In testimony to Congress earlier this year, Mi­chael Lumpkin, as­sist­ant de­fense sec­ret­ary for spe­cial op­er­a­tions/low-intensity con­flict, said the Pentagon would use a framework similar to that in the Quantum study to analyze, detect and deter homegrown Islamic terrorists.

Besides the Western recruits, the market researcher also studied televised interviews with ISIS supporters from Syria and Iraq as well as other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia. The firm grouped the fight­ers in­to nine cat­egor­ies, based on why they said they joined Islamic radical groups. Besides identity seekers, the other categories included:

  • Status seekers who want to improve their social status through money and recognition;
  • Revenge seekers who identify with those oppressed by the West;
  • Redemption seekers who are seeking to erase past sins;
  • Responsibility seekers, most often from the war zone, who are looking to better ways to support and protect their families;
  • Thrill seekers who are looking for adventure;
  • Ideology seekers who are looking to impose their view of Islam;
  • Justice seekers who believe they are righting a wrong; and
  • Death seekers, who are often people who have lost people in the conflict and now seek to die as martyrs, rather than commit suicide.

A more common reason among Westerners was a search for identity. But a few also were characterized as thrill seekers. An example given by the report was Eric Harroun, a 30-year-old American veteran, who went to fight in Syria in 2013 with the Free Syrian Army. He later died of a drug overdose.

Recruits from Iraq and Syria were much more motivated by money and status. They were far more likely to acknowledge the need to support families or improve their living conditions as reasons. When asked why they were fighting, the most frequent answer given by all the various recruits—whether Western or from the region—was a desire to defend Sunnis and to fight in the name of Jihad.

About 4,500 Westerners—at least 250 of which are Americans—have left their home countries to join up with radical jihadist groups, according to a second study released in November by think tank New America.

That, of course, doesn’t count the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik, or Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his 19-year-old brother Dzhokhar who perpetrated the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, according to authorities.

The New America report points out that an unprecedented number of these Western recruits are women. Of the 474 studied for the report, one out of seven were women. The recruits—both men and women—also tend to be young with an average age of 24.

Of the 23 Americans identified by New America who reached Syria, nine have died, nine are at large, and five are in custody.

Due to an editor’s production error, an earlier version of this story had an incorrect byline on the article. The author is Pat Wechsler.