The Mobilization and Recruitment of Foreign Fighters: The Case of Islamic State, 2012–2014

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Connections: The Quarterly Journal, Volume 15, Issue 3, p.83-100 (2016)


foreign fighters, France, institutional (top-down) and bottom-up (individual) recruitment/mobilization, Islamic State, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Tunisia


This article examines how foreign fighters were recruited and mobilized for Islamic State in 2012-2014. Institutional and individual approaches to this phenomenon form the basis of understanding the mechanisms used for the mobilization and recruitment of foreign fighters. The former refers to a terrorist institution that plays a key role in the recruitment of individuals (top-down/institutional), and the latter refers to the self-radicalization process that foreign fighters undergo (bottom-up/ individual). In particular, the research focuses on an analysis of Islamic State and the recruitment/mobilization of sixteen foreign fighters from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United Kingdom. The analysis shows that both top-down and bottom-up concepts are important but that the extent to which each is used depends on the profiles of the country in question. The study concludes by demonstrating the comparative value of top-down and bottom-up approaches in terms of understanding contemporary terrorist recruitment and providing policy recommendations.

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The study of foreign terrorist fighters has become crucial to understanding the evolving nature of “terrorism” in the twenty-first century. For many countries, terrorism and its perpetrators have become a top security threat. Despite the declaration and launch of the global “war on terror,” some terrorist entities have been able not only to survive but also to develop and increase their num­bers, particularly their number of recruits, known today as foreign fighters. Since 2013, Al Qaeda’s offshoot known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant/Syria (ISIL/ISIS) or Islamic State (IS) has been rapidly gaining a foothold in territories and countries in the Middle East where state control is weakened, predominantly in Iraq and Syria.

The analysis of foreign terrorist fighters’ recruitment/mobilization has be­come important given the rapid development of IS. A key feature of IS is the way in which it recruits foreign fighters globally and the way in which individu­als join this organization on their own. It is difficult to give an exact number of the people joining IS, but there is an on-going flow of individuals from different countries who are willing to fight for IS.[1] As they have taken part in terrorist oper­ations and become exposed to radical interpretations of Sunni or Wahhabi Islam, these people pose a potential security risk to their home countries if and when they should return.

In order to understand why IS has been successful in attracting and recruit­ing foreign fighters, one should study both the mechanisms of recruitment/ mobilization and the independent radicalization process. Specifically, this paper focuses on institutional and individual levels of mobilization of foreign fighters from 2012 to 2014. The former refers to an institution/agency, in this case IS, as the key actor in luring in individuals,[2] whereas the latter is based on per­sonal/group radicalization.[3] This will be assessed through the examination of merely sixteen individual case studies, due to the limited availability of for­eign fighters’ profiles. Based on the large scale of mobilization of foreign fight­ers, their numbers and the countries they come from, the case studies have been randomly selected from the following countries that head up the list of foreign fighters statistics on a regional basis (in terms of absolute numbers): Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United Kingdom (UK).[4] Firstly, I will consider IS’s background, its structure, strategy and tactics. This will be followed by an ex­planation of the concept and role of foreign fighters. Additionally, the relation­ship between the country profiles and foreign fighters will be examined. Finally, this will be followed by an analysis of the mobilization and recruitment pro­cesses and by sections offering a conclusion and policy recommendations.

The Rise of Islamic State

As a terrorist entity, IS was formed in 1999 and was known as Jama’at al Tawhid wal Jihad under the command of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. It was primar­ily active in Jordan and Afghanistan. Later, in 2004, it pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded its training camps, and the Taliban provided it with territory in the western province of Herat in Afghanistan.[5] The same year, this entity renamed itself Al Qaeda fi Bilad al Rafidayn (Al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]) and participated in the Iraqi insurgency. AQI recruited Iraqis and was very active in cooperating with nationalist and Ba’athist insurgents in Iraq.[6] Be­ing “[l]ess disciplined, more violent and often terroristically more efficient,” al Zarqawi attracted new groups to his unit under Al Qaeda’s wing.[7] His successful operations helped him to strengthen his position and reputation in the terrorist world.[8] Following his death in 2006, the organization merged with other enti­ties, renaming itself several times before separating from Al Qaeda and be­coming Islamic State (IS) in 2014 under a new leader, “Caliph” Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.[9]

IS has grown in strength following the capture of territories in Iraq and Syria and has approximately 25,000 fighters.[10] Being able to act as a three-branch force, specifically, having “units devoted to terrorist, insurgent and light-infan­try roles,” IS has captured territories between Akhtarin in Syria’s Aleppo Gov­ernorate and Salah ad Din province north of Baghdad in Iraq.[11] It took complete control of Raqqa Governorate in Syria and made it its capital.[12] In answer to the question of why IS managed to become powerful, especially over the past two years, the likely response is “a global Jihadist power vacuum” triggered by “the US intervention in Iraq, Maliki’s authoritarianism, Assad’s ruthlessness, and post-Bin Laden Al Qaeda’s discomposure.” [13] While (it is assumed that) there was worldwide “euphoria” following the Arab Spring and the weakening of Al Qaeda, IS decided to fill the Jihadist power vacuum in the Middle East, and ex­ploit the situation of weak state governance and control in Iraq and Syria.[14] A lack of stability both in Iraq and Syria, and the consequences of this, was one of the key factors that led to the strengthening of IS.

Structure, Strategy and Tactics

Having established a territorial basis, IS tried to build a pseudo state. Between four and eight million people have lived under IS’s governance.[15] Organization­ally, IS’s leadership structure is of “pyramidal form, with al Baghdadi at the top, followed by two deputies, a Shura Council and a cabinet of ministers, and then a council of provincial governors and their military commands.” [16] In addition, a War Council is the main body accountable for regular operations and future planning. IS’s senior leadership mostly consists of Iraqis with formidable mili­tary experience.[17] Most of these individuals have a good education but feel dis­criminated against and alienated; they do not like how Islam is portrayed in the media and blame the West and the double standards of its policies for the trouble in Iraq.[18] Individuals responsible for media, religious teaching, law en­forcement, and recruitment are mostly Saudis, Tunisians, and Europeans.[19]

Al Baghdadi appears to be not only IS’s head but also its source of religious legitimacy.[20] Having gained a PhD degree in Islamic Studies from the Islamic Uni­versity of Baghdad and having been active as an imam for several years, Al Baghdadi is considered to be an important figure for IS in gaining credibility thanks to his high level of Islamic education. His radical religious rule is com­bined with the practice of a bureaucratic military style of command at each level within his organization. Al Baghdadi has managed to create “a cohesive, disciplined and flexible organization.” [21] On the military side, IS has a good re­porting system; reporting starts at the local level and goes through the provin­cial command to the War Council. IS is provided with detailed military reports on an annual basis that include both statistics and analysis.[22]

Financially, IS is “self-sufficient” and has its own system for collecting and distributing money. Territorial control gives IS an opportunity to gain access to oil fields and implement a variety of criminal activities and services. The amount of money IS receives by selling petroleum products is close to USD 100 million a month.[23] It spends money on its operations and also devotes a lot of financial resources to the restoration and construction of civilian infrastructure within the territories under their control, and to the maintenance of governing and organizational bodies. This is necessary for IS in order to present itself as a body able to replace Iraqi and Syrian state systems and governments. The “state of anarchy” in these two countries is used by IS to win public support “by imposing security, providing social services and implementing Sharia.” [24]

Strategically, IS needs to keep destabilizing Syria and Iraq. It plays on the re­ligious divides and political vulnerabilities of these two countries. In both Iraq and Syria, IS exploits religious and ethnic sectarian tensions. This gives an op­portunity for IS to carry out its operations effectively. Its operation “Breaking Walls” was aimed at releasing prisoners from Abu Ghraib and expanding its ge­ographical reach.[25] The result of this operation was “the escape of 500 or more prisoners” in 2013 and the beginning of another operation, “Soldiers’ Harvest,” which sought to weaken the military capacity of the Iraqi security forces and exploit political tensions between Shi’a and Sunni groups in Iraq.[26] In both Syria and Iraq, IS demonstrates its aggression through rapid deployment of its infan­try units and the use of suicidal attacks.[27] It receives weapons in Iraq, ships them to Syria, and then uses them in the fight against both the government and the opposition. Military operations go hand-in-hand with its brutal meth­ods of killing to provoke public fear and intimidate opponents. These methods include beheadings, mass executions and the violent displacement of minori­ties. All these scenes of brutality are presented on social media in high-quality imagery and in several languages. This contributes both to intimidation and to the recruitment processes.

Foreign Fighters as a Key Component

The term “foreign fighters” can be understood in a range of ways, but is also of­ten associated with another word, “jihadist.” [28] In fact, in addition to terrorism, “foreign fighter” does not have a commonly agreed definition in political sci­ence. However, in this work, a “foreign fighter” will be defined as “an individual who leaves his or her country of origin or habitual residence to join a non-state armed group in an armed conflict abroad and who is primarily motivated by ideology, religion, and/or kinship.” [29] In some cases, foreign fighters may be paid, but money is not the only or primary stimulus. Foreign fighters can be re­cruited and mobilized in different ways. The manner of recruitment and mobili­zation depends on the country in question and its regional peculiarities.

In spite of the fact that the key leadership positions in IS are held by Iraqis, a major part of its military structure is comprised of foreign fighters. This is stra­tegically important for IS in order for it to live up to its image of a transnational organization striving to build an Islamic caliphate on a regional level, and then rolling this out on a global level. In addition, it is beneficial to have access to the different skill-sets that foreign fighters possess. One of the main tactics that IS uses to attract foreign fighters is the effective exploitation of social media platforms. It produces high-quality videos at near-professional standards and in various languages to address a wider audience and illustrate its global ambi­tion. IS speaks to everyone, calling for the mobilization and support it needs to win the religious war it is fighting.

IS has shown the results of its activities on social media, for example, how it has taken cities, used weaponry and created safe havens.[30] It offers individuals “religious righteousness, … adventure, … a sense of self and community,” [31] a chance “to feel powerful,” and “an opportunity … to take refuge in a group mentality” and ideology.[32] IS’s media department, Al Hayat, addresses individu­als via such messages with reference to the call of duty, the notion of jihad as an obligation, and existential threats posed against Islam. These messages can easily be found on the Internet, and people can discuss how they can join IS and attend its religious courses online. Those people who make contact with IS’s members online “have to give over their passwords to the group.” [33] Poten­tial recruits also undergo online interviews using anonymous browsers, secure programs, and proxy servers. As they talk to the potential recruit, recruiters maintain a warm and welcoming atmosphere, enabling the potential recruit to feel as if they are joining a fraternity or brotherhood.

Fighters from the West are a key asset for IS. American and European fight­ers can be used by IS as a tool to carry out attacks in Western countries in the future. The presence of these fighters during the filming of IS’s activities plays a crucial role in recruiting individuals not only from the West but also from other regions around the world. The appearance of Western individuals on so­cial media as foreign fighters contributes to IS’s promotion. IS does not only use re­ligious justification to attract foreign fighters, but also “a promise of real and imminent success” based on its military capabilities.[34]

Relationship between Country Profiles and Foreign Fighters

Tunisia is an Islamic country with a predominantly Sunni Muslim population. In 2010, there was an uprising which resulted in the corrupt government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali being overthrown. Following the uprising, however, Tunisia’s socio-economic situation has remained poor, as indicated in Table 1 below. These socio-economic difficulties, on the one hand, and the unstable political situation that some “radicals took advantage of,” on the other, could contrib­ute to the radicalization of young people who “had lost faith in the political elite” and “who no longer believe in a democratic transition.” [35] The high level of corruption, low GDP, high level of youth unemployment, a very fragile state, and a lack of provision of civil liberties only serve to increase frustration and the likelihood that young people are recruited and mobilized. After the upris­ing, the level of unemployment among young people has remained high, at 31.2 %. Impoverished, unemployed young people are likely to support extrem­ists and become jihadists themselves.[36] However, some “jihadists [from Tuni­sia] are not necessarily poor, but are often from the middle and lower-middle clas­ses.” [37] They are mostly university, college, and high school students, gradu­ates or civil servants aged between 17 and 27 years old.[38] In general, jihadists come from a variety of backgrounds and do not fall under single category.

Saudi Arabia is an autocratic state (monarchy) in which Sunni Islam is the official state religion, and expression or demonstration of other forms of Islam (particularly Shi’ite) is severely restricted. According to its country profile, there is a high level of corruption and civil liberties are widely suppressed. Freedom of expression is tightly controlled. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is an oil-rich country, with a high GDP per capita, more than a quarter of its youth is un­employed (2013). The state is fragile. As in the case of Tunisia, these indicators suggest a link with recruitment to IS. Some well-known religious clerics have been strongly critical of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria,[39] and several militant groups in Syria who fought against Assad’s rule, including IS, were financially supported by Saudi donors.[40] This continued until Saudi Arabia joined Western counter-terrorism operations against IS and later played a leading role in the formation of the Islamic anti-terrorism coalition. Although the creation of the “Muslim” anti-terrorism coalition has been positively accepted by many states, there have been doubts regarding its effectiveness.

In comparison to Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, both France and the UK are de­mocracies in which Christianity is the majority religion. In France, 5 – 10 %, and in the UK, 4.4 % of the population is made up of Muslims.[41]There is corrup­tion in both countries, but the level of this is much lower than that of Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. Both France and the UK have advanced economies, and are not particularly fragile states. The citizens of these democratic countries enjoy freedom of expression and free access to all types of media. However, more than 20 % of young people are unemployed in both countries. Despite hav-


Table 1: Country Profiles, 2013.




Saudi Arabia


United Kingdom

Corruption Percep­tion Index (ranking)


(out of 177 countries)


(out of 177 countries)


(out of 177 countries)


(out of 177 countries)

GDP per capita (USD)





Unemployment rate among youth (% of youth, labor force, total)





Fragile States Index (score)


(out of 120)


(out of 120)


(out of 120)


(out of 120)

Civil Liberties (1=best, 7=worst)





Sources: Transparency International, World Bank, UNDP, The Fund for Peace, and Freedom House.

ing few socio-economic problems, France and the UK have the largest num­ber of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq out of the Western European countries. It is therefore essential to explore other possible reasons for recruitment and mo­bilization from these countries. While there is a range of factors that moti­vate some individuals to join IS, one of the major reasons behind the decision of the majority of second and third generation Muslims to become jihadists is “a con­flict of identity: born and raised in Europe, they no longer identify with the country and/or culture in which their parents or grandparents were brought up, yet they also feel excluded from Western society, which still perceives them as foreigners.” [42] Therefore, these individuals feel comfortable thinking about joining Islamic State where they believe they will be treated equally. A sense of duty to help “Muslim brothers” is another driver.

Mobilization and Recruitment Processes

a. Tunisia and Saudi Arabia

In Tunisia, following the uprising of 2010/11, the political, economic, and social factors that facilitated the process of radicalization have been exploited by “Is­lamist actors” [43] including radical religious leaders and preachers who were send­ing “relief messages” to the public propagating ideas about injustices, exis­tential problems, and insecurities. These radical preachers, or even school-teachers, help radicalized individuals join IS. In fact, many mosques were under the influence of radicals and extremists during and following the 2011 uprising; these mosques were used to disseminate extremist religious discourse.[44] The new Tunisian government confirmed that “up to 1,100 mosques, out of the 5,100 in Tunisia, were in the hands of radical imams.” [45] There have also been training camps stationed in the Tunisian desert where different jihadist groups were active. The army was unable to terminate these camps. One of these camps was used by IS as a training base from where Tunisian recruiters have been sending fighters to Syria through Turkey.[46] In general, recruiters affiliated with IS have usually been preachers.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, while socio-economic issues could be one of the leading factors contributing to the large number of Saudis fighting in Syria and Iraq on IS’s side, the increase in the number of Saudi foreign fighters happened after Hezbollah joined the conflict in Syria in support of Assad’s regime during the battle of Qusayr in 2013.[47] In response to Hezbollah’s involvement, the popu­lar religious leader Yusuf al-Qaradawi called upon Sunni Muslims from Saudi Arabia to go to Syria and fight for Sunni Muslims saying: “anyone who has the ability, who is trained to fight ... has to go; I call on Muslims to go and sup­port their brothers in Syria.” [48] This was later supported by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Shaykh and a Saudi cleric at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saud al-Shuraym, who stated that “Sunni Muslims had a duty to support the Syrian rebels ‘by all means.’” [49] Hezbollah’s participation in the conflict was ex­ploited by well-known Saudi clerics, who referred to a “call of duty,” and there- fore played a decisive role in the rapid mobilization and recruitment of Saudi


Table 2: Foreign Fighters from Middle East and North Africa.


Name and Age

Radicalization Process (ac­tors, events or pathways)

Form of recruitment/mobilization


El Balti, 23

Radical “ulema” (Islamic reli­gious scholars)


Zouheir Balti, 21

Radical preacher


Nidhal Selmi, 22

Internet videos of the vio­lence committed against ci­vilians in Syria + ultra-con­servative salafists in a mosque

institutional (indi­vidual)

Mohamed Amrouni, 17

Math teacher


Saudi Arabia

Suleiman Saud Subaii, 25

Death of brother and photos of dead Syrian children


Al-Zayidi Saudi, n/a

Radical preachers and fatwas (online)


Faisal bin Shaman al-Aanzi, 25

Al-Baghdadi’s statement on a call on duty


Hamad al-Tamimi, 18

Jihadists (online)


Sources: Middle East Eye, Newsweek, Daily News Egypt, Reuters, Cold Turkey, Vocativ, Al-Akhbar, Al-Monitor, The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Al Arabiya, The Middle East Media Research Institute, CNN, and Alalam.

men to fight in Syria and Iraq. The analysis of individual cases from the two countries reflects the development of events that facilitated recruitment pro­cesses. Below are eight cases that show how young people were recruited by individuals connected to IS.

In the table above, almost all the individuals were subject to “outside” influ­ence in Tunisia. In the first two examples, radical preachers recruited both El Balti and Zouheir Balti. El Balti, who was 23, was under the powerful influence of radical “ulema” (Islamic religious scholars) who convinced him to join IS in 2012.[50] This young and educated man was from a working-class family and led a normal life. According to his father, his son was radicalized due to the mar­ginalization of moderate “ulema” which gave an opportunity for radical reli­gious scholars to take the lead in a number of mosques after Ben Ali’s ousting. Simi­larly, Zouheir Balti, who was 21, also fell under the influence of radical preachers before going to Syria.[51] Zouheir did not have a special interest in reli­gion and politics; he had a BA degree in Information Technology. However, he fell under the spell of the radical religious narrative used by preachers who per­suaded him to join IS. In the third case, Nidhal Selmi, a famous Tunisian football player, also came under the influence of ultra-conservative salafists and, as a result, joined IS and was found dead in Syria in 2014.[52] Before becoming radical­ized, Selmi was not interested in religious extremism or politics. How­ever, he started spending a lot of time with radical preachers in a local mosque. Selmi’s father mentions that one of the factors that motivated his son to fight in Syria was online videos about the Syrian government’s violence against civil­ians in Syria. In the fourth case, a math teacher helped Mohamed Amrouni, a 17 year-old boy, join IS.[53] Mohamed was from a middle-class family. His older brother Ajmi Amrouni mentioned that before going to Syria he spent a lot of time on the Internet. Whereas IS’s online recruitment campaign has an impact on young people, the real recruiters have been active in schools and mosques. All these cases point to the active role of recruiters and, consequently, the or­gani­zation they are working for – IS. These cases can predominantly be as­cribed to the institutional model of mobilization, where the organization is the key actor in attracting individuals.

In Saudi Arabia, while one out of four cases fits the individual model of mo­bilization, the other three cases correspond to the institutional model. Subaii was motivated to join IS after the death of his brother and of Syrian children; his decision was based on anger.[54] He says that these were the main factors that pushed him to go to Syria through Turkey where he contacted a Syrian trafficker in person who then put him in contact with IS. Subaii was detained by the police when he returned to Saudi Arabia and later gave an interview about IS’s activities in Syria and Iraq. Subaii says that “most of the leaders of […] ISIS were Iraqis and Saudis and that they were working to recruit young Saudis to fight in Syria.” [55] Another young man, Al-Zayidi, said in his interview on a Saudi television channel that he joined IS after reading Fatwas online and contacting several preachers.[56] Al-Zaydi listened to preachers who said that Hezbollah and Iranians were destroying Syria – and mainly focused on injustice. A 25-year-old, Faisal bin Shaman al-Aanzi worked as a medical doctor in a local hospital before joining IS and was found dead after committing a car bomb suicide attack in Iraq.[57] Al-Aanzi’s decision to join IS was made following al-Baghdadi’s state­ment on the call of duty. Hamad al-Tamimi, an 18-year-old student and IS fighter, was captured in the al-Anbar province of Western Iraq by Iraqi security forces.[58] Al-Tamimi was from Riyadh, and before joining IS, he was studying reli­gion in a religious studies college. In his confession, al-Tamimi admitted that he was contacted and recruited by jihadists through the Internet. All these three examples indicate that Zayidi, Aanzi and Tamimi were influenced by indi­viduals linked to IS. These three cases are examples of the institutional model of recruitment.

b. France and the UK

The profiles of foreign fighters from these two countries are similar in many ways. For example, the majority of the fighters are from large Muslim commu­nities based in France and the UK [59] as a result of the extensive flow of Muslim immigrants to these countries in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s from former Brit­ish and French colonies. They are young (20-35 years old), educated mid­dle/ work­ing-class students and professionals who represent the second and third generation of Muslim immigrant communities. There are also Christians, who became Muslims and were gradually radicalized, although these are in the mi­nority. In general, these foreign fighters mostly “share a Salafist-jihadi ideol­ogy,” and most of them do not have military skills before they join terrorist groups.[60] An analysis of mobilization and recruitment in Europe in recent years reveals that the process is more bottom-up (individual) than top-down (institu­tional).[61] Top-down recruitment in Europe has been weakened and under­mined following international anti-terrorism operations launched in the wake of 9/11. According to the findings of a study carried out by King’s College Lon­don for the European Commission, today “Islamist militancy in Europe is be­lieved to consist of self-selected, multi-ethnic ‘local networks’ that have little or no connection” to terrorist organizations.[62] Mobilization and self-recruit­ment is widespread among young people, with converts playing a more signifi­cant role. As radicalization progresses, these people are linked to networks and cells that were created independently of terrorist organizations. This shows that an indi­vidual starts with self-radicalization, and then joins or forms a network of like-minded individuals within his/her community and country. The Internet has made it easier to find other radicalized people and their networks. Individual cases of mobilization and recruitment are considered below.

The mobilization of the four individuals from France occurred without the influence of a recruiter who, for example, was able initially to contact those in­dividuals directly and offline in order to persuade them to join IS. In most cases, these individuals planned their trips and contacted those who helped them to travel to the conflict zones on their own initiative. Almost all the cases show traces of self-radicalization. In each case, different factors (online and offline) facilitated the radicalization of each individual and further contributed to their decision to become a foreign fighter for IS.

Having experienced discrimination and spent some time in prison, Mehdi Nemmouche became a jihadist.[63] Nemmouche was from an underprivileged fam­ily that lived in Roubaix, a poor industrial city in northeastern France close to Belgium. Nemmouche’s mother said that their family was economically de­prived and considered by the local population to be outsiders because of their physical appearance. Before joining IS, Nemmouche was imprisoned several times for different types of crime, including robbery. He was significantly radi­calized in prison, and following his release, Nemmouche traveled to a number of places and  finally arrived in Syria to join IS.  Maxime Hauchard discovered


Table 3: Foreign Fighters from Western Europe.


Name and Age

Radicalization Process (ac­tors, events or pathways)

Form of Recruitment/Mobilization


Mehdi Nemmouche, 29

Discrimination and prison


Mickael Dos Santos, 22

Muslim friend + home-grown

Individual / Institutional)

Salahudine al-Faransi, 27

Conflict in Syria + inability to express frustration in mosques + videos of bin Laden’s sermons on the internet


United Kingdom

Abu Muhadjar, n/a

Duty to protect Muslims and do aid work


Abdul Raqib Amin, 26

Internet + desire to leave the land of ‘disbelievers’ and es­tablish a caliphate + inability to find like-minded people in mosques


Mohammed Emwazi aka Jihadi John, 26

Suspected of having connec­tion to terror groups + sup­pression by the security services


Brothers Muthana, Nasser and Aseel, 20 and 17

Mosques (radical preachers) + jihad as obligatory


Sources: BBC, Syria Comment, The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, International Business Times, France 24, Jihadology, The Soufan Group, Soc­journal, The Straits Times, The Telegraph, Mail Online News, NBC News, Daily Record, Mir­ror, and The Independent.


radical Islam online and was mobilized by online networks.[64] Hauchard, also known as Abu Abdallah el-Faransi, is a 22-year-old Frenchman from Le Bosc-Roger-en-Roumois in Normandy, who carried out beheadings of Syrian soldiers as well as American and Syrian hostages, after joining IS. Hauchard was from a Catholic family but converted to Islam at the age of 17. In his interview with the French TV news channel BFMTV, Hauchard said that “he became interested in Islam via the internet” and decided to go to Syria “to help create a caliphate” and commit “martyrdom.” [65]Another Muslim convert, Mickael Dos Santos, an ac­quaintance of Hauchard, also joined IS at the age of 22.[66] He was from a town to the east of Paris and grew up in a Catholic family. It was his Muslim friend who helped him learn about Islam, and then Dos Santos became radicalized on his own. According to Dos Santos’s girlfriend, he acquired radical views quickly and had “gone astray.” [67] Another individual, a 27-year-old Frenchman of Mo­roccan origin, who prefers to call himself Salahudine al-Faransi, left Paris with his wife and two daughters to join IS.[68] Salahudine became gradually radical­ized after he started following news about the Syrian conflict and, from there, jihad became an obligation for him. Salahudine was angered by the “world’s indifference toward [his] Muslim brothers” and was unable to express his frus­tration in mosques.[69] Instead, Salahudine started watching videos online and lis­tening to radical speeches, and finally decided to go to Syria on his own. Salahudine claimed that he did not undergo a religious radicalization process: rather, his levels of awareness were raised. He said, “I did not join any network or group, believe me. I did not know anyone. I prepared for my journey alone.” [70]

In three out of four cases in the UK, individuals became radicalized and then joined IS because of personal reasons, which fits with an individual model of radicalization. Moral outrage and a sense of duty to protect Muslims pushed Abu Muhadjar to leave his home.[71] Muhadjar was from a well-educated mid­dle-class family, but he decided to leave his family “to protect Muslim lands and blood of [Sunni] Muslims” and “do aid work as well.” [72] Importantly, Muhadjar stated that no one influenced his decision to become a foreign fighter; he says, “There was no recruitment process to come here. It was an individual decision that I took.” [73]Bangladeshi-born Abdul Raqib Amin, a 26-year-old engineering stu­dent from Aberdeen, Scotland stated that he was mobilized by online net­works and had a desire to leave the country.[74] He says, “I left the UK to fight for the sake of Allah … fight until the Khilafah (rule of Islam) is established.” [75] He mentioned that mosques did not have an impact on his choice to join up to ji­had; he claimed, “In the Aberdeen mosque there is not one person with the same mentality as me. They don’t agree with jihad and disagree with all these extremists.” [76] Another fighter, Jihadi John, who brutally killed several hostages in publicly disseminated IS videos, was identified as Mohammed Emwazi from West London.[77] His path to radicalization was different. Kuwaiti-born Emwazi was a graduate of Westminster University. In 2009, after his graduation, Emwazi took a trip to Tanzania, or what he called a safari holiday. However, upon his arrival in Dar es Salaam, he was arrested by the police and was not allowed to stay in Tanzania. He was suspected of having connections with ter­ror groups in Somalia. Emwazi finally joined IS following bullying by the security forces. In the case of the Muthana brothers, they were radicalized in mosques, meaning that a radical preacher influenced them. Nasser Muthana, a 20-year-old Yemeni-born student from Cardiff, who was offered a place to study medi­cine at four universities, appeared in the recruitment video released by IS. His father said that his son became radicalized following his frequent visits to dif­ferent mosques. The same path was followed by his second son Aseel, a 17-year-old teenager who, influenced by his brother, also joined IS. In his online conversation with BBC Wales, Aseel stated that he considers jihad to be obliga­tory.[78]

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

With the recent development of Islamic State, the phenomenon of foreign fighters and the mechanism of their recruitment and mobilization have become an acute security problem. Understanding how people join Islamic State could help to reduce the scale of the threat posed by foreign fighters. Foreign fighters have been one of the primary sources of Islamic State’s strength. There has been continuous growth in the number of foreign fighters from different coun­tries and regions. This facilitates Islamic State’s attempts to present itself as a transnational entity. Conceptually, the mobilization process can be divided into two categories: a) a “terrorist organization” as the main actor recruiting individ­uals and b) “homegrown radicalized individuals” joining a terrorist organization by their own decision.

The type of mobilization process varies by region and is dependent on the profile of the country in question. This analysis of sixteen individual case stud­ies shows that Islamic State has actively recruited individuals in Tunisia and Saudi Arabia with the help of radical preachers while the process of self-radi­calization is the main driver of mobilization in most of the cases in the United Kingdom and France. This means that both institutional and individual models of mobilization and recruitment are at play, but that the prevalence of each also depends on the specific nature of the country in question. Overall, the study of cases from Tunisia and Saudi Arabia demonstrates the dominance of institutional recruitment while domestic radicalization is more frequent in France and the UK.

Based on this analysis, the following policy recommendations have been developed: 1) Tunisia and Saudi Arabia should focus on and combat the chan­nels of recruitment within their borders and cut external recruitment links coming from neighboring countries. At the same time, the provision of decent jobs for the population, especially young people, would be crucial in the war against terrorism. 2) France and the UK, in addition to their involvement in op­erations against IS, should concentrate on homegrown radicalization and work actively with the local population, and especially with Muslim population (who are prone to radicalization). These two countries should reconsider their na­tional identity-building projects and work to prevent their minorities (or in this case, the Muslim population) being discriminated against and alienated. 3) The international community should help to build strong governments in the terri­tories of the countries captured by IS – governments able to meet the needs of their populations and stand up to terrorist organizations. Otherwise, a lack of coherence and a common international as well as regional approach to the fight against terrorism will continue to have a negative effect on the efforts of different countries and international organizations trying to bring peace to Syria and Iraq.




About the author

Almakan Orozobekova is a researcher and PhD Candidate at the Max Planck In­stitute for Social Anthropology, Research Group How Terrorists Learn. She has professional experience at the OSCE Conflict Prevention Centre and the West­ern Countries Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Re­public. She is a graduate of the OSCE Academy, the Geneva Centre for Secu­rity Policy (GCSP), and the University of Geneva. She received her Bachelor’s De­gree in International Relations from the International University of Central Asia. Her research interests include terrorism, learning of terrorist organiza­tions, foreign fighters, radicalization, extremism, uprisings, conflict studies, in­terna­tional security, international relations, and politics.

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[3]    Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Phila­delphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), 69.
[4]    Ibid.
[5]    Charles Lister, “Assessing Syria’s Jihad,” in Middle Eastern Security, the US Pivot and the Rise of ISIS, ed. Toby Dodge and Emile Hokayem (New York: Routledge, 2014), 73.
[6]    Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, Al Qa’ida’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq: A First Look at the Sinjar Records (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center Report, US Military Acad­emy at West Point, 2007), 4.
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[8]    Ibid.
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[10]  Lister, “Assessing Syria’s Jihad,” 73.
[11]  Ibid.
[12]  Ibid., 74.
[13]  Mohamedou, Deceptive Rebooting, 5.
[14]  Ibid.
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[17]  Ibid.
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[20]  Ibid.
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[49]  Ibid.
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[51]  Ibid.
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[59]  Foreign fighters from Western countries in the ranks of the rebel organizations affili­ated with Al-Qaeda and the global jihad in Syria (Israel: The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2014), 5.
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[61]  Neumann and Rogers, Recruitment and Mobilisation, 17.
[62]  Ibid.
[63]  Loretta Bass, “What Motivates European Youth to Join ISIS?” Syria Comment, last modified November 20th, 2014,
[64]  “The French jihadi: Enfant de la Patrie,” The Economist, last modified November 18, 2014,
[65]  Anne Penketh, “Frenchman in Isis Beheading Video Had Told TV of Caliphate Hopes,” The Guardian, last modified November 17, 2014,
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[68]  Stéphane Mantoux, “Hide These Jihadists That I Can’t See: The French Volunteers In Syria,” Jihadology, last modified February 25, 2014,
[69]  Ibid.
[70]  Ibid.
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[72]  Richard Barrett, Foreign Fighters in Syria (New York: TSF, 2014), 21.
[73]  Ling Chang Hong, “8 Things to know about British Islamic extremists,” The Straits Times, last modified August 21, 2014,
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[75]  Ibid.
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