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A UN report find that most young men who join rebel groups fighting in Syria are driven by factors like poverty and lack of opportunity, rather than devotion to Islam.

A UN report find that most young men who join rebel groups fighting in Syria are driven by factors like poverty and lack of opportunity, rather than devotion to Islam. (Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty)

UN Report: Muslim Youth Fighting in Syria Mostly Not Motivated By Islam

Juan Cole

 by Informed Comment

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

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, 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 division of labour.' This theory has led some observers to call for a ‘social network approach to terrorism’.


© 2021 Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His newest book, "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires" was published in 2020. He is also the author of  "The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East" (2015) and "Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East" (2008).  He has appeared widely on television, radio, and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. 

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