What drives Westerners to join the jihadist fight?

New Scientist: It’s a question being asked around the world. How can you stem the flow of foreign jihadis making their way to Syria and Iraq? As New Scientist went to press, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic were finalising their game plans to tackle the rise of Sunni jihadist group Islamic State, but the issue of homegrown fighters won’t be far from their minds.

The answers will be based partly on research that a handful of counter-terrorism scientists have carried out since 9/11. But piecing together the mindset of a jihadi hasn’t been easy because of a scarcity of field data, which means that much foreign policy, and media coverage, is underpinned by speculation rather than hard data. In recent months, several researchers have called on the US government to allow academics access to intelligence data, such as intercepted communications and transcripts of interviews, to help them understand how fighters become radicalised.

Despite the shortage of first-hand material, some things seem clear. For instance, the idea that hundreds of British and other European Muslims fighting for IS were brainwashed or coerced by jihadist recruiters into joining is almost certainly wrong.

Those who study terrorist behaviour claim that the vast majority of fighters originating in the West are radicalised at home, influenced largely by their own circle of friends. “The brainwashing theory is baloney,” says Scott Atran of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. This is more about “young people hooking up with their friends and going on a glorious mission”.

Evidence collected by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London supports this view. The ICSR has been following about 450 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, communicating with dozens of them through social media tools such as Facebook and WhatsApp and conducting interviews on the Syrian border. It estimates that 80-85 per cent of them mobilised with their peer group. [Continue reading…]

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