Fighting the Islamic State: Understanding Why Transnational Fighters Mobilize

by Jason Fritz

This past week, The World – a joint venture between Public Radio International and the British Broadcasting Corporation – aired a story that included some highlights of my research with Joseph Young at American University.[1] For approximately two years now, we have been examining American civilians who have volunteered to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight against the Islamic State. By rough estimates, some 300 U.S. citizens have done so, joining forces with the Syrian or Iraqi Kurdish militias or Assyrian Christian militias. On the whole, these transnational fighters have been treated mostly as a curiosity, rather than a security threat or asset.

This raises the question: why are we studying them? While rather interesting in their own right, we believe that this specific population can help researchers gain insights into why individuals mobilize to fight in conflicts with which they seemingly have little connection. This is why our research to date has focused on American foreign fighters: it is not illegal in the United States. Because it is not, we are able to find fighters willing to discuss their motivations and experiences more readily than in places where such fighting is illegal, such as in Australia. We firmly expect that these insights can inform the processes by which jihadi foreign fighters radicalize and mobilize, and thus help build actionable policies to identify and stymie those processes.

So why do they fight? Our background research – a full treatment of which will be published soon in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence – indicated that there are as many motivations as there are fighters.[2] Some are U.S. military veterans and are returning to a war they left behind when they left the services. Non-veterans are also seeking danger and adventure, while there are a handful of political ideologues joining the socialist YPG in Syria. Nearly all of them have exhibited moral shock at the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State.

This is an ongoing research program that will continue for the coming year. We will be conducting more interviews with returning fighters. And we will be expanding our geographic domain to include Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada. We envisage that it will prove useful in helping governments prevent future illegal transnational fighting.