Young men who leave their homes to fight for terrorist groups in Syria mainly come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have low levels of education and “lack any basic understanding of the true meaning of jihad or even the Islamic faith”, according to a new report.
A study for the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism found that despite claiming to protect Muslims, most of the returned fighters were “novices” in their religion and some did not know how to pray properly.
“Most saw their religion in terms of justice and injustice rather than in terms of piety and spirituality,” said the authors of the report, which was based on interviews with 43 people from 12 countries.
They found that a typical fighter “is most likely to be male, young and disadvantaged economically, educationally, and in terms of the labour market”.
“He is also more likely than not to come from a marginalised background, both socially and politically,” the reported added.
“Most were unemployed, or underemployed, and/or said that their life lacked meaning.”
Three quarters of those interviewed reached Syria but subsequently decided to leave, while others were intercepted by authorities in their own country or stopped en route.
Despite an appeal to all UN member states, the authors expressed regret that only seven countries agreed to participate in the study – three from the EU and four from the Middle East and North Africa.
Professor Hamed el-Said, of Manchester Metropolitan University, and terrorism expert Richard Barrett met most of the returnees in prison or under the watchful eye of security services.
The majority of interviewed fighters, who attempted to join groups including Isis, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and jihadi Ahrar al-Sham, came from large and dysfunctional families in deprived parts of cities where they were “isolated from mainstream social, economic and political activity”.
“Religious belief seems to have played a minimal role in the motivation of this sample,” the report found, saying economic factors had become more important as terrorist groups promised wages, homes and even wives.
The findings supported previous research using leaked Isis documents, which showed that most recruits profess to have only a “basic” knowledge of Sharia law, and warnings of a growing“crime-terror nexus” seeing violent criminals travel to Syria in the hope of “redemption”.
Following the declaration of the so-called Islamic State in 2014, the group produced a huge amount of propaganda seeking to attract Muslims with the promise of life free of supposed Western oppression, lived in comfort and peace.
Rose-tinted videos sought to present a utopian existence, showing smiling militants engaging in activities like bee-keeping, farming and even pizza-making as Western fighters used Twitter to broadcast images of palatial homes, swimming pools and expensive cars provided by the “caliphate”.