Posted by Joshua on Thursday, November 20th, 2014
What Motivates European Youth to Join ISIS?
By Loretta E. Bass, University of Oklahoma
“Push” Factors Helping ISIS Recruitment
Western governments are concerned about stemming the wave of foreign fighters flocking to join ISIS’s ranks. They worry that fighters, who hold Western passports, will return to their native or adoptive lands and commit acts of terror. Some 15,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have gone to Syria.1 Of these, some 5,000 are believed to be young people of immigrant descent from European Union countries2. Bernard Cazeneuve, Frances’s Interior Minister, estimates that 36 French citizens have died fighting for ISIS and another 930 are either currently a part of ISIS or trying to join the IS effort in Syria and Iraq3. The numbers from other Western countries are also worrying: 800 from the United Kingdom, 300 from Germany.
Although the media is slowly picking up on this threat, there has been little analysis or insight into the motivation of these recruits, aside from attributing some mystical marketing skills to ISIS. In fact, research suggests that there is a significant “push” factor providing a conducive context for ISIS recruitment in Europe. ISIS has been able to capitalize on the lack of social integration of young people of Muslim immigrant descent in Europe, who are often victims of discrimination and stymied from full participation in European labor markets and societies. The “elephant in the room” is in fact Europe’s inability to welcome fully and integrate its immigrant populations. The irony is that many recruits are Westernized second-generation immigrants, who grow up having a non-Western, “immigrant other” status thrust upon them. This may arise by virtue of physical characteristics such as skin color or ethnic background, or by having a name such as Mohammed or Abdoulaye, or because they practice Islam in public. The failure to integrate immigrants creates a translocal phenomenon by which individuals raised in a local context (say, a working class neighborhood in the suburbs of Paris or London) are pushed into adopting a transnational identity and association not truly their own. This explains why ISIS recruits are so varied in terms of background, culture, education, and even class.
The danger of ISIS fighters returning to Europe has already been felt in France, and a recent headline in France’s leading newspaper, Le Monde, even publicly asks what the Islamic State is capable of in Europe.4 A current example of this danger can be found in the case of Mehdi Nemmouche, a 29-year-old French citizen and second-generation immigrant, who was arrested for killing three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May of this year. It is believed that he fought for ISIS in Syria in 2013. Nemmouche grew up in Roubaix, a city in northeastern France with a substantial immigrant population and limited economic opportunity. His profile was by no means unusual. An immigrant mother reported that she and her family live in “another France” where they experience a lower economic level and an immigrant typecast due to their physical characteristics that mark them as outsiders.5 If one is perceived to be both Muslim and immigrant, there is a compound effect that carries a stigma resulting in an entire array of lower life chances.
France represents a bellwether in its effort to integrate non-Western immigrants compared to other European countries. In October 2005, three weeks of rioting erupted within the immigrant community in the Clichy-sous-Bois suburb of Paris to demonstrate against unequal treatment. The violence spread to 300 urban areas in France and, to a lesser extent, to immigrant communities all over Western Europe. France has the largest immigrant population and the largest Muslim population proportionally and in absolute numbers in Europe. Immigration accounts for 25 percent of the annual population growth rate, and immigrants and second-generation children represent 19 percent of the total French population, or about 11.8 million people.6 Among immigrants, 67 percent come from overwhelmingly Muslim countries in North Africa, the Maghreb and Turkey, and another 20 percent come from West African countries with substantial Muslim populations.7 Muslims are estimated to be 7.5 percent of the French population today and anticipated to reach 10.3 percent by 2030.8 Overall immigrant integration, and particularly the incorporation of Muslim immigrants, remains an important challenge for French society and other European countries. Not meeting this challenge has meant recurring protests in France’s immigrant suburbs in 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013.
Although France has seen the worst of such demonstrations, other European countries generally have developed rather rigid policies as a response to Muslim immigrants’ cultural differences. As notable examples, Switzerland and Austria put laws into place since 2009 that eliminate the construction of mosques with minarets9, both France and Belgium have passed laws banning the wearing of a full-face veil in public, and at the city and regional levels in Spain, Switzerland, and Italy, laws banning face veils have been adopted.
Policies such as these are both examples and symbols of hostility toward immigrants that inform a whole range of treatment and outcomes, from missed educational opportunities and joblessness to discrimination in housing. The result is that second-generation immigrants growing up culturally similar to their local French, British, or German neighbors come to inhabit a translocal space where their identities are defined not by their own assimilation or even varied immigrant roots but the expectations of the majority population treating them like a generic Muslim “other.” As an example, the Brighton, England 19-year-old black youth, Ibrahim Kamara, the son of an immigrant from Sierra Leone, joined ISIS in February 2014.10 His biography illustrates a path to recruitment that could have been diverted. He endured a childhood punctuated with racial abuse and name calling in the white-majority residential area where his mother rented their home. A product of public schools, Ibrahim struggled at school and failed from his computer engineering program in 2013. He then switched to an easier course of study that would lead to fewer career opportunities. It was in this context that he became radicalized in his local neighborhood and through ISIS internet recruitment materials. Ibrahim was killed in Syria in late September. His bewildered mother learned of his death on Facebook.
In France, young people of both North African and Sub-Saharan descent talk about being, “French on the inside, African on the out,” because even though they have taken on “French” values and ideals, they still are perceived and treated by the larger society as outsiders. Sayad10 describes this ambiguity:
I am Algerian despite my French papers; I am French despite my Algerian appearance…I was not born in Algeria, I was not brought up in Algeria, I’m not at home in Algeria (or I don’t have Algerian habits), I don’t think like an Algerian…but I feel Algerian all the same.
For young people who are citizens of immigrant descent, growing up as an “other” in society, especially when combined with insults, discrimination, and joblessness, can push them to seek a home where they belong and feel respected and valued. It is in this context that ISIS finds susceptible recruits.
The reasons for ISIS’s recruiting successes are likely as varied as the recruits themselves, including youth unemployment and globalization itself. But clearly many European recruits are pushed toward joining ISIS by their failure to be assimilated, accepted, and respected by their adoptive countries. The challenge for Europe going forward will be to change its treatment of immigrants even as it rightfully recognizes the danger some within those ranks pose.
* Loretta Bass’ most recent book is, African Immigrant Families in Another France (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2014). Loretta can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org and is presently on sabbatical in Frankfurt, Germany.
- CNN, 2014, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency data, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/11/world/meast/isis-syria-iraq/
- IJR, 2014, International Journal Review, “Meet the Youngest Jihadists in ISIS: The Little Girls Being Recruited by Islamic State to Wage War,” by Kyle Becker (9/17/2014) http://www.ijreview.com/2014/09/176894-young-jihad/
- The Economist. “French Jihadists Self-service,” Pp. 28-9. October 11, 2014.
- “De quoi l’Etat islamique est-il capable en Occident?” Le Monde.fr 23.09.2014, http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2014/09/23/quelles-menaces-fait-peser-l-etat-islamique_4492250_3218.html?xtmc=l_etat_islamique_nemmouche&xtcr=8
- Bass, Loretta E., African Immigrant Families in Another France. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
- Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques [INSEE] (2008) National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies [French census data], http://www.insee.fr
- Gbadamassi, F. 2009, Solis Conseil, published in Afrik.com, “Les personnes originaires d’Afrique, des Dom-Tom et de la Turquie sont 5,5 millions dans l’Hexagone,” http://www.afrik.com/article16248.html
- Pew Research Center, 2011, “The Future of the Global Muslim: Population,” Projections for 2010–2030, http://pewforum.org/The-Future-of-the-Global-Muslim-Population.aspx
- A 2009 referendum passed by 57.5 percent of the Swiss population amended the constitution to eliminate the construction of mosques with minarets at a time when there were four minarets in the Switzerland. A similar law bans minarets in two Austrian provinces. Simcox, R. 2009, “The nativist response to the Swiss minaret ban – The Centre For Social Cohesion,” Socialcohesion.co.uk.com, 2014, 27 Sept., “Bewildered Fury of the Brighton Mum Whose Teenage Son Ran Off to become a Jihad,” http://www.abreakingnews.com/world/bewildered-fury-of-the-brighton-mum-whose-teenage-son-ran-off-to-become-a-jihadi-he-should-have-been-at-college-but-this-week-ibrahim-was-killed-by-a-us-bomb-in-syria-h234609.html
- Sayad, Abdelmalek, 2004 , The Suffering of the Immigrant, English translation of A. Sayad (1999) La double absence, Malden, MA: Polity Press.