A new study explains why people join ISIS (with unexpected answers)

Summary: Insurgencies can’t be fought like conventional wars. Patton’s Third Army didn’t need to know what motivated the NAZIs. The nations of the Middle East cannot defeat ISIS without understanding it, while America’s ignorant efforts (invading, occupying, bombing, and assassinations) have helped destabilize the region. But academics have begun to provide answers, puzzling though they are. Here is one useful new paper.

ISIS spreading the word
Beheading of James Foley on 19 August 2014.

What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS?

A paper by Efraim Benmelech (Prof Finance, Northwestern U)
and Esteban F. Klor (Prof of Economics, Hebrew U).
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), April 2016.

Les Picker describes the paper in the June 16 NBER Digest.

“As of December 2015, approximately 30,000 fighters from at least 85 countries had joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Although the great majority of ISIS recruits come from the Middle East and the Arab world, there are also many from Western nations, including most member-states of the European Union, as well as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Thousands of fighters from Russia and hundreds from Indonesia and Tajikistan also have joined. ISIS’s recruitment of foreign fighters is a global phenomenon that provides the organization with the human capital needed to operate outside the Middle East.

“{The paper explores} how country characteristics are associated with ISIS recruit flows. They discover more about what does not motivate the foreign fighters than what does.

“They find that poor economic conditions do not drive participation in ISIS. Rather, the number of ISIS fighters from a given country is positively correlated with that country’s per capita gross domestic product and its place on the Human Development Index. Many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions.

Where Are ISIS’s Foreign Fighters Coming From?

ISIS Fighters and Economic Conditions

Many come to the Middle East from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions. Click to enlarge.

“Other factors that explain the number of ISIS foreign fighters are the size of a country’s Muslim population and its homogeneity. A country’s political characteristics are not correlated with the number of ISIS fighters it produces. Foreign recruits into terror organizations come largely from prosperous, ethnically and linguistically homogeneous countries.

“Building on previous research that suggests that recruitment is driven by religious and political ideology, the researchers find that the more homogeneous the host country is, the more difficulties Muslim immigrants experience in their process of assimilation. This social isolation seems to induce radicalization, increasing the supply of potential recruits.

“Although the researchers are unable to determine precisely why people join ISIS, their results suggest this difficulty of assimilation into homogeneous Western countries and ISIS’s appeal to impressionable youth through its sophisticated propaganda machine and social media are major contributors.”

Abstract of the paper

“This paper provides the first systematic analysis of the link between economic, political, and social conditions and the global phenomenon of ISIS foreign fighters. We find that poor economic conditions do not drive participation in ISIS. In contrast, the number of ISIS foreign fighters is positively correlated with a country’s GDP per capita and Human Development Index (HDI). In fact, many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions.

“Other factors that explain the number of ISIS foreign fighters are the size of a country’s Muslim population and its ethnic homogeneity. Although we cannot directly determine why people join ISIS, our results suggest that the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS is driven not by economic or political conditions but rather by ideology and the difficulty of assimilation into homogeneous Western countries.”

NBER

About the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Founded in 1920, the NBER is the nation’s leading nonprofit economic research organization, a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to conducting economic research.

The Bureau’s associates concentrate on four types of empirical research: developing new statistical measurements, estimating quantitative models of economic behavior, assessing the economic effects of public policies, and projecting the effects of alternative policy proposals. The NBER is supported by research grants from government agencies and private foundations, by investment income, and by contributions from individuals and corporations.

For More Information

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For a deeper exploration of this problem I recommend reading Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate and “We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists.

Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate
Available at Amazon.
We Love Death As You Love Life
Available at Amazon.

2 thoughts on “A new study explains why people join ISIS (with unexpected answers)

  1. I don’t think that anything in this paper is new or unexpected. Historically, we know why people revolt. The US founders were rich landowners who did well in the British Empire- Economic situation was not the issue. At the end of WWI, the original Muslim Brotherhood were elites revolting against the secular government- not constrained by economic conditions.

    1. Mike,

      I agree, of course. With one tweak to your comment: I’d say it “should not be unexpected — but it is.” That is, this finding contradicts much written by the great and good about the rise of jihadists in the Middle East and the West.

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