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ISIS recruits divided on ethnic lines

Sources estimate anywhere between 30,000 to 40,000 foreign fighters from over 80 countries have entered the conflicts in Syria and Iraq since 2012. This ethnically diverse invading force includes extremists from the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Central Asia, South East Asia, the Balkans, Western Europe, North America, and Australia. The motivations of ISIS recruits vary depending on their country of origin, according to experts, and under the ISIS ethnic hierarchy, not all Muslims are equal.

Not all ISIS recruits are motivated by the same cause, Jacinta Carroll, counter terrorism expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told The Point Magazine.  

“The ethnic groups seen amongst ISIS’s membership reflect a range of factors, including nationalist reasons. For example, Chechen fighters from the Caucasus feature in ISIS as they have been routed from their home country, while many Iraqi members are disenfranchised former Ba’ath Party military, who have a localised grievance with the Iraqi government. Members of other terrorist groups from Southeast Asia and elsewhere have travelled to get experience unavailable in their own countries, due to the success of counter-terrorism operations, and then return to fight their own nationalist causes.”

Some ISIS recruits are simple mercenaries who are only motivated by money, while others are seeking personal salvation for past sins.

“There are different motivations in other countries. In Southeast Asia, for example, some people are known to have been originally drawn to ISIS because of the pay being offered, and returned home when the money started to run out. In Europe, where a high proportion of foreign fighters are criminals, many go to fight in the Middle East with the promise that this will exonerate them for their previous life of crime,” Carroll said.

Carroll said the motivations of ISIS recruits from Western countries often reflect very Western ideals about fighting perceived global injustice.    

“ISIS has attracted foreign fighters from many different countries. But the organisation is not egalitarian, so it would be incorrect to call it “multi-cultural” as it doesn’t equally respect race or culture. Recruits are typically grouped linguistically, so they can communicate with each other. And there are reports of some ethnicities being treated as lower class, including being forced to be servants for others.”

– Jacinta Carroll, counter terrorism expert at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI)

“The research on motivations suggests that foreign fighters from first-world countries are attracted by very different things than others, including in particular the romantic and idealised version of society, and injustices carried out by others in the world, that ISIS promotes: these play to very Western concepts of social justice and improving society. ISIS takes marketing very seriously and has established marketing, communications and propaganda units in each of its organisations, ensuring that the right kind of message gets to the different audiences.” 

So does the diversity of nationalities within ISIS make it a “multicultural” terrorist organisation? Carroll thinks not. 

“ISIS has attracted foreign fighters from many different countries. But the organisation is not egalitarian, so it would be incorrect to call it “multi-cultural” as it doesn’t equally respect race or culture. Recruits are typically grouped linguistically, so they can communicate with each other. And there are reports of some ethnicities being treated as lower class, including being forced to be servants for others.”

 

Backgrounds of Australian foreign fighters

Authorities estimate around 7,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are from Western countries, including around 200 Australians since the outbreak of the conflict –  a small proportion of ISIS’s overall numbers, but a significant concern for Australia’s domestic security if any of them return home as trained terrorists.

In a 2015 study of 54 Australian foreign fighters, ASPI found that 42.59 per cent were born in Australia, and they had an average age of under 25. In terms of ancestry, 18.52 per cent had a Lebanese heritage, 9.26 percent Anglo-Australian, 7.41 per cent were from an Afghani background, 7.41 from Somali backgrounds, and 5.56 from Turkish families. The ancestry of over 20 per cent of the sample was unknown, and the sample included individuals from a mixed range of other backgrounds, including  Neil Prakash, an Australian from a mixed Fijian-Indian and Cambodian background. 

“From what we have seen, the backgrounds are mixed. They are typically Australian-born, are undertaking or have completed high school and are from suburban areas of major cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne. Many, but not all, are from families with Middle Eastern and Muslim background, but not particularly connected with that culture or religion,” Carroll said.

Carroll said that very few Australian foreign fighters had any family or ancestral ties to Syria or Iraq. She said the ethnic backgrounds of ISIS recruits from Western countries varies according to country of origin. 

“Lebanese Australians form a large proportion of Australia’s Muslim community, so it’s unsurprising that they feature amongst those Australians who are involved with ISIS, but the overall numbers are small [less than 0.0002% of Australia’s total Muslim population of nearly half a million – ed.]… In other Western countries, the heritage of foreign fighters similarly reflects some of the local Muslim community, such as many of those in France and Belgium coming from North Africa.”

Lebanon was the most common destination for Australian foreign fighters in the decade preceding the outbreak of the Syria conflict in 2012, according to a research paper undertaken for the Lowy Institute for International Policy by Andrew Zammit in 2015.

“Australia is unusual in that Lebanon features so heavily in its foreign fighter history. At least 16 Australians appear to have been involved in jihadist activity in Lebanon, whereas Lebanon rarely features prominently as a foreign fighter destination for other Western countries,” the paper states.

Zammit argues that historical and geographical links between Lebanon and Syria have opened unique pathways for Australian foreign fighters to join the Syria conflict, on both sides, without relying on the Turkey-Syria border for entry.

However, the ASPI report found the proportion of Australian foreign fighters with Lebanese ancestry has reduced significantly as the Syria and Iraq conflicts have attracted an increasingly diverse range of recruits. 

Ongoing threat

Carroll said that although ISIS is losing the battle in Syria and Iraq, their Australian followers still pose a serious security risk to Australia.

“From experience of previous conflicts, the threat is high. While smaller numbers of Australian have fought with terrorist groups in the past, such as with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, a significant number went on to be involved in planning attacks in Australia. While none of these succeeded, 19 returned fighters were charged with terrorism offences between 2001-2014. Today, Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to call for attacks on Australia and Australians, and we’ve seen this increase with ISIS as it loses in the Middle East.”

A spokesperson for the Australian Attorney General’s Department told The Point Magazine that foreign fighters returning to Australia would be dealt with by law enforcement and security agencies.

“Anyone fighting with, providing material support to or associating with ISIL, or other terrorist groups, is committing a serious crime and will be subject to the law. Returnees who are not subject to criminal charges are assessed for their level of risk to the community and considered for intervention programmes.” 

The Point

The motivations of ISIS recruits vary depending on their country of origin, according to experts, and under the ISIS ethnic hierarchy, not all Muslims are equal.

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