As ISIS expanded its territory over Iraq and Syria, many Westerners from outside the region have left their homes to fight for the Jihadist group. Their reasons for joining differ, from helping the suffering, trying to become closer to Islam, or finding brotherhood and community. Yet they all have one thing in common: They left their previous lives to join, and fight, for ISIS.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took advantage of a region torn by civil war and sectarian strife to carve out substantial territory around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. ISIS attracted the outrage of many in the international community after it executed Western journalists and persecuted the Yazidis, an ethnic minority in Iraq. A U.S.-led international coalition has now vowed to destroy ISIS by coordinating air strikes with local ground forces.
According to the Washington Post, as many as 3,000 Westerners have joined ISIS. They hail from a variety of nations, including France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and even the United States. It is clear that Westerners are being recruited by ISIS, but somewhat ambiguous as to why they’ve left their previous lives to fight for such a bloody cause.
“In those types of circumstances of a lot of war and oppression, Muslims have a strong sense of sharing common brotherhood with Muslims, wherever they are,” Abdul-Malik Ryan, the assistant director of DePaul’s Religious Diversity and Loop Ministries, said. “Unfortunately, what happens a lot of the time is that people draw (others) by saying we are suffering here, we’re being attacked, we’re being killed, and we need people to come help us.”
The Islamic State has reached out to Muslims around the globe by proclaiming they are fighting in the name of Jihad. “Jihad is a noble concept which means struggling,” Ryan said. “One of the forms of Jihad is struggling through warfare on behalf of the innocent or oppressed.”
Yet many Westerners who came to fight for ISIS have found something completely contrary to their expectations. “When people try to come help, (ISIS) would tell them, ‘What we really need you to do is suicide bombing’,” Ryan said. “Something that doesn’t really correspond with what they came there to do, and taking advantage of their wanting to help and putting them in a bad situation.”
ISIS utilized a variety of methods to recruit potentially interested Westerners. Social media, like YouTube, Twitter and Instagram have been used to broadcast high-quality produced propaganda, such as videos which displayed gun-wielding ISIS members, to an ISIS-themed videogame called “Grand Theft Auto: Salil al-Sawarem.” Productions are translated into Western languages to target different audiences and to portray ISIS’ policy of accepting members from all ethnicities.
The level of violence in ISIS’ videos is unique compared to that of other Jihadist groups. In some of their most gruesome productions, a British-accented ISIS member beheaded journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff, as well as British aid worker Alan Henning. The latter video was released Oct. 3. “They are not emphasizing fighting on behalf of people who are suffering and oppressed,” Ryan said. “They are emphasizing brutality and viciousness.”
Terminology such as “Jihad” or “Caliphate” are used by ISIS because “Islam is very strong emotionally,” Ryan said. “They will use that terminology regardless of where they are coming from, because this is what will draw people’s hearts.”
Whether ISIS is living up to that definition is debatable, but it is clear that only a very small portion of the global Muslim community has answered the call.
“I can’t understand why anyone would be drawn to that, especially Muslims,” Ryan said. ”Because that is the furthest thing from Islam.”