A market researcher explains why Westerners join Muslim extremist groups.
After authorities disclosed an American couple killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, December 2, the question has become urgent: What causes Westerners to join Muslim extremist groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)?
A Lebanese market research company says it has coaxed out a more complete profile of their motivations, according to an article in Defense One, a national security news website. The Beirut-based firm Quantum Communications studied televised one-on-one interviews with former and current fighters shown on Saudi and Iraqi channels.
According to the study, released earlier this year, Americans and other Westerners are more likely to be drawn to Islamic extremist groups as they search for identity. They feel like outsiders in Western culture and seek out the rules, structure and cohesiveness of the group to provide them a sense of belonging, the report says.
“Belonging defines them, their role, their friends, and their interaction with society,” as the group of “identity seekers” is described in the report; more than 60 percent of this group was from the West that included U.S. French and British nationals. “In this context the Islamic Ummah (identity) provides a pre-packaged transnational identity.”
The report succinctly describes Western converts as “confident naïfs with an axe to grind.” Among the identity seekers the report identified Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a 22-year-old Florida man who, according to authorities, blew himself and others up using a truck bomb in Syria in 2014. He was fighting with an al-Qaeda splinter organization known as al-Nusra Front.
The 2015 study uses a psycho-contextual analytical technique developed by a Canadian psychologist to glean people’s motivations.
In testimony to Congress earlier this year, Michael Lumpkin, assistant defense secretary for special operations/low-intensity conflict, said the Pentagon would use a framework similar to that in the Quantum study to analyze, detect and deter homegrown Islamic terrorists.
Besides the Western recruits, the market researcher also studied televised interviews with ISIS supporters from Syria and Iraq as well as other Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia. The firm grouped the fighters into nine categories, based on why they said they joined Islamic radical groups.
Besides identity seekers, the other categories included:
- Status seekers who want to improve their social status through money and recognition;
- Revenge seekers who identify with those oppressed by the West;
- Redemption seekers who are seeking to erase past sins;
- Responsibility seekers, most often from the war zone, who are looking to better ways to support and protect their families;
- Thrill seekers who are looking for adventure;
- Ideology seekers who are looking to impose their view of Islam;
- Justice seekers who believe they are righting a wrong; and
- Death seekers, who are often people who have lost people in the conflict and now seek to die as martyrs, rather than commit suicide.
A more common reason among Westerners was a search for identity.
But a few also were characterized as thrill seekers. An example given by the report was Eric Harroun, a 30-year-old American veteran, who went to fight in Syria in 2013 with the Free Syrian Army. He later died of a drug overdose.
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