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Western Foreign Fighters in Syria: An Empirical Analysis of Recruitment and Mobilization Mechanisms


Author: Justin D Dragon

Date of Publication: June 2015

Journal / Publisher: Naval Postgraduate School




Purpose of the study

Key questions 

Key mechanisms for recruitment and mobilisation of foreign fighters



Empirical study: compiled biographies of 20 Foreign Fighters and coded factors relevant for four hypotheses regarding mechanisms for recruitment and mobilisation

Number of participants

Data collected for 117 prospective Foreign Fighters, Analysis completed on 20 Foreign Fighters (Syria)


US, Europe, Australia

Type of ‘participant’ 

Islamic terrorism


Research was to identify the impact of networks (traditional social networks and online networks), anchoring and group dynamics on recruiting and mobilisation of foreign fighters to Syria.

Key findings 

Although Western foreign fighters often prescribe to an ideological frame, other variables such as networks and group dynamics, demonstrated greater recruiting and mobilizing potential. The data indicates that networks, particularly proximate social ones, are critical to recruiting and mobilizing foreign fighters, more so than online networks that were but perhaps a “catalyst for recruitment and mobilization, but not an independent causal mechanism.”  The importance of online networks for recruiting and mobilisation may vary depending on the practitioner’s area of regard/target population(s).  Further, individuals who are responsible for their family’s livelihood, or who hold a steady job, are highly unlikely to mobilize regardless of their societal grievances. Additionally, a consistent finding is that Western foreign fighters are far more likely to travel to Syria in small groups instead of alone.

Key recommendations 

Recommendations for practitioners includes the conclusion that there is no single profile.  Instead focus on the three key variables network effects (traditional social networks, online networks), anchoring and group dynamics.  

Reviewer's Comments

This study contains a nice summary of previous research and focuses on remaining research questions regarding the impacts of networks (traditional and online), anchoring and group dynamics. The results and the associated recommendations are likewise straightforward. The “n” is small, but it tends to be for these studies due to the availability of data.

Network effects were assessed based on mode of recruitment: through traditional social network online network or based on volunteering (not based on network influences).  Anchoring was a binary (yes/no) variable.  Group dynamic influences were assessed based on mode of travel (group or alone).

Of the 20 profiled combatants, the ages spanned 18-32 years (median 22), virtually all male (except one female) and Muslim, largely emigrants from Muslim majority countries. Traditional social networks was the primary mode of recruitment for 60% of the combatants, 25% (all with previous military experience) volunteered – almost all in order to fight against ISIS – and the remaining 15% were recruited through online networks. 95% were not anchored, 5% unknown.  60% deployed in a group, 25% alone and the remainder unknown.

For further research include expanding the application of the three key variables (network effects, anchoring and group dynamics) to more profiles in order to refine the results.  Most studies are still relatively small “n”. In addition, to better understand causal mechanisms it would be useful to sample the Westerners who have gone to fight against groups such as ISIS. Since they have not been criminalized by their respective governments, these men and women would likely be more forthcoming in providing information about what drove them to leave the comfort of home. There is also great promise within the fields of big-data analysis and data mining.

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