Home >Opinion >Online-views >Where do Islamic State’s foreign fighters come from?

A spate of attacks in the last one month has once again underlined the threat Islamic State (ISIS) poses . What differentiates ISIS from other terror outfits is its ability to attract foot-soldiers from across the globe, including economically well-off people from even the most advanced countries. The fact that perpetrators of the Dhaka terror attack are from well-off families and received good education has shocked many.

Where do ISIS fighters come from?

New York based strategic services and intelligence provider Soufan Group cited US Intelligence estimates to put the number of foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq at upwards of 30000 from more than 100 countries in a 2015 report. To be sure, this number could include those headed for other groups and not just ISIS. However it can be reasonably assumed that ISIS would have attracted the largest number of foreign fighters. Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and Jordan are the top five countries by number of foreign fighters. However, an interesting picture emerges if one looks at the percentage share of foreign fighters in the total Muslim population of these countries. Four West European countries, Finland; Belgium; Ireland and Sweden are among the top five countries. India is at the bottom of the chart in terms of number of fighters as well as their share in total Muslim population.

What explains the success of a radical force like the ISIS in drawing so many supporters from well-off countries? An April 2016 paper by two economists, Efraim Benmelech at The Kellogg School of Management, and Esteban F. Klor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has shown that inequality and lack of political freedom might not be the reason behind ISIS’s success in attracting radicalized youth to fight its war. On the contrary, the authors find that “many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions". A comparison of number of foreign fighters as a percentage share of country’s Muslim population and per capita income and income inequality confirms these claims.

The paper suggests that flow of foreign fighters to ISIS could be driven “not by economic or political conditions but rather by ideology and the difficulty of assimilation into homogeneous Western countries." This does not mean that organizations like ISIS enjoy popular support among the Muslims. According to the Pew Research Centre Survey conducted in 2015, Muslim majority countries had a hugely negative perception of ISIS.

Terror attacks such as those in Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina have shocked the globe into accepting that ISIS can cause devastation beyond its area of influence in West Asia. For the record, Bangladesh has refuted ISIS’s claim that it orchestrated the recent terrorist attack in Dhaka. The truth might be complicated, as was pointed in a Mint editorial on July 5, which says, “Digital avenues of radicalization mean that organizations like IS are brands that disaffected youth—whether lone-wolf attackers as in the Orlando shooting last month or socioeconomic elite as in Dhaka—can aspire to and claim. The contours of IS or Al Qaeda’s presence in a region or involvement in a terrorist strike have thus become less defined. But that does not make their role in propagating and shaping radicalism any less relevant."

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