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Why do foreign fighters join the Islamic State?

August 27, 2014 at 6:06 PM EST
Douglas McAuthur McCain, an American man who was killed while fighting for the Islamic State in Syria, is not the first U.S. citizen to die as an Islamic militant in the war-torn country, and the FBI warns there are dozens more still fighting. For more on why Americans and others are joining terror groups abroad, Gwen Ifill talks to Humera Khan of Muflehun and Jessica Stern of Harvard University.
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GWEN IFILL: There was continued shock today over the discovery that a 33-year-old American man was killed fighting for Sunni militants in Syria. The Californian is not the first American who has given his life for jihadi causes in the war-torn country, and the FBI warns that there are dozens more like him out there.

JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: We, of course, use every tool we have to disrupt and dissuade individuals from traveling abroad for violent jihad, and to track and engage those who return.

GWEN IFILL: The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain has once again highlighted the issue of Americans joining jihadist groups. He reportedly died near Aleppo, fighting with Islamic State forces against the Western- backed Free Syrian Army.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki:

JEN PSAKI: We previously were aware of his presence in Syria and his affiliation with ISIL.

GWEN IFILL: The 33-year-old McCain grew up in Minnesota, and later lived in Southern California, attending San Diego City College. It’s unclear exactly when he traveled to Syria, but online postings show he’d been drawn to the militants also known as ISIL or ISIS.

On Twitter, McCain went by the name Duale Khalid. In late June, he re-tweeted a post that read: “It takes a warrior to understand a warrior. Pray for ISIS.”

McCain wasn’t the only radicalized American to travel to the battlefront.

MONER MOHAMMAD ABU-SALHA: You think you’re safe where you are?

GWEN IFILL: Florida-born Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha was killed in a suicide bomb attack in Syria last May. He’d joined the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaida. And, last year, a Michigan woman was killed by pro-government forces in Syria.

FBI Director James Comey says about 100 Americans have joined the fight there. They follow the likes of American John Walker Lindh, captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban in 2001. He’s now serving 20 years in a federal prison.

The State Department said today it is looking into reports that a second American died in the same Syrian battle that took McCain’s life last weekend.

For more on why Americans and other Westerners join Islamic extremist groups, we turn to Jessica Stern, a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard University, and the author of “Terror in the Name of God.”  She served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. And Humera Khan, the executive director of Muflehun, a think tank that focuses on countering violent extremism.

So how typical, Humera Khan, is this?

HUMERA KHAN, Muflehun: In terms of going off and trying to fight — join ISIS, trying to fight in Syria and Iraq, there is no nationality which is exempt.

We have seen people from many, many countries going. And so being American doesn’t mean there is any less likelihood. We see a lot of movement from Europe. We know that there is — the last numbers which have come out from the government are that there has been about 140 known Americans who have actually gone to Syria to fight.

GWEN IFILL: Jessica Stern, how does that compare to Westerners drawn from other countries? We saw in the execution video of James Foley — at least we heard that his executioner appeared to have a British accent.

JESSICA STERN, Harvard University: Yes.

There are about 50 countries from which jihadis have volunteered to go and fight in Syria. And what studies show is that they’re not necessarily religious zealots. Indeed, they may be rather ignorant about Islam. Quite a few of them actually are converts. They are often quite marginalized. They often have bad encounters or unhappy encounters with the police.

They may have had an identity crisis. They feel more connected with a group abroad than with their neighbors.

GWEN IFILL: What does it mean, Humera Khan, that, as Jessica Stern says, that they are converts, so they are almost like people who quit cigarettes, in that they are more passionate about it than people who are born to it or people who never — who never stopped?

What is it about the conversion which might make some of these people more radical?

HUMERA KHAN: I think it’s conversion, but it’s not just conversion, because you also — we are also seeing people who are culturally Muslim, right, and they actually haven’t had much exposure to the traditional or classical teachings.

And so this is a group which is — they have limited information about classical teaching of religion itself. They might have been — committed criminal acts. They have been involved in all sorts of other problems in the past. So, for them, it’s a matter of proving that, oh, we can actually — we have now become good. They’re trying to make amends in a particular way.

And they’re trying to find a sort of like shortcut to heaven. Now, most people when they do something bad in the past, right, a regular believer will say, OK, I need to repent, I need to do good deeds, I need to maybe go for a hajj. I will pray.

Those are the regular things you do. But these — they have such a superficial understanding of religion, that they actually go down the path of, well, maybe if I do this, this will be my shortcut and it get me away suddenly into — and it will save me.

GWEN IFILL: Jessica Stern, a shortcut to heaven, OK, if this is what is drawing some people to these causes, does ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State group, does that provide an easier path in?

JESSICA STERN: Well, I think we also need to remember that these are people who actually want to kill.

A lot of people want to right injustices around the world, and they become physicians and heal people, for example, of Ebola, or they work for human rights groups. These are people who think that by killing civilians, they have a quicker pathway to heaven. And it is really sad, as Humera said, is that often this happens among people who really don’t know very much about traditional teachings of Islam.

GWEN IFILL: But what about this — about ISIS’ role? Is — we have been dealing with al-Nusra Front, with al-Qaida. Over the years, Humera Khan, we have seen this happen, even in Afghanistan with John Walker Lindh all those years ago. Is there something about ISIS which makes it more accessible to these people?

HUMERA KHAN: Actually, there’s two parts to it, right?

One is that ISIS is a lot more open or encouraging or welcoming to foreign fighters. And so they are they are — they’re one of few groups which is openly calling out to them, much more so than other groups.

I was actually — our organization looks at people or tries to keep people from actually joining terrorist groups, trying to step — step away from terror, violent terrorism. So in one of the cases, we actually ask, why, why ISIS? Why specifically did you want to join ISIS vs. anyone else?

And the response was because of its international flavor, and because they have this — this — they have now got a reputation of having an international flavor, so you find a lot of other nationalities. It’s actually more attractive to people going from the West, because, in some of the other groups who are fighting on the ground right now, they’re not looking for foreign fighters, right?

You talk to some of the people from FSA, and they actually — they expect the Syrians to step up, right? Jabhat al-Nusra has fewer foreign fighters. And they have a lot more vetting which goes on, because they are part of al-Qaida. And al-Qaida has its own thing. They are very careful on who they let in.

GWEN IFILL: Jessica Stern, and yet Syria somehow has become ground zero for this. Is it because of anti-Western activity, anti-Assad activity? What is it about Syria that has proved so attractive?

JESSICA STERN: Well, I think that part of the answer has to be the sophisticated recruiting online presence. It’s really quite extraordinary, the care with which these recruitment videos are made.

And if you compare what those recruitment videos look like with the State Department’s response online, you can see how much more sophisticated we really need to get to be in order to counter this — really a kind of fad, a horrible fad.

GWEN IFILL: So, Humera Khan, this is not just people searching out and finding a group like ISIS. ISIS and groups like it are actively reaching out.

HUMERA KHAN: Well, yes, because when people show that there is a willingness, that they have sympathies towards the cause, or they are sympathetic towards what is happening on the ground, then it is actually much easier for recruiters to find them. And then they groom them.

So this is not an overnight process. They actually actively groom them, try to get them to trust and build relationships. And then the conversations which start off on social media actually move offline. So, then they start doing things like e-mails. They will Skype. There’s — the personal relationship is built, and also that’s how they are helping them or teaching them what they should do next.

They are indoctrinating them in their ideology, right, completely changing — teaching them things which are — they can’t distinguish right from wrong. And then they are actually helping them — or trying to help them get into on-the-ground fighting.

GWEN IFILL: And, Jessica Stern, Turkey — just logistically and physically, Turkey is the way in, that border, for people to get where they want to be. Why is that? How is that?

JESSICA STERN: Because the border apparently is quite open. It’s very hard to police that border. And ISIS is quite active in that area.

So, yes, that is one of the problems. It’s unusually easy to get there for Europeans.

GWEN IFILL: And, Jessica Stern, is the U.S. government on top of this? Is there any way of knowing whether we’re watching this carefully enough?

JESSICA STERN: I am concerned that the U.S. government maybe wasn’t really paying all that much attention until fairly recently.

This has been going on since 2003. And I think we left Iraq quite precipitously. We weren’t paying attention to what was going on. And, of course, ISIS, the Islamic State, comes directly out of a group, al-Qaida in Iraq, that was formed as a result of our invasion. It’s not new. It’s just a new name.

This is what happens with al-Qaida-related groups. They’re constantly changing their names, merging, splitting and so on. But this is not a new phenomenon. It didn’t start when an American was beheaded.

GWEN IFILL: Jessica Stern, Harvard University, and Humera Khan of Muflehun, thank you both very much.