On January 15, 2019, al-Shabaab gunmen stormed an upscale hotel and office complex in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. The attack lasted over 12 hours, killing 22 people and wounding 27 others.
CEP has reviewed the details of dozens of cases involving Western foreign fighters and jihadist brides who in some way were radicalized and became involved in the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Given the similarity of the end result, you would suspect that some characteristic, some common trait, would be present in, if not all, then the majority of these cases. Yet, that does not appear to be true and no single profile appears to emerge.
What does materialize is instead something closer to a kaleidoscope, with glimmers of trends (or at least a few strange similarities) that seem to fade and then sometimes reappear across cases. No single characteristic unites the set of these Western Islamist conscripts, but these tidbits of recurring ‘trends’ do spark questions for further research. They may also help us think of possible parameters when considering how we can hope to prevent such future radicalization of our youth.
In one example of a strange recurrence, media reports reveal that Western foreign fighters Mohammed Ali Baryalei (Australia), Khaled Sharrouf (Australia), and John Maguire (Canada) all suffered childhood abuse at the hands of their fathers. Is this a noteworthy possible characteristic? Is childhood abuse – an at-risk factor for future gang violence – also a possible indicator for potential radicalization? And would addressing issues of childhood abuse therefore help prevent radicalization?
Similar questions arise when one notices that among Western foreign fighters throughout the world, a history of juvenile delinquency, prison time, and mental illness (particularly schizophrenia and extreme paranoia) repeatedly pop up. Would addressing these mental health issues through prevention programs also diminish the number of potential Western foreign fighters?
That too may be a promising research avenue to explore. What is certain so far, however, is that it is too early to tell.
As CEP has noted, geography, socio-economic factors and family dynamics are not yet predictive in terms of who will emerge as a future jihadist. We do know that most Western foreign fighters have thus far been predominantly Muslim, young and male. Even then, however, prevention programs targeting specifically this demographic would appear to exclude a significant number of potential cases.
For example, the effort by Muslim communities themselves to establish prevention programs may be invaluable to addressing the phenomenon of foreign fighters as a whole. But these programs, primarily focused on Muslim-born youth, do not necessarily address the significant percentage of Western foreign fighters who convert to Islam during their teenage years and beyond. These community-based programs also may not address future foreign fighters who have been documented as not being particularly active within their Muslim communities.
This is not to say that such prevention programs should be instead focused on an older crowd. Studies show that community-based gang prevention programs are most effective when addressing at-risk individuals as early as possible. And given the surprising number of teenage Western foreign fighters, the need to address this issue early may be similarly worthwhile. However, relying solely on programs aimed at young Muslim men does seem to by definition miss older converts to Islam and the Western foreign fighters who were neither religious nor particularly active within their communities. While they are likely very helpful, these programs cannot be expected to prevent all cases of Westerners seeking to become jihadists.
Media profiles of Western foreign fighters can therefore be disillusioning for anyone expecting them to reveal a personality type or a group of conclusive, predictive characteristics. As neat and as useful it would be to have a reliable profile of a Western foreign fighter, that profile continues to remain elusive.
However, the failure of researchers to accurately predict the personality characteristics and circumstances that will eventually transform someone into a radical Islamist willing to die for his or her cause is not a dead-end but a unique opportunity. Research and resources must be expanded so more can be learned and prevention programs can be better refined to protect a seemingly large and vulnerable sector of our society.
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