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These Are the Westerners Joining ISIS

A new paper identifies the Westerners finding their way to Iraq and Syria—and how great a threat they pose, and what should be done to stop them.
Tanks from the Turkish Armed Forces are dispatched to the Turkish/Syrian border as clashes intensified with ISIS militants on September 29, 2014, in the Suruc district of Sanliurfa in the southeastern province of Turkey. (Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Tanks from the Turkish Armed Forces are dispatched to the Turkish/Syrian border as clashes intensified with ISIS militants on September 29, 2014, in the Suruc district of Sanliurfa in the southeastern province of Turkey. (Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

22-year-old Floridian who grew up in Vero Beach playing high school football reached Syria with $20 in his pocket. “I love you, mom,” he said tearfully, in a tape recorded not long before he blew himself up with several Syrian soldiers.

A basketball fan from Minnesota with the unexpected name of Douglas McArthur McCain traveled from San Diego to Syria, and was killed at the age of 33 in a gunfight alongside his ISIS compatriots.

An alum of Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts–Boston landed himself on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Most Wanted Terrorists list, and died in an Iraqi forces airstrike against ISIS two years later.

“Syria,” says Peter Bergen, vice president of New America and director of New America’s International Security, Future of War, and Fellows Programs, “is as much a graveyard as a launch pad for attacks.”

Bergen was speaking alongside Courtney Schuster and David Sterman of New America’s International Security Program as part of a panel convened by New America; the three were presenting their co-authored study, “ISIS in the West,” which discusses the estimated 4,500 Westerners who have traveled to Syria so far. This worrying trend has ignited fears that these “foreign fighters” may return home to plot terrorist attacks against their own countries—fears fanned by the flames of the recent attacks in Paris. “ISIS in the West” analyzes 474 case studies of Western individuals who left home to join ISIS and other jihadist groups in the Levant.

The study aimed to discover who these people are—and what kind of threat they pose to Western nations.


The bottom line? America isn’t in serious danger from returning fighters. Most of the Americans who attempted to reach Syria failed. Out of the 83 American cases that the authors examined, only 23 arrived in the Levant successfully. Nine died; five returned and were taken into custody. Only nine remain at large. No returnee has committed violence in the United States.

A marginally larger threat is posed by foreign fighters who belong to nations with which the U.S. has a visa-waiver agreement, and thus who could enter the U.S. But the U.S. is most vulnerable to attacks inspired by ISIS—such as the attack on two military facilities in Tennessee earlier this year—perpetrated by citizens who have never even attempted to reach the Levant.

But, as Schuster explained, the situation is different in Europe, where there is a much higher number of fighters leaving for Syria (only six percent of the estimated 4,500 foreign fighters are American, while approximately 1,800 hail from France alone) as well as more-developed jihadist networks. The Sharia4Belgium network, for instance, supplies aid, support, and recruits to ISIS and other groups.

And Europe gives rise to another potential pool of recruits: unassimilated and isolated second- and third-generation immigrants. Bergen noted that France, the nation producing the most foreign fighters, comprises a significant percentage of ghettoized, disadvantaged, and imprisoned Muslims (estimates of Muslims as a proportion of the French population range from 7.5 to 10 percent, while the French prison population is 60 to 70 percent Muslim). The systematic disadvantages and isolation faced by Muslims in France and other European nations may breed a population that is poorly integrated into its home nation and could be more likely to become radicalized—unlike in the U.S., where, as Bergen pointed out, Muslims are equal to the average American in terms of education and average income.

“There is no French dream, and there’s certainly no British dream, certainly no E.U. dream, but there is an American dream,” Bergen said.

The three authors were joined by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a leading expert on homegrown terrorism from the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, and Douglas Ollivant, a New America Future of War Fellow and former director for Iraq at the National Security Council. Ollivant agreed with Bergen, arguing that, in the U.S., “We integrate immigrants in a way that no other country on Earth can do.”

In fact, there was no common profile among the Americans who attempted to reach Syria, indicating that no single demographic group in the U.S. is more likely to be drawn to ISIS. On the whole, Western fighters in Syria tend to be young (with an average age of 24, or only 21 among the women), are active online, and have familial ties to jihadism. One in seven are women, an unprecedented proportion compared to previous jihadist conflicts.

Part of the reason for the scattered demographics, especially among Americans, is that ISIS can’t afford to be picky. With a state and an army to maintain, they need as many recruits as possible. “Al-Qaeda was sort of the Harvard of jihadi groups,” Bergen commented. “It was secret, and highly elite, and there were very few members of al Qaeda on 9/11 ... ISIS operates sort of like the D.C. public school system, which takes all comers.”


“People join terrorist groups for the same reason that you’d join any high-intensity, high-demand group,” Ollivant said, drawing comparisons to the U.S. Army. “People join the Army for all kinds of reasons,” he explained. “Some people join it because they’re running from something, some join it because they’re running to. Some really believe in the mission of the organization, some people are going because there’s a long family history of doing so.... Some people join it because they’re looking for adventure, some join it because it will shock their parents.”

But ISIS, Ollivant argued, has two things that give it special appeal. One is recruitment: ISIS’s recruiters tailor their message to their target, make personal human (or online) contact, have one-on-one conversations, and learn the deep motivations of potential fighters. It’s a recruitment strategy, Ollivant says, that—like that of other high-intensity organizations—is done “retail, not wholesale.”

The other key to ISIS’s success, according to Ollivant, is that the group has cultivated an effective brand that has an ambiance of success, getting its message out in a way that is appealing to Westerners and that has “Madison Avenue production values.” The highly produced videos, the outreach campaigns, the English-language magazine (Dabiq)—all give the impression that the organization is professional and competent.

And so, to counteract that carefully cultivated image of ISIS’s success, Gartenstein-Ross contended, we need to better document and publicize the group’s losses.

“It’s an organization that very uniquely is dependent upon an image of strength,” he explained. “That’s one reason why they feel so confident in utter brutality—in documenting beheadings, and burning people alive, and bragging about sexual slavery, and committing genocide: It’s because all of that makes them looks strong.”

Gartenstein-Ross pointed out that, other than a major military offensive in May that won ISIS the control of several key points in Iraq (most of which, other than Ramadi, they have since lost), the group has had a year of significant losses. But many—not only in the West, but all across the globe—don’t know that. The message that ISIS is ceding ground isn’t getting out.

And that’s helping them attract foreign fighters looking to join a winning cause.


That “cause” is not a clearly defined entity, nor is it an easy one for Western nations to combat. Ollivant described ISIS as a four-level organization. At the top level, he explained, ISIS is a contiguous territory in Syria and Iraq, held by a tech-savvy hybrid terrorist group. The second level is a series of well-organized affiliates. The third comprises groups of individuals throughout the Middle East and in Europe who are affiliated with ISIS formally or informally, whether organized or not; this is the level responsible for the recent attacks in Paris. The fourth level is composed of what Ollivant calls “fellow-travelers”—groups who, like Sharia4Belgium, are sympathetic to ISIS’s cause and provide support.

The hybridity and scattered nature of ISIS makes it difficult for Western nations to neutralize. As Ollivant points out, the top level of ISIS may be contained, but by the time we drill down to the third level, we can’t be sure how well the group is controlled; at the fourth level, we know that it isn’t.

“You have sub-state actors who are just massively empowered by technology, see themselves as inherently transnational,” Gartenstein-Ross said, and added, “This has a huge impact on U.S. interests.”

Still, the panelists were united in their opinion that the U.S. should not respond by sending combat troops to the Levant. Bergen, for one, sharply critiqued the notion that the U.S., as a democratic nation, has an obligation to intervene, saying flatly, “The year is not always 1936. This is not 1936.”

But he also doubts that the rhetoric of fear around foreign fighters and ISIS is likely to change. “There are more people examining the issue of foreign fighters than there are foreign fighters,” he noted, adding, “I can’t think of a single country in the West, and many countries in the Arab world, who don’t regard the foreign fighter problem as their principal national security problem right now, the one that they devote the most attention to.”

And despite the minimal threat posed by U.S. returnees from Syria, Bergen thinks that that will remain the case for some time. None of the 2016 candidates, he argues, dare admit that the threat to the U.S. from jihadi groups is actually quite small. “They’re just not going to say it. Because the political costs of being even slightly wrong about that are enormous.”

Which means that, despite expert opinions that the U.S. is not likely to see its own Paris attack, we probably won’t stop speaking as though it will.


This story originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.