The age of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seen a great deal of ink spilt on the “Foreign Terrorist Fighter” (FTF) phenomenon. Researchers have placed particular emphasis on understanding those FTFs from Western countries joining ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq, such as Jabhat al‑Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al‑Sham). At the core of these studies are databases that store information on the background, antecedents and other variables, such as personalities and motivations. Two efforts stand out: one is the database (and associated research efforts) by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), at King’s College London. Another database, by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), at the University of Maryland, currently includes information on approximately 290 individuals who have been publically identified as having left, attempted to leave or expressed an interest in leaving the United States to join foreign conflicts. This work and similar efforts have thrown much needed light on the issue of FTFs and the groups they join.
This article attempts to make a small contribution to the literature on these foreign volunteers through an exploration of the underreported phenomenon of the volunteers travelling to Syria and Iraq to take part in the fight against ISIS and other jihadist groups. The core of the study draws on a database set up in late 2014, when the first volunteers began to appear on social media and early reports of Western fighters in Syria began to filter through to the mainstream media. The database has been continuously updated to the present. As of 1 August 2019, this database has details of 500 individuals,4 making it one of the largest of its kind.
The first part of this paper sets out the background to the issue of FTFs, provides a survey of previous relevant studies and introduces the database that underpins the present study, describing how it was developed, giving the criteria for inclusion as well as the reasoning behind some of the decisions in database construction. The second part examines the motivations of the anti‑ISIS volunteers by looking at implications prompted by the involvement of these individuals in the anti‑ISIS conflict both at a personal level and from the point of view of governments and legal regimes. Finally, some avenues for further study are suggested.
This report was written by Shashi Jayakumar.