The Motivations of Syrian Islamist Fighters
October 31, 2014
By Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt
With the Syrian civil war now well into its third year, there are scores of armed rebel forces fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime, as well as against one another. In the marketplace of rebel groups vying for support, rebel fighters are offered incentives and face coercive pressures to join one group over another. The weakening of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) over the past year has led many Syrian rebels to rethink their allegiances on the battlefield. Possible suitors include nominally “Islamist” groups, including moderate revolutionary organizations like Ahrar al-Sham. A growing concern, however, is that rebels may be driven into the ranks of more extremist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This leads to a key question: what inspires thousands of ordinary Syrian people to join up with Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq?
To understand who these Syrian fighters are and what motivates them, the authors have been conducting survey research from inside Syria. Over the past year, the authors have surveyed more than 300 FSA fighters as well as Syrian civilians and refugees and 50 Syrian Islamist fighters in the Islamic Front (Ahrar al-Sham) and JN, the latter of which is al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in Syria.
This article proceeds by presenting a series of questions as the authors gave them to the interview subjects. It then discusses the implications that arise from their answers. To briefly summarize the findings, the interviews reveal that in contrast to foreign fighters, who have generally come to Syria on a quest for spiritual fulfillment and to build an Islamic state through jihad, Syrian fighters are joining Islamist groups primarily for instrumental purposes. Islamic groups are perceived as better equipped, led, and organized, and therefore are seen as more capable of defeating the al-Assad regime, which remains the primary goal of Syrian rebels. However, while organizational strength appears to initially attract individuals to Islamist groups, this research shows that individuals who are part of Islamist groups become more radical over time. This increases the importance of preventing individuals from joining these groups.
Why Are You Fighting?
Why do “prospective” Islamists decide to participate in the fighting in the first place? Islamists were asked why they joined their group, and many responses were quite consistent with views expressed by rebel fighters from the reportedly more moderate FSA. As can be seen in Table 1 (see PDF version), the most common rationales for joining are to defend their community, to defeat the al-Assad regime, and to take revenge against al-Assad forces.
Of course, many Islamists also claim that they are fighting for Islam and to build an Islamic state, but this is not among the top three responses. Instead, the authors find that underlying social-community ties and sectarian-political grievances may be an important predictor of who joins and who does not. People who volunteer to fight have strong attachments to their communities and nurse grievances against the al-Assad regime. Religious ideation is secondary or even a tertiary motivation for joining. Many Islamists and moderate FSA fighters are risking their lives for similar reasons: to take revenge against al-Assad forces (79% FSA vs. 79% Islamists), to defeat the al-Assad regime (69% FSA vs. 90% Islamists), and to defend their communities (71% FSA vs. 84% Islamists).
While Islamists claim unanimously to support the goals of their group, they may also intentionally over-represent their own religiosity and attachment to the group. In a clarifying question “what is the most important reason for joining,” only a quarter (25%) claimed that “fight for Islam, and to build an Islamic State” was their main reason for fighting.
Another interesting result from the discussions with Syrian Islamist fighters is how they view the motivations of other individuals who joined their group. For example, when asked, “Why do you think others joined your group?” (see Table 2 in PDF version), the religious reason “to fight for Islam” is not even among the top three most popular responses. The main reasons listed by Islamist fighters are remarkably similar to those of FSA fighters (first, to defend their community; second, because al-Assad must be defeated; and third, to take revenge against al-Assad forces).
Why Did You Join this Islamist Group as Opposed to Other Groups?
The marketplace of rebel groups in Syria has been growing for some time. Even those with strong Islamist preferences have many options to choose from. In asking fighters about why they avoided joining other groups, the authors find that “fighting for Islam” or “to build an Islamic state” are not the only rationales for why fighters selected one group over another. For many fighters, their group preferences are based on structural and organizational cues: they think their group has better resources, better training and better services (Table 3 in PDF version). For example, many indicate that their group takes good care of injured fighters, and if a fighter gets killed, the group will compensate his family. In interviews with fighters who first joined FSA and then switched to Islamist brigades, almost all mentioned non-religious reasons: “My friends left my old group and I left with them,” “I didn’t like people in my old group,” “My friend got injured and they didn’t support him,” “I was with my old group [FSA] until I fought with Ahrar al-Sham. I liked their way of treating fighters and I joined.”
What Are Your Views on Islam?
The adoption of radical Islamic views could be a consequence of joining Islamist groups rather than a root cause. Many fighters are aggressively socialized and exposed to radical religious preaching once inside the group. Approximately 74% of surveyed Islamists claim that they have become more religious since fighting (compared to 37% of FSA fighters) and now, three years into the conflict, 96% indicate that religion plays a very important role in their life (compared to 43% among FSA). All but one Islamist said that they attend religious lectures, study, and recite the Qur’an daily. Also, all the Islamists claim to feel much closer to the people of their same religion (compared to 20% of FSA) and 92% think that religion should have a crucial role in future Syrian politics (compared to 60% among FSA).
Are You Fighting for Jihad?
Many Syrian Islamist fighters have conflicting views on what “jihad” means and whether they are waging jihad in Syria. Many (63%) believe that participation in jihad is not an individual requirement (fard ayn), but a collective obligation (fard kifayya). Answers to the question “Is the Syrian War a Jihad?” and “What is Jihad?” range from the overtly religious (“Jihad is giving your soul for the name of God”) to responses which are only distantly related to religion (“When you see a woman being raped just because she is against the government, you know that it’s the time for jihad”). Despite being in an Islamist rebel group, only 76% of surveyed fighters claim that the war in Syria is about jihad. Also, Islamists were unanimous in agreement that the war in Syria, jihad or otherwise, is about revenge. This underscores how underlying grievances against the al-Assad regime could still be driving Syrian rebel fighters into Islamist groups.
Therefore, while some rebels are fighting under an Islamist banner and some are not, they may share similar goals. If more people in Syria are joining Islamist groups today, it may have less to do with religious ideation or extremism, and more to do with the perception that Islamist groups are better organized and better equipped than the struggling FSA. As a matter of recruitment strategy, entrepreneurial Islamist group leaders appear to be better at using religion to channel collective sectarian grievances. All the Islamist fighters interviewed in this study report strong trust in their group leadership, receive most of their news and organization from within their group, and tend to tune out other sources of information (only one respondent said, for example, that he trusted news from Western sources like the BBC).
Of course, this could mean that rebel fighters can be easily manipulated to serve a wide range of goals and functions. Elite competition may also explain why, despite many common goals, there is fierce in-fighting among various Islamist groups and the Free Syrian Army. Most (81%) of Islamists think that the goals of their group are not compatible with those of other rebel groups and 58% agree that even if al-Assad is removed from power, their group will have to fight other rebel groups.
At present, the authors’ research suggests that rebel fighters are generally revenge-seeking and driven to Islamist groups not primarily due to ideological motivations, but rather for instrumental reasons. However, once inside the group, they are vulnerable to elite manipulation. Consequently, their desire for revenge against al-Assad could be channeled in other directions by calculating and competitive elites through ideological and religious indoctrination. In addition, rebel fighters no longer just blame the al-Assad regime for the conflict in Syria. They also cast blame on Iran and Lebanese Hizb Allah as well as the United States and Western powers, who many feel have abandoned them in this conflict. Islamist groups appear to be having great success harnessing and exploiting Syrian anger for purposes well beyond fighting the al-Assad regime, which is why the current drive in Islamist recruitment in Syria could have important spillover consequences for conflict elsewhere.
Vera Mironova is a Graduate Research Fellow at the Harvard Program on Negotiations and a fifth year Ph.D. candidate in the Political Science Department at the University of Maryland.
Loubna Mrie is a Magnum Fellow at New York University.
Sam Whitt is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at High Point University.
 The survey was conducted in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, in locations where fighters were stationed based on local knowledge. The interviewer was granted permission to conduct surveys with FSA rebel fighters by their superiors and by an informal “Islamic court” for interviews with Syrian Islamist fighters (including fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front/Ahrar al-Sham). Unknown population parameters and security concerns preclude random sampling, so the study relies on non-probability, cluster sampling surveying no more than five per cluster. Samples are well-balanced across gender, age, education, and whether the subject was employed before the war began (a proxy for pre-war income/savings). The study received human subject approval from High Point University. Some of the information in this article appeared on the blog Political Violence @ a Glance on August 13, 2014.
 To be clear, unless otherwise specified, the term “Islamists” in the context of this article refers to the 50 Syrian Islamist fighters whom the authors were able to interview.
 Respondents were asked to mention all reasons that apply.
 “Syria Crisis: Guide to Armed and Political Opposition,” BBC News, December 13, 2013.