Youth Combatant Recruitment in the Levant Part 1: Challenges and Misconceptions

Going by the commentary on Iraq and Syria in recent days, many would assume that the region has already past the breaking point under the lightning campaign of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (herein referred to as ISIS). Reinforced by resources and fighters from sympathetic communities at home abroad, the insurgents’ powerful control is news to few these days. What remains to be explained, however, is the genesis by which this phenomena came to be about.

Coming out of the +Social Good Summit, I cannot disregard the sense that the international community is desperately seeking support in facing challenges such as these. They recognize that the face of civilian uprisings across the globe is getting younger and, as such, have sought out young leader’s opinions in evaluating approaches to the problem. Many of us at the summit met to discuss how we are affected by and have experienced this issue in more detail during informal conversations. The following two posts are to serve as a summary and recap of those reflections. They are neither a full solution nor strategy for our leaders. Instead, let them serve as a means to open the inadequate dialogue we currently have as young constituents and leaders in order to set in motion the positive changes necessary to transform the conversation.

First off, what remains evident about the threat of terror coming out of groups like ISIS—at least amongst some of the socially attuned young scholars and practitioners I had met in New York—is that our collective knowledge about the functional activity and recruitment strategy of such entities is minimal. Beyond the sensationalist and propagandized accounts that we are fed through mainstream media channels, little factual knowledge is known about ISIS’ activities on the ground. We have very inconsistent and unreliable information about its social base, how it has made its military gains, the nature of the coalitions into which it has entered with various local tribes and political groups (Islamist and/or secular), or how it manages and administers the daily lives of millions of people residing in the territories it now controls.

At the same time, and concurrent with the markedly high levels of peaceful youthful participation in the Syrian uprisings since 2011, we see the simultaneous and rapid counterbalance of youth recruitment by the various combatant forces now vying for power inside the Levantine region. Those who have successfully recruited young people willing to traverse the continent for a fight reflect perhaps the most salient feature of terrorist mobilization occurring across the Middle East, namely, the notable presence of internationally sourced and exceptionally young combatants.

In recent months there has been much alarm about young Muslims joining Islamist oriented combatant groups in Iraq and Syria. That is the so called “foreign fighter” syndrome of unpaid militants with no direct link to the political substance of the conflict other than their religious affinity to Islam and, in some more specifically extreme cases, the foundation of the Islamic State. During the initial stages of the pro-democracy opposition movement in Syria in 2011, many foreign fighters are documented to have fought for the country’s originally secular oriented Free Syrian Army as well as other more radical and Islamist factions including the Sunni backed Jhabat al Nusra, known colloquially as “al Nusra Front”. While Western attention has focused on preventing and mitigating the conflict infiltration by transnational terrorist groups (such as, for example, the coalition in the US House of Representatives voting to authorize the training and arming of Syrian rebels to confront ISIS), disassociated and youthful foreign groups are continuing to infiltrate the conflict all the way from the Gulf Arab states, Northern Africa and other Arab states, Bosnia, China, Russia’s Chechnya and North Caucasus region, and even Western countries in Europe and the United States.

More challenging, however, is the rate and trajectory in which these young (typically, but not exclusively male) combatants purport to have been drawn to the vague ideology of radical violence. Estimates on the total saturation of young foreign fighters currently traveling as combatants across the region since the initiation of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 range from around 5,000 to over 10,000 combatants. Ostensibly, the international community’s capability to effectively differentiate between and intervene amongst the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ youthful rebel groups mobilized within the context of the situation vary broadly and, as such, our global leaders’ inclination to develop an actionable strategy to address it regrettably stagnates further.

Further demonstrating the scarcity in information regarding the identities of militants who fight for ISIS, most of what experts claim to know has been gleaned from the few unreliable resources available to them: recruitment videos and propaganda. Though the USA and its allies have asserted their plans to solve the problem by “eradicating the ideology of terror,” there is little tangible data on the backgrounds and motives of those individuals choosing to join the cause in the first place— especially the non-Western recruits it absorbed from Syria who actually form the bulk of ISIS’ fighting force. Instead, the European and US strategy of mere “ideology eradication” seems to have focused narrowly on pinpointing and stopping the recruitment pathway (estimated at 3,400 people per month through successful social media and online campaigns) rather than changing the orientation of the terror and threat based conversation as whole.

In the absence of clarity on this information, it is difficult to define and predict the actions of ISIS beyond the group’s self-representations. Coming out of +Social Good filled with positive endorphin induced inspiration to tackle even one of the most daunting challenges of our globe’s social stratosphere, we lament at least partially that older generations are continuing to treat the situation of youth combatant recruitment as an entirely novel problem. The next post here on The Global Present will look into the origin of the problem and propose an alternative viewpoint from the reflective eyes of some youth grappling with defining and fostering “Social Good.”

About Shayna

Shayna is a second year graduate student of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University’s School of International Service concentrating in youth participatory roles in peacebuildng and development. She completed a B.A. in International Relations at the American University of Rome in 2011. Her professional and academic publishing interests focus on thematic issues related to ethnography, youth based grassroots social movements, conflict narratives and identity formation, mechanisms of civic engagement, social inequalities, and structural violence. Her travel and fieldwork experiences have brought her across several countries in the MENA region, the Middle East, Africa, Southern Europe, the Balkans, Haiti, and the US.
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