Manchester Metropolitan University

Friday, 4th August 2017

Ideology 'less influential' than social or economic factors for foreign fighters joining terrorist groups in Syria

Professor Hamed El-Said co-authored insightful UN report

Syria has been devastated by years of war and conflict

New research has shed light on why foreign fighters are motivated to travel to warzones to join terrorist groups, in a report conducted for the United Nations.

The research, the first UN report of its kind, outlines why ‘Foreign Terrorist Fighters’ (FTFs) opt to travel to warzones such as Syria or Iraq and the policy implications.

Researchers interviewed 43 returnees, who fled from combat zones back to their country of residence, to better understand the phenomenon, assess the risk they pose and develop an effective response.

Professor Hamed El-Said, from Manchester Metropolitan University, co-authored the report, 'Improving Understanding of the Foreign Terrorist Fighters Phenomenon in Syria'.


The researchers found a mix of factors that may contribute to people becoming FTFs.

They were often young, male, lacked a good education with poor job prospects, and from dysfunctional families in urban settings.

Personal and social networks played a role in motivating the FTFs to travel to warzones, while religious beliefs and ideology were less influential. FTFs were sometimes motivated by the perception of persecution to community groups they associated with.

The report states that FTFs were encouraged to return home by the ‘disappointment and disenfranchisement’ with the terrorist groups they joined.


Prof El-Said, Professor of International Business and Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan, said: "It is one of the few reports that is based on direct and face-to-face interviews with former or would-be FTFs.

"It therefore investigates the motivations for individuals not only to depart and join transnational terrorist organisations in conflict zones like Syria and Iraq, but also to defect from such organisations and regions thereafter. This is done from the point of view of FTFs themselves.

"It documents motivations of FTFs, their narratives, and stories using their own words and accounts.

"It is based on the largest known sample of face-to-face interviews with such groups and individuals.

Policy implications

"Contrary to conventional wisdom, the report finds ideology and religion to be less influential than socio-economic and political factors are in motivating individuals to join transnational terrorist organisations like ISIS or al-Qaida in conflict zones.

"This finding has significant policy implications."

Prof El-Said carried out the study with co-author Richard Barrett, a former intelligence officer turned global terrorism expert, for the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism.

Read the full report here:

Manchester Metropolitan University is one of the most extensive higher education centres in Europe with 37,000 students and more than 1,000 undergraduate, postgraduate and professional courses. The University educates and trains large numbers of legal and business professionals, scientists, engineers, teachers, health workers and creative professionals.

The University is in the top three nationally for environmental sustainability and has an 85% research impact rated world-leading and internationally excellent.

Latest news