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Understanding motives of foreign fighters

Understanding motives of foreign fighters

Monday, August 17, 2015

Olivia Ryder

Since Sept. 11, stories about terrorism have been regular features in the news cycle. At first, they were focused on sleeper cells, airport security, and finding “the next 9/11.” After a few years, the initial shock of Sept. 11 began to fade and the new Transportation Security Administration regulations were being touted as more of a hassle than a necessary precaution.  News headlines were dominated by cloak-and-dagger stories about operations overseas, reaching their peak with Osama bin Laden’s death. Recently, as ISIS has overshadowed al-Qaida as the most talked-about terrorist group, a new type of story has become a fixture in the news: Americans who travel overseas to become foreign fighters for terrorist groups.

Foreign fighters confound journalists and commentators. How could any sane person give up a comfortable life in the United States in favor of the war-torn deserts of Syria? How did no one see it coming? How did they even get out of the country? The Profiles of Individual Radicalization in the United States (PIRUS) project at START is attempting to answer those same questions and then some. As an intern on the project this summer, I have gotten a chance to see first-hand how researchers are approaching the issue, and gained a new appreciation for how difficult the task is.

Since domestic radicalization is a relatively new hot topic, there isn’t a huge body of empirical research from which to draw. In fact, PIRUS is the first of its kind. While innovation is exciting, it also means we’re figuring everything out as we go along. As I discovered, one characteristic of a good research project is flexibility. This summer alone, the team went through five versions of the codebook, all in response to issues that arose during the coding process.

Some of the problems were logistical: how can we separate multiple facilitators when coding for the same individual? Others were issues of semantics: is there a difference between a “cell” and a “group”? But most of the questions we faced focused on the gray areas that dominate the subject. Our research deals in human beings, a species with a long track record of irrationality and unpredictability. Our job is not only to collect dates and times and airport locations, but to get to the core of a person’s motivations. We have to figure out why an individual left the country, and why they came back. We have to pinpoint when they crossed the line from a constitutionally protected religious fundamentalist to a violent extremist. We look at what factors influenced their decisions and what variables separated the successful travelers from those detained at the airport. Sometimes this information fits into a commonly held narrative: the loner who discovers ISIS on the internet and decides to blow up a shopping mall, for example. But often the narrative is strikingly different, and we are left wondering how a mother with a good job and three young kids ends up dying on the battlefield in Syria.

To tackle these dilemmas, we had to constantly ask ourselves what questions we wanted to answer, whether or not we were able to do that effectively within the current framework, and whether or not there was a better way to do it. To my surprise, my fellow interns and I were invited to join that discussion from day one. Since we were the ones collecting data on a daily basis, we were often the first to come across problem areas. There were a number of times that my peers and I raised issues with our coding that resulted in permanent changes to the codebook. Being involved in those discussions allowed me to learn about the nuances of developing a research project at a level that most summer interns don’t get to experience, and I’m proud to have contributed to such important work. Domestic radicalization is far too expansive a problem to cover in one summer, or even in a single two-year research project, but the work the PIRUS team is doing is invaluable both as a tool for policymakers in the immediate future and as a foundation for continued research on the subject.