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Choosing to Fight, Choosing to Die: Examining How ISIS Foreign Fighters Select Their Operational Roles


Understanding why and how individuals participate in militant organizations has been the focus of an increasing amount of scholarship. Traditionally, these studies focus at either the individual or organizational level of explanation. This article advances the discussion on individual participation in militant organizations by combining primary and secondary sources at both levels to explain how the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attracted individuals into its organization as either suicide bombers or frontline fighters. First, at the individual level, we analyze a primary source dataset of over 4,000 personnel files from foreign fighters who went to Syria to join ISIS between 2013 and 2014. Second, at the organizational level, we examine trends in Islamic State propaganda and messaging to see how the recruitment of individuals into the organization placed them on certain operational paths. Two specific takeaways emerge. First, foreign fighters in 2013–2014 volunteered to become suicide bombers with relatively less frequency than in past iterations of the conflict in Iraq and Syria. Second, fighters from Western countries and fighters from countries undergoing a civil war were especially less likely to volunteer for a suicide role. More broadly, this analytical essay makes a case for the value of looking inside an organization as well as at individuals to get a more complete picture about group-level behavior.

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Full Citation:

Evans, Tyler, Daniel J. Milton, and Joseph K. Young. 2020. "Choosing to Fight, Choosing to Die: Examining How ISIS Foreign Fighters Select Their Operational Roles." International Studies Review (July). https://academic.oup.com/isr/article-abstract/doi/10.1093/isr/viaa041/5879006

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