Feature: New Report Examines Why Jordanians Fight in Syria and What Happens When They Return Home

Published September 13th, 2017 - 12:24 GMT
According to a report by the West Asia-North Africa Institute, Jordanians can pay up to JOD 400 [USD563] to be smuggled into Syria. /Shutterstock
According to a report by the West Asia-North Africa Institute, Jordanians can pay up to JOD 400 [USD563] to be smuggled into Syria. /Shutterstock
  • A new report examines journey of five Jordanian fighters returning from Syria
  • The report argues there is "no single extremist typology"
  • Many fighters paid to be smuggled into Syria. Mothers were mentioned as a reason for returning to Jordan
  • The media as well as local Sheikhs played a role in influencing the fighters

Jordan is a key western ally in the fight against Islamic State and other extremist groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Despite this, since 2011 over 3000 Jordanians have left to fight alongside terrorist groups and the country has the highest per-capita number of fighters in Syria, according to the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.

A new report entitled ‘Journey Mapping Of Selected Jordanian Foreign Fighters’ by the Amman based West Asia-North Africa Institute (‘WANA’, August, 2017) contributes towards the understanding of why young men join extremist groups. It also provides an insight into the process by which an extraordinarily sad decision, can become mundane.

The report focuses on interviews with five Jordanian fighters who joined Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It covers their pre-departure to Syria and return. Interviews took place earlier in 2017, and included the families, friends and teachers of the returnee fighters.

What follows is a cursory introduction to some of the observations in the report.  

There Is No “Radical Turned Extremist” Typology

The report argues that there is no one single “radical turned extremist” typology. Fighters in Syria include Salafis as well as the irreligious. Environment and relationships are as relevant as ideology: “the pervasiveness of lack of opportunity a fragmented social identity, and exposure to social injustice, typecast the majority of youth in the region as vulnerable to extremism.”

Jihad is a Marketable Product

way in which fighters are recruited implies that extremist groups have no trouble recruiting. “The dominant narrative of violent extremist groups being all-accommodating is far from universal. These groups are selling a sought-after product, that they outsource to recruiters and smugglers.” Smuggling is an industry; “with profits up to 1000 JOD per fighter, recruiters and smugglers have much to gain by becoming active players i n this budding industry.”

Other findings reference the role of “peer influence and groupthink,” parental awareness and the extent to which all participants interviewed mention their mothers as a reason for returning to Jordan, despite the often uncomfortable scrutiny and shame that accompanies those returning home.

Demystifying Radicalisation: A “Journey”


Courtesy, WANA Institute 2017


The idea of “Journey Mapping” the radicalization of youth in the region is notable in terms of semantics and methodology. The phrase ‘journey” eschews moral and ethical judgement, instead focusing on context, social environment and phenomena that are difficult to measure: this involves familial and tribal ties, support systems, aspirations for the future.

This lack of moral framing provides an interesting starting point from which to better convey what for many young men in Jordan, and elsewhere, is perceived as either a religious duty, or an honorable intervention to save women and child victims (known as “Hameyya”). Rather than a descent into some sort of mystic cult, the “journey” does comprise practical steps which although difficult to measure in scientific terms, can be traced in a meaningful way.

This “journey” might have interesting synergies in other parts of the region, for example Tunisian fighters in Libya. Its extrapolation to European capitals could be instructive; how does the experience of individuals in Paris or London, planning revenge attacks in their own cities or travelling to foreign battle groups, intersect with that of their contemporaries in the Middle East?

The most important element of the WANA report, is to illustrate that amidst the global media discussion, and the many academic papers, the reasons that drive these young men to leave for a foreign battlefield can be everyday, intimate, and more often driven by idealism and escapism, than outright hatred or a desire to do harm.  

By John Lillywhite

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