What draws these young men — and, to a lesser extent, women — to fight are what they regard as the indiscriminate killings of Muslim children, women and men in Syria. The use by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime of industrial-scale torture, barrel bombs and chemical attacks evokes a strong desire to defend fellow Muslims.
This is the motive described by a former Dutch soldier known to us as Yilmaz, who became well known after being interviewed for a Dutch television news program. He said he had no intention of going back to the Netherlands unless it was to see his family — and certainly not to commit an attack in Europe. We, too, affirmed this by communicating with Yilmaz in Syria via his social networking account. Another Dutch fighter in Syria we contacted, the producer of the Dutch-made jihadist video “Oh Oh Aleppo,” is equally clear about his reasons for fighting in Syria; he expressed no intention of attacking the West.I agree to a large extent, as I argued in my last post: jihadist recruits aren't going to Syria and Iraq to learn international terrorism, but rather to become soldiers fighting a "local" war. But, this is not to say they won't come out of Syria as international terrorists.
Radicalization is often a result of membership in a militant organization rather than the motivation for joining in the first place. Recruits may begin their career for fairly prosaic reasons: they want to defend "their people" (however defined) and are willing to sacrifice their lives in the process. Once they join an organization, however, recruits become socialized into the ideology and culture of militancy, leading to the adoption of new beliefs and the reinterpretation of original motives. In the case of ISIS, it may be that a young Muslim joins the group because he wants to defend fellow Muslims in Syria or Iraq from external or internal enemies. It is unlikely that recruits are concerned with jihad in Europe or the US. After all, they're leaving the West to fight, rather than waging war at home as did the London and Madrid cells.
Over time, however, recruits become radicalized, accepting ISIS's worldview (which thus far focuses on the near enemy, i.e. the Syrian and Iraqi states) and the brutal ethics behind its military strategy. As ISIS's fortunes decline, the group may look for enemies abroad to remain relevant. As a result, a recruit that started out wanting to defend the community overseas may end up as an international terrorist planning attacks against civilians in the West.
Engaging in jihad thus not only provides recruits with the technical know-how to wage war, but the ideological beliefs and worldviews that legitimize, justify, and even demand violence against Europeans and Americans at home.