Skip to main content

'Not up to expectation': American recruits struggle in IS territory, study says

Facing no military training and tedious chores, militants sought to return to US despite facing near-certain imprisonment
Life in IS-held 'territory did not live up to their expectations' (AA)

US recruits to the Islamic State (IS) group struggle more than their European counterparts, lacking support networks and field experience and assigned to menial jobs, a report said on Monday.

The study by the George Washington University Programme on Extremism said that online social networks were more essential to Americans in reaching Syria and Iraq, as they often had limited personal connections that could help them reach the battlefield.

Once there, a number found disappointment in unfamiliar terrain and faced significant culture clashes; many, if they stayed alive, soon sought to return to the United States, despite facing near-certain imprisonment.

"For many of the returnees, life in jihadist-held territory did not live up to their expectations," said the study entitled The Travellers.

"Living conditions were much harsher than they saw in the online magazines and videos, and the promises of companionship and camaraderie were rarely fulfilled," the study said.

"Instead, cultural clashes, bitter infighting and suspicion among recruits and leadership abounded. Many of the Americans had little to no combat experience and were assigned duties such as cleaning safehouses, cooking, and caring for the sick and injured."

The study examines the experience of 64 of the estimated 300 Americans who made their way to the IS fight, or in some cases to join other militant groups like Jahbat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

That is a fraction of the 5,000-6,000 who travelled from Europe to join IS, including 900 from France and 750 from Britain.

The report draws on court documents, interviews, and a huge database of online postings, including a catalogue of one million tweets by the militants.

Of the 64, the average age was 27, 89 percent were men, and 70 percent were US citizens or permanent residents. At least 22 died in Syria and 12 returned on their own or were under arrest. The whereabouts of the rest are unknown.

One reason for the low number of American "foreign fighters", the study says, is that US law makes it easier for police to intervene early.

Civil rights groups have criticised the US law enforcement agencies’ use of undercover agents who often get potential recruits to commit illegal acts to justify their arrest.  

“In some cases, the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act,” a Human Rights Watch report said in 2014.

Another obstacle in US citizens' plans to join IS is the difficulty of personal networking, compared to Europe. There was one "cell" in heavily Muslim Minnesota, where some 15 Americans tried to join the militant group.

Elsewhere, they struggle with often just one friend or relative helping out, depending more on guidance from IS recruiters online.

Once in Syria, some Americans succeeded in the IS hierarchy. But more were like Mohamad Jamal Khweis, who was lured mostly online and, once there, "grew tired of running errands and became frustrated that he was not receiving any military training". Khweis eventually gave up and escaped back to the US, where he was jailed for 20 years.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.