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Understanding jihadists
in their own words
April 7, 2015 NOW Seekers Catalysts Western external fighters Arab external fighters Internal fighters Map of journey The fighters What makes people join ISIS? This seemingly simple question continues to be the subject of vigorous debate among analysts, researchers, columnists, and media pundits. While opinions on the matter are plentiful, precious few are built on first-hand evidence taken directly from ISIS militants themselves.

A new report by NOW's sister company, Quantum Communications, aims to plug that gap by analyzing the personal testimonies of 49 ISIS members, as broadcast on various Arab and international television stations (over 18 hours of footage in total). Its findings challenge much of the conventional wisdom currently prevailing: most notably, it found that earthly, material motivations – e.g. the pursuit of social status and financial wellbeing – are at least as significant in drawing recruits as religious ideology, and possibly even more so.

Below is an executive summary of the report's key takeaways, as well as a short note on terminology and methodology. To read the report in full, click here (pdf).




The 49 ISIS militants are divided into three categories: Internal, i.e., Iraqi or Syrian nationals; External Arab, i.e., Arabs from countries other than Iraq or Syria; and External Western, i.e., those hailing from Europe or the USA.

Their testimonies were analyzed using an ego-ecological psycho-contextual framework developed by Prof. Marisa Zavalloni. The approach identifies keywords used by the militants to describe four things: how they perceive themselves; what their personal limitations are; what values they consider positive; and what values they consider negative.

Based on these, Quantum stratified the fighters into 9 types of "seekers": Status Seekers, Identity Seekers, Revenge Seekers, Redemption Seekers,Responsibility Seekers, Thrill Seekers, Ideology Seekers, Justice Seekers, and Death Seekers.
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Terminology and methodology
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isis_arab external fighters
isis_internal fighters
ISIS_MAP
SEEKER_ISIS
catalysts
identities