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Muslim Youth Unemployment and Expat Jihadism - Bored to Death?

Is youth unemployment a significant determinant of foreign fighters flow to join ISIS? By Professors Moamen Gouda, Hankuk University (South Korea), and Marcus Marktanner, Kennesaw State University (USA).


Empirical studies analyzing the push factors of expat jihadism are scarce and typically give contradictory results. We hypothesize that youth unemployment, as opposed to overall unemployment, is a significant determinant of foreign fighters flow to join Islamic State (IS). Moreover, we also consider the interaction between youth unemployment and the Muslim population share as another meaningful variables affecting expat jihadism. Controlling for several variables including gross domestic product per capita; Gini; geographical proximity; the share of manufactures and services as a percentage of GDP; Polity score; and fractionalization, we provide strong evidence for the hypothesis that Muslim youth unemployment is a driver of expat jihadism not only for Muslim-majority countries, but globally.


The presence of foreign fighters in military conflicts has become a common ingredient of jihad. (1) In the 1980s, foreigners flocked to Afghanistan to fight alongside the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan war. The same pattern, although to a lesser extent, was observed in Bosnia and Chechnya in the 1990s and again following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, the Syrian civil war and the rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) have broken new ground. Never before in modern history have foreign fighters gathered at the scale and speed as they have in the territory of the IS. (2)

Since the outbreak of the 2010 Arab uprising and the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, tens of thousands of fighters from a multitude of countries have joined the IS and other extremist groups in Syria. The majority of foreign fighters come from Arab states, mainly Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. However, a significant number of foreign fighters also come from Western countries, including Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and former Soviet Union states such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. (3)

The foreign fighter phenomenon in Syria and Iraq poses severe security risks to the sender countries. Expat jihadists who have supported military, paramilitary and terrorist operations abroad may continue their fight against targets in their homeland. Estimates suggest that in 2016, almost 30% of European Union citizens who fought alongside the IS in Syria had returned home. (4) Thomas Hegghammer, Director of Terrorism Research at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment in Oslo, asserts that “Syria will prolong the problem of jihadi terrorism in Europe by 20 years” and that attacks by returning foreign fighter are “almost inevitable”. (5)

Bearing in mind this homeland security risk, it becomes imperative to better understand the factors behind the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Relevant empirical studies are still quite scarce and have produced mixed results regarding the push factors of expat jihadism. Some studies, for example, argue that the push factors have their origin in economic grievance; others deny such a relationship. Therefore, the objective of our paper is to contribute to the emerging discussion of the push factors of expat jihadism and to complement the findings of the existing empirical studies.

Our main focus will be on the relationship between a country’s unemployment rate and its propensity to produce expat jihadists joining IS. We hypothesize that youth unemployment, as opposed to overall unemployment, is a significant determinant of expat jihadism. Moreover, we also argue that the interaction between youth unemployment and the Muslim population share is a meaningful proxy for other variables affecting expat jihadism, such as conflict identity, alienation, and lack of assimilation. Our results show that youth unemployment both in Muslim countries and among Muslims in Western countries is a strong predictor of expat jihadism. Youth unemployment among Muslims therefore serves as an early warning indicator, deserving of specific policy attention, regardless of the region

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows: section two reviews the relevant literature; we present our data and methodology in section three; a discussion of our empirical findings follows in section four; and we conclude with a summary of our main results and outlook in section five.

Literature Review

Following the recent emergence of IS, there has been a growing body of literature examining the phenomenon of foreign fighters and the determinants of Islamic radicalization in the West. Some studies argue that explanatory factors behind the phenomenon of foreign fighters in Syria are not systematic, but highly variable, coincidental and even random. Lorenzo Vidino, a visiting fellow at the RAND Corporation, argues that “the whole experience of foreign fighters is often shaped by coincidences largely beyond the control of the ‘wannabe’ foreign fighter”. (6) Such coincidences may be social, cultural, or economic events that foreign fighters were exposed to prior to leaving their home. Likewise, Cilluffo et al., (7) states that, “there is no single pathway to becoming a foreign fighter, nor is there a static profile of the fighters themselves. Ideology, social circumstances, adventure seeking, political grievances, and so on, all appear to impact individuals’ choices in this regard. Foreign fighters’ socioeconomic circumstances also appear to be highly variable”. (8)

Nevertheless, current research on foreign fighters largely seeks to distinguish between pull and push factors behind the phenomenon. (9) According to Schmid and Tinnes, pull factors include extremist ideologies that provide significant justifications for attacks against others (e.g., non-Muslims), and like-minded militant peer-groups that strengthen an individual’s inclination to become a foreign fighter. (10) Additionally, the prospect of personal recognition – the potential for an individual to be perceived as a valiant fighter for a holy cause – and the opportunity to boost one’s (self-)image from near “zero [in one’s own country] to hero” [in the land of jihad], is noted as a pull factor. Push factors include: estrangement by mainstream society of uprooted migrants in refugee camps and diasporas; socio-economic marginalization and aggravation; relative deprivation and/or political exclusion; lack of future prospects at home; and desire to escape, among others. (11)

Among several recent studies investigating pull factors, Skidmore proposes that identification with the conflict serves as a magnet attracting foreign fighters to Syria. 12 This conflict identity could a) be sectarian in nature reflecting the Sunni-Shiite struggle, b) arise from persisting effects of previous conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and c) be based on failing U.S. policies related to the present clash.

Duyvesteyn and Peeters use comparative case studies to investigate why the conflict in Syria attracts more foreigners willing to fight without substantial pay and without any apparent link to the conflict other than religious affinity with the Muslim side. (13) The authors claim that the diverging levels of Muslim foreign fighter recruitment in the most recent conflicts, including the one in Syria, can largely be explained by three factors: access to the battlefront, internal cohesion or group unity and chances of success in battleground. They argue that all three factors are relevant to explain the record number of foreign fighters in Syria, as access to the Syrian battlefront was significantly easy. Once present on the ground, the chances of success were high as the IS was actively realizing the reestablishment of the Caliphate. (14) Interestingly, the authors also note that in reality, both rebel and opposition groups lack internal cohesion. Nevertheless, IS propaganda has been relatively successful in luring people into jihad.

Other studies focus on the push factors behind recruitment to militant Islamist groups - what Thomas Hegghammer calls the “underlying determinants of supply”. 15 Using a series of correlations, Verwimp shows that in a sample of European countries, a positive correlation exists between the gap in employment and education between first- and second-generation migrants and non-migrants on the one hand, and the number of foreign fighters going to Syria per million of sending country population on the other hand.(16)

Examining factors associated with Islamist violence in OECD countries as well as in Syria, Thomas finds that OECD countries appear to experience Islamist violence as a result of large numbers of economically and socially segregated immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.(17) These immigrants do not benefit from the relatively high living standards or levels of equality in their host countries. Consequently, more of them radicalize and participate in Islamist violence – either in Syria or in their new home. Moreover, the author shows that, for all non-OECD countries, stronger civil liberties appear to decrease both domestic Islamist violence and the outflow of foreign fighters to Syria. This finding coincides with those of Krueger, who reports that countries with low levels of civil liberties or political rights are likely to have had more of their citizens join the Iraqi insurgency.(18)

Recently, Benmelech and Klor find that poor aggregate economic conditions are not a major determinant of expat jihadism. The authors conclude that “in contrast to conjectures made recently by economists and policy makers, economic conditions are not the root causes of the global phenomenon of ISIS foreign fighters. (19) In fact, many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions.” (20) The authors also take special issue with the fact that so many foreign fighters come from Western European countries, arguing that if:

…poverty and lack of social equality are not to blame, then why are Western European countries disproportionately significant sources of ISIS foreign fighters? The reason lies in other country characteristics: they are ethnically and linguistically homogenous. In fact, the more homogenous the host country is, the greater difficulty immigrants such as Muslims from the Middle East experience in assimilating. As other research has shown, isolation induces some of them to become radicalized. (21)

Moreover, Benmelech and Klor find that, in the case of non-Muslim-majority countries, unemployment is not a significant determinant of the likelihood of an individual joining ISIS. The authors argue that “income inequality, unemployment, and social and political conditions are not determinants of joining ISIS in non-Muslim countries”. (22) Such finding correlate with other studies that find no relationship between unemployment and terrorism. (23) Krueger and Pischke find no relationship between the unemployment rate and the incidence of ethnic violence across 543 counties in Germany, once they control for a dummy variable indicating whether the county is located in the former East or West Germany. (24) In fact, Krueger, and Krueger and Maleckova argue that terrorists are most typically from more educated and better off backgrounds. (25)

Nevertheless, considerable empirical literature finds unemployment to be positively associated with terrorist events. (26) The presence of male youth is often considered as a “conflict risk” that makes the instigation and perpetuation of violence more likely. The authors of the 2003 World Youth Report state that, “The dearth of opportunities in their communities often leads them to gravitate towards violent conflict and acts of terrorism”. (27) Collier and Hoeffler postulate that the presence of uneducated and unemployed, mostly male, youths is a significant variable that heightens conflict risk. (28).

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Moamen Gouda, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul, South Korea Marcus Marktanner, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA, USA

Suggested Citation:

Gouda, Moamen and Marktanner, Marcus, Muslim Youth Unemployment and Expat Jihadism - Bored to Death? (December 14, 2017). Available at SSRN: or


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