Why are there so many veterans fighting against ISIS?

Tanya Silverman, Project Coordinator argues that it should come as no surprise that many of the veterans currently in Syria and Iraq had previously served in Afghanistan and Iraq during the “War on Terror.” What is surprising is the sheer number of veterans that have travelled to fight against ISIS. This raises questions as to why these retired soldiers are returning to war zones outside of their term in the military, and reveals deeper issues with current approaches towards the reintegration of these individuals following their service.

At the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) we have maintained a database of 300 western “non-Islamist foreign fighters. According to our findings, military veterans account for almost a third of those travelling abroad to fight. In setting up the database, we mined data on the fighters from news sources or their own personal social media pages. This provided unique insight into the factors that led these veterans to choose to become foreign fighters. Understanding the factors that have led these veterans to choose to become foreign fighters – and the ramifications of their decisions – can help to reveal the gaps in reintegration and holistic support given to veterans.

Veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq generally feel that the death and suffering of innocent lives and their own military compatriots was largely in vain as the conflict rages on in the region.

British Army veteran, Joe Akerman, explains his reason to travel. He was inspired after seeing all the atrocities committed against innocent women and children and angered that “no one was stepping in to do anything about it.” Individuals like Akerman are fighting to finish the job that the West, and their countries’ governments, started. This sentiment is more pronounced in veterans that are driven by their frustration towards existing international responses to the current crisis, and governments’ failures to consolidate post-conflict reconstruction. For many, the region became a second home. They express a desire to do something to help those affected by the conflict.

Aside from their desire to finish the job, many veterans display feelings of boredom and loneliness. As such, many are drawn to the conflict and motivated by a search for personal fulfilment, adventure, excitement, or even just an urge to fight.

What is most frightening, however, is that some of these fighters suffer from underlying psychological issues. Between 11-20% of US veterans that fought in Afghanistan or Iraq during the “War on Terror” suffer from depression and PTSD.

Louis Park, an American veteran fighting alongside the prominent group Dwekh Nawsha, admitted he was banned from legally serving in the US army because of his PTSD. However, he claims he “just missed the action.” For individuals like Park who suffer from PTSD, these issues could have played a role in their decision to travel and fight – potentially risking the lives of themselves and others.

Joe Robinson from the UK was driven by similar motivations. However, upon his return he has admitted that adapting back to civilian life is a struggle after returning from his sojourn fighting in Syria. He pleaded “I’ve come back with nothing no support and nobody to talk to.” Robinson, unfortunately, this is unlikely to be an exception but a rule, and individuals like him need help re-assimilating.

Failure to assimilate back into society is sadly a common occurrence not only among veterans, but with many that have suffered a traumatic experience. This includes feelings of isolation, persecution, and frustration.  These feelings were observed among some veterans in the database, although many did also choose to leave behind seemingly normal lives. In turn this has pushed many away from their close circles of family and friends, leaving them with no primary support systems in place. This, combined with the lack of specialist care, can exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD or depression.

However, whilst most of the individuals that suffer from these problems will not make the decision to travel to foreign conflicts, our research indicates that veterans might when combined with other factors. There are other personal influencers specific to ex-military that intensify this decision. Feelings of persecution may be worsened by negative public attitudes toward veterans. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq remain controversial which may heighten feelings of denigration. It is not implausible to think that this might be the case for returning anti-ISIS fighters as well, especially as they are not serving formally with the armed services. If this wasn’t already one of the factors adding to their decision to leave it might well be one they experience upon their return.

Governments need to consider the long-term effects that conflict can have on any individual, whether or not they have previously served on the front line. The kinds of support that is required for military veterans following service needs to be more robust. Veterans need better care – including reintegration back into society and support for their families – in order to be able to return to daily life. This care should also be extended to those foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. Regardless of these foreign fighters not serving as a member of their respective militaries, they may still have been witness to atrocities and are still subject to the same traumas as those that served in previous conflicts. Additionally, there is the need to clarify the legal status of all foreign fighters in a bid to deter individuals’ decisions to travel to a dangerous, and often life-threatening, foreign conflict.

The war in Syria and Iraq is not the first to attract foreigners. It won’t be the last. Research has shown that a number of these non-Islamist foreign fighters would be willing to explore new conflicts. With additional support, the factors contributing to a veteran’s decision to travel can be lessened. This can help to pre-empt long-term intractable issues. Reconsidering the treatment of those that are fortunate enough to return safely might even provide lessons for the future in how to prevent all kinds of foreign fighter travel.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisation.