Torn between the West and ISIS: the interplay between narratives of intervention and statebuilding and the life stories of former foreign fighters (Sept 2017 - Aug 2020)

Lead academic: Raquel da Silva
Funder/ funding: British Academy

Context

This research project aims to provide a better understanding of transnational activism through the study of the interplay between the narratives of intervention and statebuilding produced by the West and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the first-hand experiences and life stories of former Western foreign fighters, men and women, and their families. Such understanding will result from the analysis of official Western and ISIS documents, social media accounts of former foreign fighters, and face-to-face interviews with the latter and respective families. This research has pertinent implications for policy and practice, regarding preventive and re-integrative interventions vis-à-vis current and former foreign fighters, providing insight into their reasons to join ISIS, their lives in ISIS-controlled territory, and the potential risk they pose when they return. This study will focus specifically on the micro narratives of returned Western foreign fighters, on the meso narratives of life within ISIS, and on the macro narratives behind their struggle produced by the West and ISIS.

Project aims and objectives

This project aims to offer a critical analysis of transnational activism considering the overarching research question: what is the interplay between both Western and ISIS macro narratives of intervention and statebuilding and the micro narratives present in the life stories of Former Foreign Fighters (FFF) in Syria and Iraq and their family members? Specifically, it addresses three sets of research questions that comprise in themselves three different temporal and spatial moments, where both micro life stories and macro narratives of intervention will be analysed:

1. How do FFF perceive their engagement in transnational activism in Syria and Iraq?

  • What is the influence of Western narratives of intervention that portray ISIS as terrorists who need to be eliminated through further military intervention?
  • What is the influence of ISIS's narratives of recruitment that point the finger to failed Western interventions and to Western hypocrisy towards the Middle-East?

2. How do FFF characterise life within an armed organisation in Syria?

  • What is the influence of Western narratives that portray foreign fighters as traitors, as home-grown terrorists and as an ultimate security threat to their home countries?
  • What is the influence of ISIS narratives that portray foreign fighters as heroes, or as martyrs, who are contributing to the building blocks of the caliphate?

3. How do FFF perceive their disengagement from transnational activism?

  • How can FFF life stories lead to alternative Western paradigms of intervention? 
  • How do FFF experiences in Syria and Iraq lead to a new engagement with ISIS’s broader narrative of statebuilding?