ISIS’ secret weapon for recruiting fighters

A member of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa, Syria. The group has succeeded in recruiting Western youth.
A member of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa, Syria. The group has succeeded in recruiting Western youth. Reuters

Which country has the highest percentage of its Muslim population fighting for the Islamic State as foreign recruits? Algeria? Afghanistan? Indonesia?

Try Finland. No. 2 is Belgium, followed by Ireland and Sweden.

What do these countries have in common? They’re wealthy, democratic and have high levels of education, health and income. They also have low levels of economic inequality.

These findings appear in an eyebrow-raising report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit whose recent work also identified another important factor driving radicalization: a lack of assimilation. In other words, the Islamic State draws heavily from groups who do not adopt the culture of the country in which they live.

These conclusions fly in the face of conventional wisdom: that radicalization flows from economic inequality.

In fact, the report finds strong positive correlations between Islamic State recruitment and high gross domestic product per capita as well as high rankings in the Human Development Index and the Political Rights Index, two composite economic measurements. In short, most Islamic State recruits come from societies replete with comforts and rights.

So what convinces men in such societies to join the Islamic State? A failure to assimilate, according to the National Bureau report. To measure that, the organization looked at indices for ethnic, linguistic and religious fractionalization and calculated the probability that two random individuals in any society would not share the same ethnicity, religion or language.

European countries have low fractionalization levels and lack an assimilationist ethos, which means that Muslim immigrants do not acculturate. “The difference with America is the melting pot,” one of the report’s authors, Efraim Benmelech, said.

The report supports the common-sense proposition that a population that does not feel it is part of something greater than itself is likely to have members who will fall prey to itinerant snake-oil salesmen such as Islamic State recruiters.

Some European leaders also make this point. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said repeatedly that terrorism is not really caused by Western foreign policy, poverty in the Middle East or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Many who believe those three causes are to blame, however, persist. The French socialist economist Thomas Piketty – whose 2013 bestselling book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” warned about gaping wealth inequality in the West – laid blame for the Islamic State on all three in an article in Le Monde written just after the November terrorist attack in Paris. “Only an equitable model for social development will overcome hatred,” he wrote.

The authors of the National Bureau paper, however, write their findings “directly contradict the recent assertions by Thomas Piketty. … The large number of foreign fighters coming from highly equitable and wealthy countries … run contrary to those claims.”

Benmelech told me in an email: “While the U.S. is infamous for its high degree of income inequality, its ‘melting pot' culture that promotes assimilation may be one of the best deterrents against radicalizing people to join ISIS.”

Considering the anti-assimilation bent of current U.S. immigration policy, however, is a European-like atmosphere in our future? It’s a question worth asking, sooner rather than later.

Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for International Studies.