A new study carried out in Kyrgyzstan that involved in-depth interviews with the families of men and women who have left to fight in Syria has uncovered some interesting -- and perhaps unexpected -- facts about the individuals who choose to leave their homes and families to join militant organizations like the Islamic State (IS) group.
Tatyana Dronzina, an expert in terrorism from Sofia State University in Bulgaria, conducted the study at the end of January in both northern and southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. The researchers interviewed the relatives of Kyrgyz nationals who went to fight in Syria and also spoke to a number of returnees. Earlier this month, Dronzina spoke to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, Radio Azattyk, about the study, more details of which have now been made available in the media.
The researchers were able to put together the life stories of 30 Kyrgyz militants, of which 22 were based on interviews with the militants' families, three on personal conversations with the militants, and five were based on information published in the media. Seven of the militants were from the northern Chui Province, and the rest were from the southern province of Osh.
While the stereotype of an IS militant from Central Asia is that of a poor, uneducated, unmarried, and religious male, perhaps with a prior tendency for violence, the study revealed a great deal of diversity among militants.
Most of the Kyrgyz nationals who went to Syria were aged between 22-28 years old. Among the women who left Kyrgyzstan for Syria, the majority were either minors or women who had divorced or been abandoned by their husbands. The youngest girl in the study group was aged 16.
Most of the militants were married with an average of two or three children. The study also demolished the stereotype that those joining the IS group are more likely to be uneducated: of the militants studied, four were university graduates and 18 had 11 years of education.
The religious profile of the militants studied was also very diverse. Only a third of the militants expressed a high degree of religiosity. Most of the militants expressed only a moderate degree of interest in religion.
None of those who had left to join or support the fighting in Syria had displayed any prior tendency toward violence, and just two were described as "unbalanced."
Neither were all of the militants from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Most of the group had what was described as an "average" standard of living, while two were reported to have a very good standard of living. Only four were below average and just one of the militants had been in debt when he left for Syria.
The one trait that was common across almost all of the militants studied was a liking for playing sports.
The study also found a wide variety of motives expressed by the militants who went to Syria.
While some of the motives were religious or ideological in nature, such as "fighting the infidels" and "fighting the enemies of Islam," the militants expressed many more nonreligious factors driving their choice to join the IS group. These included a desire to defend the weak and a desire to fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Other militants said that they had experienced difficulties in integrating in Russia, where they had gone as migrant laborers.
Some militants emphasized the romantic aspects of being a foreign fighter, such as a desire for heroism, adventure, and martyrdom; while others simply said that they were tired of everyday life.
Some of the women interviewed said that a motive for going to Syria had been the desire to start a family.
While there was no one trait -- such as economic disadvantage or degree of religious observance -- shared by the Kyrgyz nationals who decided to join the IS group, Dronzina's study did find that the militants had one thing in common: they were mostly radicalized abroad rather than in Kyrgyzstan.
Militants were either radicalized while working abroad or when studying overseas in religious institutions.
The Internet and social networks also played a big role in radicalization, the study found. Recruitment is carried out by a network of recruiters who operate both abroad and in Kyrgyzstan, but the main function of the network is to assist with logistics and travel arrangements.
Dronzina's study also found that, because Kyrgyz nationals are radicalized to different degrees, and because not all of them express a high degree of religious observance, individualized strategies are needed to help de-radicalize such individuals.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk