What Explains the Flow of Foreign Fighters to ISIS?

Efraim Benmelech, Esteban F. Klor*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


This paper provides the first systematic analysis of the link between countries’ economic, political, and social conditions and the global phenomenon of ISIS foreign fighters. We find that poor economic conditions do not drive participation in ISIS. In contrast, the number of ISIS foreign fighters is positively correlated with a country’s GDP per capita and Human Development Index (HDI). Many foreign fighters originate from countries with high levels of economic development, low income inequality, and highly developed political institutions. Other factors that explain the number of ISIS foreign fighters are the size of a country’s Muslim population and its ethnic homogeneity. Although we cannot directly determine why people join ISIS, our results suggest that the flow of foreign fighters to ISIS is not driven by economic or political conditions but rather by ideology and the difficulty of assimilation into homogenous Western countries. These conclusions are consistent with those of the related qualitative literature that relies on the personal profiles of ISIS foreign fighters.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1458-1481
Number of pages24
JournalTerrorism and Political Violence
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Taylor & Francis.


  • ISIS foreign fighters
  • and social drivers of radicalization
  • economic
  • political


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