“Jihad” to earn a living | Reasons behind joining Jihadi groups
The dreadful living conditions in Syria have spurred many Syrian young men to join military and rebel formations and jihadist organisations in order to get monthly salaries and other privileges so that they can secure their families’ needs. This phenomenon is widespread in all military formations in Syria, even in jihadists groups and organisations whose ideologies are based on fundamentalist religious beliefs and jihadist doctrines.
Most of the fighters of Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is the most prominent jihadist organisation in north Syria and which has started recently to increase the number of its members, have not joined this jihadist formation for their beliefs or Islamic-jihadi goals, but they have sought only for getting monthly salaries and privileges which HTS provides to its members and affiliates. Although the salaries paid by HTS do not meet the needs of its fighters and their families, there are several factors spurring these fighters to join Tahrir Al-Sham, mainly the high population, lack of job opportunities, soaring living costs and lack of projects and initiatives which invest in human resources. These factors have forced many young men to bow to the incentives and accept joining jihadist organisations and groups, including HTS, although these men do not adopt any jihadi or extremist ideologies.
HTS members of this category, whether those still serving in the ranks of HTS or those split from the group, can be distinguished by their backgrounds and the nature of their living conditions. These members have not been impacted by the religious extremist ideology of Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham or show those aspects which the group is known for, where they only comply with instructions and orders issued by their commanders during training and sharia courses and on frontlines.
Speaking to SOHR, a 24-year-old man known by his initials as A. D. who had split from Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham in May 2019 said, “my decision of joining HTS was not based on my beliefs or for having been affected by jihadist ideology. It was all about my family’s dire living conditions at that time. After the death of my father, I failed to have a job or work with a stable salary, so I joined Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham in 2017. I knew many HTS recruits who have never followed any jihadist ideologies. The monthly salary and food baskets provided to the group’s members were the only motives for making them continue fighting under the banner of this jihadist group. The military headquarters I had served in hosted many members who violated the laws of Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham, such as smoking cigarettes and hookah and listening to music. This indicates to the fact that these members did not care about jihad or show any desire to engage in battles and that they only cared about money.”
“When I joined HTS, I pretended to be a hard-liner to show the people that I was a member of a jihadist group. This led to disputes and altercations with many civilians after I had criticised their practices which violated sharia (a body of Islamic law). Shortly later, I myself started to do the same practices and I could not continue pretending to be fully compliant with sharia for long. My need for money and a stable salary motivated me to join HTS and act as if I was a hard-liner,” the young man added. Two years after he had split from HTS and given up fighting, the young man said that he got another job and confirmed that many of ex-HTS fighters did the same. He also confirmed that the over 50 percent of HTS fighters do not believe in the group’s ideology. This ratio had been less previously, but it escalated in the past three years, as large number of members joined HTS for several reasons, mainly the dire living conditions and extreme poverty in north-west Syria region, according to A. D.
After Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham had eliminated several factions affiliated to the “moderate opposition,” including Ahrar Al-Sham Islamic Movement, Suqur Al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, in Aleppo, Hama and Idlib countryside following fierce battles in 2018, many members of these formations split and joined Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham, which was the most prominent formation in the region at that time, as they were in need to stable monthly salaries.
Moreover, the deteriorating living conditions in the past three years, as well as prohibitively high prices and lack of job opportunities spurred many young men to join Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham; this, in turn, has contributed to the increase in the number of the group’s members . This exactly what HTS has sought for, in order to enlarge the areas under its control and replace the fatalities it sustained in battles against the other factions, regime forces and their proxy militias. Furthermore, the relatively large salaries that Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham pays its members have lured more young men to join its ranks.
An activist known by his initials as M. A. told SOHR, “there is no noticeable difference between the characters of the Turkish-backed militiamen and a large number of HTS fighters in the terms of the lack of religious and jihadi motives for their presence in these military formations. The recent change of the characters of HTS members is attributed to the fact that HTS has been lenient with the members who are not fully compliant with sharia, because the group has recently cared only about increasing the number of its members and showing the world that it is not an extremist organisation.”
The activists added, “Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham gives 100 USD a month to each member of ‘Al-Nukhbah’ group (elite forces) and gives the second-ranking members serving in its military headquarters 700 TL each plus food baskets every month. While members deployed on the frontlines with regime forces and their proxies are given 400 TL and food baskets every month.” He pointed out that financial incentives are the main reason behind the increased interests in joining HTS. In addition, HTS has offered facilitations for the young men who desire to join the group by establishing recruitment branches in Ariha, Jisr Al-Shughour, Idlib, Sarmada and other areas. Previously, persons who wanted to join HTS were requested to get recommendations by members and commanders, according to the activist.
On the other hand, M. A. remarked that HTS has witnessed the split of some of the extremist individuals who criticise and reject the group’s policy to indulge and be tolerant with members violating Islam laws and to accept members with no extremist religious ideology. The activist added, “although the financial incentives provided by HTS are not that big, willingness to join the group’s ranks increases due to the deteriorating living conditions, especially since young men have been affected greatly by the repercussions of the current economic hardship which prevented many from helping their families, getting married or securing their essentials. However, the percentage of this category of HTS members who have joined the group for financial purposes cannot be defined exactly.”
Practices by HTS members in training camps and military headquarters prove the presence of a large number of members having no extremist religious or jihadi backgrounds and beliefs. Commenting on this point, a former member of Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham known as A. H. told SOHR, “sexual harassment among the members, having illicit pills, smoking hookah and watching porn movies are some examples, among many, of actions practiced by many members in HTS headquarters, which proves that the group comprises a large number of members who are not hard-liners. I witnessed the punishment of some members involved in such practices, where some violators were imprisoned during my service in HTS, precisely since I joined the group which was known as ‘Jabhat Al-Nusra’ at that time until I split in early 2021 in order to resume my education.”
The ex-member also confirmed that this type of members, even those who joined other extremist jihadist formations like the Turkistan Islamic Party, neither had jihadi interests nor were hard-liners.
It is worth noting that the phenomenon of young men seeking to secure a living has not been confined to joining Hayyaat Tahrir Al-Sham and other jihadist groups, it is also manifested in admitting thousands of members recruited by Turkish backed factions and turning them into mercenaries to join fights in Libya and Azerbaijan, in accordance with specific agendas, where these young men accepted the call just for the money.