Escaping Freedom: The Path of Young Men into Jihadism

Application: Professor Ferdinand Sutterlüty

Project team: Felix Roßmeißl M.A., Professor Ferdinand Sutterlüty

Funding institution: German Research Foundation (DFG: Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft)

Funding period: 15 October 2018 to 14 October 2021

From 2011 to 2018, more than 950 people from Germany and almost 300 people from Austria headed to civil war areas in Syria and Iraq in order to join jihadist groups and help building up an Islamic state. Many of these so-called foreign fighters have been socialized in Germany or Austria, have been living in urban areas, attending school, professional training, or university, or have been working. For most of them their jihadist engagement has led to a breakup with former ways of life and parts of their social network. In our research project »Escaping Freedom«, we focus on the biographical careers of young men who made their way into the subculture of jihadism and decided to enter civil war areas as foreign fighters. The project asks about their specific biographical constellations and interrogates the social, cultural, political, and family contexts that affected these biographical paths.

Taking the experiences and perspectives of the actors as the starting point of analysis, the qualitative design of our research puts interviews with former jihadists from Germany and Austria at the core of the inquiry. This allows for an integrated research on their ways of life, drawing attention to the various dynamics and breaks within the biographies on one hand and the different social factors and normative structures that shaped them on the other. In order to hold the analyzed social layers together, we conceptualize jihadism as a subculture and the biographical careers of the western jihadists as subcultural careers. This theoretical framework mediates the biographical processes on the micro level with social and cultural conditions on more general social levels and furthermore takes into account collective traits of the subcultural movement of jihadism. Finally, this cultural studies framework integrates latest concepts of both the sociology of violence and gender into our research. It aims to explain the effects that an affinity for violence as well as male gender identities have on actors and their subcultural context.

The research results will not only provide new insights into jihadist careers but will also contribute to current theoretical debates on violence, gender and subculture.