Study Says Americans Who Join ISIS Disappointed by Experience That Didn’t Meet ‘Their Expectations’

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A new study from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism found that Americans who leave the country to join ISIS believe that “life in jihadist-held territory did not live up to their expectations,” leading many to return home after the “idealized version of reality” they experienced online doesn’t come to fruition.

Mohamad Khweis left the United States in 2015, according to a report on, heading to territory held by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He admitted he was “curious” about what the group had to offer.

“I would see… people from all around the world leaving their countries and going to live in this state,” said Khweis during his federal trial on charges of terrorism. “It was kind of interesting.”

However, once Khweis reached his destination, he discovered that the experience didn’t align with his expectations. He was often tasked with running basic errands and other menial tasks, like taking out the garbage. Khweis also cared for the wounded.

Over time, he became “frustrated with waiting” for military-style training, leading him to flee, though he was ultimately captured in Iraq and later found guilty of supporting terrorism.

According to the George Washington University study, Khweis isn’t the only person who believes the hype doesn’t match up with the reality. Many Americans who leave the US to join ISIS try to return home because “life in jihadist-held territory did not live up to their expectations,” the study says.

The “idealized version of reality” displayed in online propaganda doesn’t accurately reflect the harsh conditions, infighting, and range tedious tasks, like household chores, that the person ultimately experiences.

“Many of the Americans had little to no combat experience and were assigned duties such as cleaning safe houses, cooking, and caring for the sick and injured,” said the report. “This was hardly the glamorous experience they anticipated, and some sought a way back to the comforts of home.”

The study was focused on 64 people, referred to as “travelers” in the report, who left the US to join various Islamist militant groups in Iraq and Syria since the protests against the Syrian regime began in 2011. Most were associated with ISIS at some point during their experience, and four of the survey participants even obtained leadership positions.

Most of those in the study who left the US for ISIS were considered “networked,” reflecting that they were either connected with Islamist militant supporters in the US or were traveling with others when they left the country.

According to the study, few who leave the US to join ISIS ultimately return, though approximately one-third of those who were examined for the report are believed to have died while overseas.

The report does include a conclusion, asserting that those who leave to join ISIS and attempt to return to the US pose less of a risk than those who become radicalized but never leave the US.

The authors of the study state, “The risk that ‘homegrown’ extremists will commit attacks on U.S. soil outweighs the risk of attacks from returning travelers.”