TerrorismAre Islamic State recruits more street gang members than zealots?

By James L. Gelvin

Published 21 August 2017

The recent terrorist attacks in Spain and Finland once again compel us to ask: Who joins the Islamic State, and why? Evidence suggests that the radicalization model – that is, a step-by-step process whereby individuals cut themselves off from social networks such as family and immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture — is, at best, only part of the story. More likely, this model is wrong or not universally applicable. Experts say that the evidence suggests that rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.” Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work, and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Are they attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, self-sacrifice to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure? In this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaeda.

The recent terrorist attacks in Spain and Finland once again compel us to ask: Who joins the Islamic State, and why?

As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging about how and why men are attracted to IS.

Where do the recruits come from?
We know that IS recruits people from within the territory under its control and neighboring areas as well as from abroad. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, as of 2013 – that is, before Islamic State’s major push in the region – there were between 17,000 and 19,000 IS members in Iraq and Syria.

This is probably a low estimate, however. As of 2015, there were about 30,000, more than enough to replace the 15,000 killed by the American-led bombing campaign during the first year of that campaign.

A majority of IS recruits came from the Middle East. The largest number of Arabs who hail from places other than Iraq and Syria came from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. Other fighters came from as far away as North America, Europe (Belgium has supplied the largest per capita contingent from Europe), Australia and the Caucasus (particularly Chechnya).

Why do they join?
Social scientists cite a number of reasons people join IS. Some of those recruited in Iraq and Syria, they assert, join because they believe in the Islamic State’s message. Others, however, join because they are compelled by IS to do so or for reasons to do with revenge, money, sectarian sentiments, camaraderie, the promise of power or the promise of sex slaves such as captured Yazidi women and girls..

Some social scientists claim that the sense of empowerment that comes from joining a group noted for its ultra-violence, disaffection from society, and just plain sociopathy might also factor into the calculations of European Muslims who face discrimination and impoverishment in their adopted homes.

The list of potential reasons for joining is so long that one is reminded of something the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said: “[I]nterior decorating is a rock hard science compared to psychology practiced by amateurs.”