Thursday, December 3, 2015

Death Hippies: ISIS Recruits

Well, That Planned Parenthood Shooter Guy Didn't Have Long In The Spotlight . . .
A new study looks at the psychological framework of ISIS recruits. Before you roll your eyes, this one is actually interesting! The fundamental points are that:
  1. The attraction to ISIS-style radicalization comes from anger and frustration--not from oppression, psychiatric issues, or loyalty to a specific real-world cause (such as Palestine). Instead, these kids are upset they aren't getting their due in life, are young and rebellious, and looking for a way to act out.
  2. Most of the recruits were of Muslim background but were not highly religious. The trajectory is a personal crisis (of a small nature) followed by the re-adoption of religion and then near-immediate radicalization.
  3. The recruits are not part of the greater Muslim community-- not even the radical factions. The recruits understand Islam at the "Islam for Dummies" level. They adopt one of three heroic narratives. For boys it's either the nihilistic glory of the suicide bomber or the hero of video games (the article calls out the narratives of Call of Duty as being relevant). For girls, they take on the appearance of submission (wearing veils / burkas) but then work with their radicalized friends in a peer-like mode: they are looking for a romantic her to marry
  4. The cause is explicitly "global Islam"--they don't identify with actual Islamic issues (when foreigners get to Iraq, for example, they don't have much affinity for the local Iraqis, hence the need for imported brides or sex slaves). This goes along with the over-arching religious mythology and low knowledge. They are joining a clique that's gonna change the world--they just don't know "into what.'

Why Haven't We Seen More Of This In America?

The common answer is that Muslims in America are better integrated and less oppressed--but this look at radicalization trajectories belies that: The ISIS converts from Europe aren't especially oppressed and are usually reasonably integrated into a more general youth-culture (i.e. they are not very religious).

A second answer is that in America young people have less despair about their future than in the socialist wastes of Europe. Perhaps--but are American millennials really less frustrated than European ones? It doesn't seem likely. The hippies of the 1960's--the college radicals--weren't responding to a literal lack of a future. They were rebelling against a fuzzily realized view of the world.

Finally, the conventional narrative is that in America Islam is more moderate than Europe. Considering that Europe has more concentrated refugee neighborhoods and a larger influx of Muslims than America, that may be true. On the other hand, the ISIS-recruits are usually 2nd generation and are not from radicalized families. Their own families are usually far more moderate than they are.

So what's the real reason? The Omnivore has some ideas:

  1. International travel is much harder and more expensive from America than Europe. In Europe everyone has a passport and the distances and costs are shorter. It's also less weird to visit another nation.
  2. The goal of the recruits is to join a band-of-brothers with their peer group and change the world. Blowing themselves up in a lone-wolf operation isn't, usually, what they are looking for. The romantic narrative of ISIS asks them to come join up--not go underground and self-detonate. Thus, the great fear of Ft. Hood style attacks is not what the ISIS-recruiting engine will produce (which is certainly not to say that other things can't produce it--just not this).
  3. The mechanisms of radicalization (ISIS recruiters, peer groups) have a slightly harder time operating in the US. The Omnivore can't confirm this--but it seems likely that the non-Internet component (actual ISIS recruiters) need more entrenched Muslim communities to operate without detection. 

What To Do?

The study has some interesting ideas. The first is that in order to break the hold of ISIS they need to lose. This is the same thing, not coincidentally, that needs to happen to Donald Trump. Right now ISIS can make claims that they are winning. These are thin at best (they have lost key ground, for example, and had some of their leaders assassinated)--but they have a good propaganda arm and nuance is for losers.

A defeat "on the ground" (which the study recommends) would be a good way to do this. 

Secondly, it suggests that Islam be allowed to be a "normal religion" rather than "the religion of the oppressed." This is probably more complex than the authors make it sound (Islam, with a political component that is generally incompatible with European states, has some gravity towards 'being oppressed.' But the point stands that focusing on radicalization in Islam (i.e. Imams in prison sent primarily to deal with radicalization) is counterproductive. 


The Omnivore opened with the image of last night's mass shooting because the shooters were, according to preliminary reports, Muslims. They were not, however, in the profile of ISIS recruits. They allegedly had a young child. It was a husband and wife shooting team (a 3rd shooter is unconfirmed at this time). Their choice of target seems odd for an act of international jihad. The point is that it's important to note that the profile of young ISIS recruits in general is very different from that of ISIS operatives. We should keep that in mind.

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