Why they join ISIS — and how deradicalisation works

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by Neil Godfrey

An interesting account on Indonesians being attracted to ISIS and what the subsequent deradicalisation programs look like appeared yesterday on various ABC site recently: Islamic State training new generation of Indonesian terrorists…. (Not sure if the video segment will be available to anyone outside Australia, though); Young Indonesian jihadists explain who and what lured them to Islamic State; — preceded by an SMH article back in August, Islamic State contagion growing in Indonesia

The program focuses on a group of 500 South East Asian fighters in ISIS. The main recruiter of Indonesians uses social media from within ISIS to recruit other Indonesians.

The following quotations come from a mix of the reporting of Sarah Dingle and presenter Leigh Sales.

The role of networks

NOOR HUDA ISMAIL: My dad sent me to an Islamic boarding school when I was 12 in an Islamic boarding school and the school was founded by the founder of Jemaah Islamiyah, so literally, I share room with those Bali bombers when I was 12 for six years.

Why the different paths?

“Because of different trajectories, I missed the chance to get a scholarship to study in Pakistan back then Afghanistan,” he said.

“Because I was tainted, and I took a date with the daughter of the founder of the school, I was considered as not devoted enough to pass that test.”

Noor Huda Ismail made a documentary film showing how ISIS radicalises young men in Indonesia. One of these was Akhbar . . . .

AKHBAR (Jihadi Selfie documentary): When I was six, I had big dreams, really big. I wanted to be an Islamic scholar. I was lucky to get a high school scholarship to study religion and science and social studies in Turkey.

SARAH DINGLE: In Turkey, Akhbar had become aware of another Indonesian student, Yazid, who had gone to Syria to join IS.

AKHBAR (Jihadi Selfie documentary): I wanted to contact him because I wanted to go to Syria too. I felt bored with my life because it was the same every day. Live a glorious life or die a martyr.

SARAH DINGLE: They began to chat and over several months, Yazid became Akhbar’s key advisor on life in the caliphate.

NOOR HUDA ISMAIL: Yazid told Akhbar that if you join ISIS, if you come here, you get a lot of fun things to you, you can carry guns, you can running around with horse, you can shoot and the bonus, you get girls, you get laid. You know, that’s basically – that’s such an attractive call for young people like Akhbar.

SARAH DINGLE: But Akhbar made the crucial decision not to leave when the parents of Yazhid and another Indonesian student rang his school, frantic over their missing children.

NOOR HUDA ISMAIL: Akhbar was moved by that and then he remember his own father, his own mother and parent and then he started to questions if you want to do jihad, if you want to do good things, you shouldn’t make your parents unhappy. You should make your parent proud of you.

SARAH DINGLE: This decision may have saved Akhbar’s life. Just three weeks ago, while finishing off his film, Noor Huda Ismail received a text saying, “Yazid is dead”.

Reasons for joining ISIS

We saw a powerful reason lived out by Noor Huda Ismail above. Another story is of Junaedi, a street hawker who was captivated by the ISIS sales pitch and went to Syria:

JUNAEDI (male voiceover): I am purely a volunteer. I was shocked when I first arrived and saw the guns. I was going to be a soldier.

SARAH DINGLE: Junaedi was recruited to IS by the second most powerful Indonesian in Syria, Abu Jandal.

NOOR HUDA ISMAIL: Abu Jandal promise that the Islamic state will pay his debts. It means that he will receive a salary, at least he promises $250. Maybe for Australian, this just nothing, but for Indonesians, that’s quite a bit of money.

SARAH DINGLE: But when Junaedi arrived in Syria, what he found was far from glamorous.

JUNAEDI (male voiceover): Every month was the same. There’s no electricity. Before you arrive there, you have a different vision of the place. You think it will be good, that is, until you experience it for yourself over there.

And the promised salary turned out to be closer to $60.

Not just young men but now families are being targeted:

In a disturbing development, Ms [Sidney] Jones [Head of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict] said IS was not just looking to young men for recruitment. In fact, its propaganda also targets families.

“[IS] has the added attraction of being a pure Islamic statea great Islamic experiment that they have the opportunity to take part in and that’s one of the reasons you see families going,” she said.

“That’s a real pull factor.”

How does deradicalisation work?

Speaking of the disillusioning experience of Junaedi, Ismael explained:

“It was ISIS’ broken promises, basically,” Mr Ismail said.

Mr Ismail said disillusioned fighters like Junaedi were valuable because they could be used to prevent other Indonesians from joining IS.

“They can say, ‘look, basically what ISIS told you is not right. I was there, it was horrible living out there. Please don’t go’,” he said.

Notice the attraction and the cure — at no stage with any of these people are the teachings of Koran given any prominence. Coincidentally I was mentioning in a recent post that one does not “deprogram” a cultist by arguing religious doctrine.

The only way, pretty much, to extract a fundamentalist or cult-member from their beliefs is to find a way to isolate them from their support network as the first step. The follow up needs to address perceptions and information, not rational arguments over doctrinal beliefs.

The documentaries illustrate why many join terrorist networks. Of course it’s an Islamic group, but the motivations, the reasons, these people joined were not the teachings of the Koran. We should not be surprised. This is the overwhelming message of the research of anthropologists, political scientists and others.

See also

ISIS : the State of terrorstern

Isis : inside the army of terror


The rise of Islamic state : ISIS and the new Sunni revolution



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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Why they join ISIS — and how deradicalisation works”

  1. “The documentaries illustrate why many join terrorist networks. Of course it’s an Islamic group, but the motivations, the reasons, these people joined were not the teachings of the Koran.”

    -Agreed. The biggest reason to join the IS is “why not”? IS is basically a U.S. protectorate. It’s also the largest state in Syria, and the second-largest in Iraq (by territory). It’s fighting for an idea, far more so than the Iraqi and Syrian governments, meaning it actually cares about gaining foreign recruits of all countries. Nationalist armies attract only the nation, ideological armies attract everyone. There is no chance your individual presence there will affect the outcome of the war. Meanwhile, all the benefits of joining it can be yours. Of course, there’s always the chance you’ll be killed in a battle (most likely, with the Kurds) or in an airstrike. And joining it is easy, I hear, given the open border between Turkey and IS-held territory. If the IS offered its followers zero personal benefits, would anyone join, doctrine or no doctrine? The doctrine here is necessary, but not sufficient.

  2. I’ve always found “moral relativism” an interesting take on ethics. It helps to explain how certain cultures have practiced cannibalism, and why the ancient Romans could have fed the Christians to lions in the arena for the fun of the spectators.

    1. Relativism is important because it recognizes that something isn’t “objectively wrong” just because it “offends” us. The fact that something offends us just indicates the nature of the interaction between the event and our subjective prejudices. It in no way indicates that the event runs counter to some “moral absolute.” And as Derrida said, it is the same with truth. The fact that you are “certain” about a proposition in no way indicates the objective “being-true” of that proposition. Certainty is a subjective psychological state, and may be completely unrelated to the truth of a proposition. We have all been certain about things we later concluded to be false.

        1. What makes an act “immoral?” Is there any distinction between “bad,” “immoral,” and “evil?” How do we make the move from characterizing an act as “subjectively offensive,” to characterizing it as “objectively wrong?”
          And how do we go beyond “acting friendly” to “acting moral?” Is there a distinction between “friendly” and “moral?” Is “being moral” just akin to “being a good friend?”

          1. Boyer discusses morality in chapter 5 of Religion Explained — it’s available on bookzz. I recently outlined some points found in Pinker’s latest (Better Angels) — Dan or others no doubt would be able to point to more recent references.

  3. Atran made a comment that youth have an energy and idealism that could/should be directed towards a good/beneficial purpose—rather than having aimless boredom propel them towards harm/toxicity….

    Perhaps more of our educational institutions should have social projects that will bring benefits to the communities—which in turn might help the youth think creatively to add purpose and meaning to their lives by benefiting the communities and countries they live in rather than fight distant wars……on the other hand….empowered grass-roots communities may not sit well with those who are entrenched in power…conflict of interests…

    1. An excellent idea. I think of some of the schools I know of in Australia where there are opportunities for some of the senior students to do this sort of thing but I don’t think it’s systemic across the board.

  4. Notice the attraction and the cure — at no stage with any of these people are the teachings of Koran given any prominence.

    But the article says:

    [IS] has the added attraction of being a pure Islamic state — a great Islamic experiment that they have the opportunity to take part in That’s a real pull factor.

    What is a “pure islamic state” if it doesn’t mean a state based on the teachings and descriptions given in the koran? Their “experiment” (it’s insulting to call that an experiment btw, it shares little to nothing with actual scientific experiments) is a bog standard wahabi theocracy.

    1. The clear and evident testimony of those who were attracted to ISIS in the above accounts tells us unambiguously that the teachings of the Koran were not the motivating factor so we need to deal with that evidence. We can’t ignore what those people are saying. (Coyne, Harris, Dawkins and co stress the need to listen to terrorists but in fact they don’t listen to them; they only listen selectively to the parts they expect to hear and that confirm their preconceptions.)

      Yes, the Islamic State claims to be based on the Koran. So also do Zionists claim that their right to expel Palestinian Arabs and take their lands has long been based on their Torah, the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church is likewise said to be based on the teachings and commands of Jesus and the apostles.

      Yet we know very well that there are many Jews and Christians who disagree strongly with the views of Zionists and the Pope. We also know that most Muslims oppose the interpretations, views and methods of Islamic State. There are no right and only and self-evident interpretations of the Bible or the Koran.

      We also know that a number of the founding Zionists who used the Bible to justify their political program were not themselves religious Jews.

      We can see these issues clearly when applied to Jews and Christians. Something goes awry, it seems, when we look at Arabs and Muslims.

      1. All sensible comment. But you must take into account “militant” features of the Qur’an to which these fanatics conveniently refer that have little similarity with the New Testament “ethics”.

        1. All holy texts that I know of contain texts that are used to justify inhumane acts by some adherents and others that contain texts that inspire to goodness. One cannot say one religion is worse than another on the basis of a nonbeliever doing a comparative mathematical count and semantical analysis of holy texts. That is to “dehumanize” the religion by ignoring what the adherents themselves profess to believe and how they interpret the texts; it is to “essentialize” the religion by attributing to it an essence of our own imagination entirely. We know that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not interpret the Koran the way the jihadists do. I suspect (hope) most of us do not interpret the Bible the way Zionists. Most Christians don’t interpret the New Testament’s teachings literally the way a few cultists do. We also know there was a time in our own generation before Islamist terrorism was ever heard of. I think it is a serious mistake to ever take into account our own selections of verses of any holy book in preference to listening to what the overwhelming majority of believers themselves believe about their faith, their religion and holy book.

          1. It probably matters less today that some cultists might make themselves eunuchs or leave their parents for the kingdom of heaven’s sake than that other cultists might crucify the infidels wherever they find them or stone the polyamorous to death, but that must remain a matter of opinion for those who live in comparative safety in Alaska or Australia.

    1. Thanks for the link. Yes, the points are consistent with much else I have read about ISIS and with what I read in books by two ex-Islamist extremists, Maajid Nawaz and Ed Husain.

      A related question I’m interesting in learning the answer to is how the Indonesian ISIS experiences compare with those from Iraq or another Arab background. Ed Husain describes the various levels of racial discrimination — even towards Muslims — in Saudi Arabia: Asians are placed on a lower ranking than Arabs, for example. Is this racism carry over into ISIS itself?

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