Common Reasons for Joining ISIS and Fighting ISIS

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by Neil Godfrey

Do not comment on this post unless you are prepared to stay to engage with possible alternative views and defend your own ideas in civil discourse. Angry and fly-by-nighter comments may be deleted.

I recently read an interesting news item about a group of elite veteran volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria. It was a story by Stewart Bell in Canada’s online National PostA secretive unit of international veterans went on its first anti-ISIL mission last fall. Hours later, a Canadian was dead. The article reminded me of other stories about veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who on their return find they sorely miss the close bonds formed in high adrenalin war situations. One of those stories was of Afghan veterans who join bikie gangs to revive the same depth of close relationships. The National Post article nailed it this way:

But adjusting to non-military life was a struggle. Adrenaline sports like skydiving and motorcycles couldn’t replace the thrill of Afghanistan. “You miss it,” he said. “You miss it so much.”

There’s another motivation drawing in the volunteers:

In a BBC News video he [the American leader of the volunteer force] said he had come to Syria in late 2014 after seeing photos of ISIL atrocities, in particular a 9-year-old boy nailed to a cross. “I need to fight ISIS,” he said. “If it takes someone’s life, even if it takes my life, so be it. This is a worthy cause.

It’s all very understandable.

It’s also a mirror of the reasons others from the West have gone to Syria to fight on the other side — for ISIS.

Abundant evidence demonstrates that many in the West become radicalised as a result of feeling disconnected from mainstream society. If military personnel returning from Afghanistan often find adjustment to normal life difficult, think how youth, especially a second generation of a Muslim community in a non-Muslim country, can all too often find themselves out of place. Such people are easy targets for idealistic groups that offer a new family relationship. Add to that the moral outrage over what they have seen of death, maiming, torture and destruction in the Middle East, or just Syria alone ….

These well understood mechanisms for the recruitment of radicalised volunteers have been discussed in my series based on FrictionHow Radicalization Happens to Them and Us and several other posts on terrorism.

The anti-ISIS volunteers arrived at their place through the mainstream national channels. The pro-ISIS volunteers through the back channels open to those disaffected by the national mainstream.

For other very human reasons some people have joined ISIS see Joining ISIS: It’s Not Always For Reasons You Might Assume. Now that post reminds me so much of my not so old posts comparing the motivations for joining religious cults with those for joining Islamist extremists.


(The linked articles came to my attention via http://intelwire.egoplex.com/)

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Common Reasons for Joining ISIS and Fighting ISIS”

  1. Isn’t it a problem that there are even “Muslim communities” or insert whatever to begin with? These communities try to insulate their members from wider society, which leaves them rudder less and apt to be radicalized? So, then, the answer is integration? Then why don’t groups like Amish become similarly radicalized?

    1. One very common finding is that radicalisation occurs among second generation immigrants of Muslim families from the Middle East. The pattern is familiar with most immigrant families arriving from cultures, and languages, very different from those of the host country. The first generation typically finds it difficult to adjust and often don’t intend to stay forever anyway. They keep in touch with their home communities where their relatives, friends, culture, all remain. It is the second generation that has the real difficulty, however, since they don’t have those home-roots that their parents continue to engage with.

      The second generation kids find themselves actually in two alien environments. The “home country” is not their “home”, and their parents often teach them values that do not sit well with their real home in the West. Recall the “classic problems” of Greek or Italian parents not wanting their children to get involved with the seemingly sexually loose culture of the West.

      Then there is the colour difference. No matter how hard those second generation kids try to mix, in many instances they find that in the end they are always marked as outsiders because of their colour as much as anything else.

      Results are predictable. Many get mixed up in gangs. The gang becomes a new family and cultural identity. Petty crime is on the cards, too. Researchers have documented many youth who gravitate to ISIS came from a background of gangs and crime. (I have given the sources for this sort of documentation in the posts on terrorism.) ISIS and similar radicalising groups can feed into idealism and grievance by offering a supposedly pure way of life and arousing grievance through graphic footage of horrors among related peoples.

      Some countries do a better job of assimilating their migrant communities than others.

      I think the differences with the long-established Amish community are evident, yes?

      1. The second generation has it’s unique problems for sure, you’ll find many deeply socially conservative attitudes among them. Many of the girls are confused about their identities and just give up, hide themselves in pseudo traditional muslim garb (regardless of parents actual specific muslim background) while getting of on telling others to mind their ‘modesty’ and praising their hijabs as feminist symbols (while western feminists look on and say little to nothing).

        Many of the boys cripple their future around puberty when they decide they have to be the dominant alpha male at all costs, deserving of 24/7/365 praise and respect from everyone around them. It’s how their moms treat them, like little princes that can do no wrong, and if they do do wrong somehow, it’s the fault of the state for not watching their kids better. Many boys are used to be in charge family activities, even while still in the stroller while mom is taking them along shopping.

        The color argument is weak sauce in relation to most western european countries imo, while of course not non-existant, the fact is, we’ve had many immigrants from many places here for a long time, not just middle eastern muslims. In fact, they are pretty much just the most recent arrivals, albeit it in greater numbers then any previous waves. In reality no Dutch kid born in the last 30 – 40 years could possibly have grown up without being around people of many different ethnic backgrounds. If people get treated differently, their (perhaps percieved) behavior would be the most likely reason, not color.

        In any case, many broad brush explanations are posited about how European governments or societies are doing things wrong, but the bulk of those explanations completely forget to account for the fact that pretty much every other group besides muslims from middle eastern descent is doing pretty much fine. I’m being specific because when it comes to muslims from south-american descent (Suriname) here, i haven’t run into a single case that went of to fight abroad yet, and there are plenty of them.

        1. Your comment is full of assertions about perceived attitudes and unsubstantiated motives and absent any supporting data. I imagine that sentiments like yours are far more common in Holland than they are in some other Western countries where Muslims are more widely accepted and integrated into the community. In other places attitudes like yours are perceived to be a serious social problem that needs to be addressed with education and public awareness/information campaigns. Have you ever thought of trying to understand why you have such a “Muslim problem” in the Netherlands by turning to serious evidence-based research or even just getting to know Muslims personally and hearing their stories?

          I trust you’ll attempt to respond thoughtfully.

    2. Regarding the Amish: see Mennonites/Münster. This tradition grew from violent roots. When they saw the world couldn’t be changed by violence, they accepted the radical challenge to ‘come out and be separate’. What do you see when you go look at 16th to 18th century European history? There are clear resonances with today. Similarly in the origins of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Even in the original Muslim emergence one can see themes in common. Islam is not something peculiarly prone to violence as a short cut to the millennium; nor is ‘The West’ somehow unique in working things through relatively peacefully. We forget that we came by what works tolerably well at the expense of millions of corpses.

  2. I think the question why people join ISIS (or ant-ISIS paramilitary) can be rephrased to yield a better answer: why would people NOT join ISIS (or ant-ISIS paramilitary)?

    The history of mankind is littered with violence, atrocities and unspeakable cruelty. Violence and cruelty (to install terror) appear to be the standard way of addressing conflict between human groups. So why do we see a reduction of violence in the most recent centuries? Steven Pinker in his book (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) lists as major causes: the rise of the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and commerce (other people become more valuable alive than dead).

    We can so understand that those who do not feel subject to a state, and put no value on other’s lives, revert to violence; both ISIS supporters and contra ISIS combatants seem to fit that bill.

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