Part I: The Success of ISIS's Narrative

War and Peace




Tunisia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Libya, France, California…Terrorists attacks by the Islamic States group (ISIS) have been making the headlines for months. In Syria and Iraq, civilians who live under the rule of ISIS endure hardship and human rights violations - as do Syrians who face the Assad regimes’ bombing campaigns. The extremist group has linked up with regional affiliates, declared provinces across North Africa and the Middle East, and has expanded beyond these regions by committing attacks in western countries. What makes ISIS different from other terrorist group such as Al Qaeda or Boko Haram is its ability to attract militants from as many as 86 countries, including at least 1,700 French and 6,000 Tunisians. 


Since the killings in Paris and San Bernardino, American security services, policy-makers and citizens have been asking questions that many Europeans have been asking themselves for more than a year: What drives individuals from regions across the globe to support an extremist group as openly violent as ISIS? How does radicalization work and why are recruits ready to die for the cause sold by the extremist group? By now, the Islamic State group is no longer simply seen as a “junior varsity team” that can easily be contained. 


The following in-depth analysis looks at ISIS as a global phenomenon that is able to have both local and a universal appeal thanks, in part, to its multifaceted narrative. Looking at various elements of the group’s discourse, the authors present some the push and pull factors that have motivated the group’s militants to join. Even though motivations are often deeply personal, we must understand the multiple reasons in order to deal with the roots causes of ISIS’s attraction.


Defeating ISIS on all fronts will not be a small feat. It is clear that the ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State group is not sufficient to battle this global phenomenon. Even if ISIS is defeated militarily, its message, which knows no borders, will carry on. Establishing a counter-narrative must therefore be a critical element of our strategy against violent extremism.




Domestic Support: Geopolitics and Ethnocentrism

The brutality of the abuses synonymous with ISIS’ reign over their conquered territory in Iraq and Syria has left citizens of these countries to choose one of three alternatives: “assimilate, flee, or face death.” While the regional refugee crisis attests to the huge number of people who “decided” to emigrate, recent reports indicate that as many as 8 million individuals, either by choice or coercion, are enduring rule-by-ISIS. One can imagine that, for many, compliance with the regime has taken the form of a fear-induced paralysis. Nonetheless, while foreign fighters indeed make up a significant portion of ISIS’ military base, the group relies heavily upon their nearly 15,000 domestic recruits. Although we certainly cannot infer that every Iraqi and Syrian fighting for ISIS stands in solidarity with the group’s violent modus operandi, one legitimately might wonder why it is the followers have followed. 

via Soufan Group Foreign Fighters 2015 Update

In order fully comprehend the dynamics inherent in ISIS’ domestic support one must synthesize psychological, rationalist, and behavioral explanations. For the purposes of this analysis, however, a single overarching justification largely suffices—that being a survivalist ethnocentrism deeply rooted in the geopolitical histories of both Iraq and Syria. Since its conception, ISIS has perpetuated narratives of communal tension and vulnerability to co-opt public cooperation and foment a modicum of legitimacy in their rule. The labyrinth of regional geo-strategic realities and their ethnocentric byproducts provide ISIS with more than enough material with which to exacerbate and render salient narratives of collective strife and persecution, thereby providing for the consolidation of their power among vulnerable groups.


There exists a natural human tendency to view one’s own group as central, as being the embodiment of excellence, thereby ranking all other groups as proportionately inferior. Since one’s identity and sense of worth is often closely intertwined with that of the group, the survival and relative rank of the collective becomes conflated with a given member’s innermost sense of relevance and permanence. These subtle undercurrents are often intensified during times of conflict. When a group’s security and identity are jeopardized, the salience of an individual’s relation to the group is dramatically solidified: individuals who identify as being member to a persecuted group will likely construe an attack on the collective as signaling their increased vulnerability. Under such duress, members of the group will at times reaffirm this aspect of their identity, politicizing otherwise “latent” groupings. Recognizing the presence of these divisions in both Iraqi and Syrian societies, by manipulating and re-orienting ethnocentric anxieties, ISIS has successfully redirected these tendencies for group perseverance to bolster their political agendas. 




While one can certainly identify numerous divisions within Iraqi society, here will only problematize the structural competition between the Sunni and Shia over the last few generations. Since the end of the colonial period, these particular sub-groupings have become especially politicized and rendered salient by complex geopolitical forces. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s nearly 70% Shia population found itself disproportionally underrepresented in government and marginalized in contrast to their prioritized Sunni counterparts. The US-backed Baathist movement only perpetuated Saddam’s attempt to bolster his particular in-group, the Sunnis. Somewhat ironically, Saddam’s extreme paranoia led to the pursuit of policies—like his use of chemical weapons on the country’s minorities in 1991— that only undermined his security. Cognizant of the political power they ought to command, humiliated by their inability to attain it, the Iraqi Shiite majority resented their dictated subordination. They sought with combustible anticipation any indication of weakness in Saddam’s iron fist.  

Credit: By VOA - Public Domain

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the necessary shock to the system the Shiites had been waiting for. Operation Enduring Freedom liberated and empowered Iraq’s Shiite majority: the first election in 2005 saw a victory for the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite parties whipped by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and bank-rolled by Iranian authorities (Nasr). The Shia rise to power, and resulting De-Baathification of Iraq, generated tremendous anxiety among the no-longer-sovereign Sunni minority. According to co-authors Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, the resultant sense of alienation and injustice was a predictable product of ethnocentric competition and reversal of political power. Revolting against their demotion, Sunni insurgencies, eventually coopted by al-Qaeda, began to attack Shiite targets including holy sites and neighborhoods.


While ISIS was eventually able to manipulate survivalist Sunni insecurities in Iraq, their success was equally, and ultimately, made possible by Iraq’s political mismanagement that failed to calm legitimate concerns of Sunni disaffection. In an analysis of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure over Iraq, the Soufan Group notes that “his moves against the Sunni population, designed to prevent the Ba’athist coup he insisted was coming, [had] actually removed moderate Sunnis from the political arena.” Maliki’s policy of de-Sunnification resulting in what has been coined the Sunni Awakening, has in part been responsible for ISIS’ ability to maintain their hold over Ramadi and Fallujah. Ali Khedery, CEO of strategic consultancy firm Dragoman Partners, explains that so long as any leader “remains Prime Minister only for the 60% of Iraq” and makes no effort to uproot corruption and mend divisions, ISIS will likely continue to be perceived as the sole vanguard of local Sunni empowerment. 




Alternatively, rather than divisions emerging across communal “ethnic” boundaries, one can problematize the idiosyncrasies of Assad’s regime through a framework amenable to understanding revolutions, and trace therein ISIS’s foothold in Syria. Dispensing with early expectations, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been, for most Syrians, a continuation of a long-standing political order that has isolated them from meaningful cooperation and self-determination. The onset of the Arab Spring in 2010 represented to many a hopeful alternative. Movements like those in Tunisia and Egypt were held up as role models, empowering individuals who aspired to bring autonomous rule to their respective states. Yet, the 2011 Syrian pro-democracy movement failed to materialize, having been countered by military crackdowns, unlawful imprisonment of civilians, and countless incidents of excessive use of force. Since that time, organizations like Human Rights Watch have continued to document the regime’s use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs against the civilian population. The entrenched Syrian Civil War remains a brutal standoff between a group of militarized units that claim to fight for the people, and a dictator clenching onto his dwindling remnants of power. 


Tracking Syria’s recent history in this way, it appears as if the nature of the ethnocentric division that materialized emerged as that of a protest identity directly opposing the Assad regime. Unlike the divisions in Iraq, the fact that Syria’s Alawite Shia minority ruled over an 85% Sunni majority, in all likelihood, had little to do with the nature of Syrian disenfranchisement. The crux of the conflict surrounded the demand for good governance, irrespective of religious affiliation. Nevertheless, protest identities both justify and validate individual grievances, and consolidate the legitimacy and efficacy of the movement (Goldstone). ISIS was able to plug into this narrative by positioning itself not as the savior of the Sunni people, but rather, as a medium for the delivery of the Syrian population’s ultimate revolutionary goal: the elimination of autocratic rule.  


The geo-strategic policies enacted by regional and international powers involved in the Syrian conflict have not only allowed ISIS to legitimize their rule in both countries, but have allowed them to consolidate their survivalist narratives. Countries involved in the fight in Syria are often divided into two camps: those who support, and those who reject, President Assad, a figurative symbol for Shiite dominance in the country. On one side, publicly declaring that only Assad’s rule will be successful in crushing ISIS, Iran has empowered Shia-militias and groups like Hezbollah operating in Syria. In the effort to counter Iran’s influence however, the Saudi Arabian Sunni monarchy insists that only upon Assad’s disposal can peace be restored to the country. In this way, the two regional powers have rendered salient the Sunni-Shia divide. Adding to the confusion, the United States has been unwilling to take a leading role. Whether revolutionary, ethnocentric, survivalist, or opportunistic, domestic support for ISIS remains intimately connected with the simultaneously ephemeral and persisting geo-political dynamics that govern the Middle East. 


The above is not simply an apologist’s account. The reality of ISIS’ success in state establishment is infinitely complex and multifaceted. Nonetheless, ISIS could not possibly have been successful had they not, at least marginally, generated a rhetoric that paralleled both the individual and communal tensions and fears felt by Iraqi and Syrian citizens alike. Supply alone of an ideology remains powerless unless met with equal demand. A Syrian fighter for ISIS interviewed by Patrick Cockburn perhaps expresses this point most directly: “I still believe that we are right…we are fighting because both the regime and the opposition failed us, so we need an armed organization to fight for our rights.” So long as ISIS is successful in perpetuating the narrative that they represent the most legitimate and functional form of government in Iraq and Syria, they will continue to muster support. Inasmuch, a failure on behalf of global powers to take the dynamics that drive both individual and communal fears into consideration will result in misguided foreign policies that fail to problematize a fundamental conduit responsible for solidifying ISIS’ hold on the region.  



Amorphous Universalism

In conjunction with their ability to foment domestic support, one of ISIS’s most astonishing characteristics has been their success in attracting and recruiting an immense retainer of committed foreign fighters, estimated at 27,000 to 31,000 from 86 countries. One is hard-pressed to identify a non-state militant organization in recent history that enjoyed comparable international resonance in this regard. Nonetheless, it seems quite odd at first glance that such a vast number of combatants have decided to join a fight not their own. Although many foreign fighters are nationals of countries in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a new report by the Soufan Group approximately 5,000 fighters have hailed from Western Europe, with numbers having doubled compared to last year. While we may like to think that ISIS can be “degraded and ultimately destroyed” like any other terrorist group, Audrey Kurth Cronin, Director of the International Security program at George Mason University, suggests the organization more closely resembles a “pseudo-state led by a conventional army” than it does its terrorist counterparts. The group’s ability to attract militants to its cause has burgeoned its reputation and capacity, and therefore, is incredibly relevant to those attempting to confront them. 


Though we have identified two distinct camps of foreign fighters, which we will designate as opportunists and ideologues, our ability to understand the processes by which these individuals are recruited remains limited. ISIS panders to individuals from all different walks of life simultaneously by employing a narrative of amorphous universalism. ISIS’ ability to adapt their recruitment tactics to the specific impulses of the individual or group they are targeting has been the fundamental catalyst for their success in attracting individuals from every region of the world, and driven by countless distinct motivations.  While the term amorphous universalism appears necessarily vague, it is simultaneously quite fitting given the huge breath of foreign fighters possessed by ISIS and the equally broad motivation that drives them. To say that ISIS’s narrative is universal says too little, yet to attempt to identify a single explanation for why it is universal misses the bigger picture. For example, geographically speaking, the pandemic distribution of multilingual propaganda alone speaks to the group’s global reach. Recognizing that the group enjoys transnational membership, however, tells us very little about why these individuals are motivated to fight. Although we may be inclined to seek predictive causal frameworks, Jessica Stern of Harvard University and J.M. Berger of the Brookings Instution write that “beyond age and gender, there are few consistent patterns and no reliable profile of who is likely to become a foreign fighter.” 


What we can say is that ISIS has been incredibly successful in recruiting foreign fighters solely because they have positioned themselves as the universal destination for individuals seeking to satisfy their extant of immensely vast and deeply resonant motivations—both external and internal, structural and psychological. While falling short of an all-encompassing analysis, by amalgamating motivations of subgroups of the foreign fighter population, we can attempt to understand why certain kinds of individuals have turned to the Islamic State, and how the group has facilitated their reception in turn. 


The first classification of fighter, labeled opportunists, represents groupings of foreign fighters that join ISIS for purely pragmatic reasons, rational even to the outside observer. In a report compiled by Professor of National Security Studies Mohammed Hafez for The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), Hafez disaggregates some of the motivations driving individuals to join terrorist organizations, an analysis which proves quite instructive when applied to ISIS. Of the categories he identifies, four fall under the pragmatic and rationalist umbrella: opportunistic revolutionaries, itinerant exiles, adventure seekers, and entrepreneurial criminals. 


Whether for experience, succor, thrills, or plunder, even the most dovish Western observer can inherently comprehend the motivations that drive these individuals. These categories of foreign fighters fall neatly into our preexisting frameworks for criminal behavior. As explored by Richard Barrett, Senior Vice President of the Soufan Group, ISIS has developed a reputation for being “more inclusive, better organized and better financed than their more moderate counterparts” and generating a larger “impact on the battlefield” thereby increasing fighters’ local standing. The fact that ISIS has established their reputation, size and relative staying power is often sufficient motivation to attract these fighters of mercenary inclination. 


Unraveling the second category of fighter, the Ideologues, represents a much larger cognitive challenge, for these individuals are propelled by emotive or psychological penchants. One can make progress in understating potential drivers by further classifying these fighters’ motivations into four subcategories: psychological, religious, eschatological, and socio-economic. 


Following a hypothesis advanced by START Researcher Arie Kruglanski, we should allow for the possibility that what may indeed link a large portion of the hugely diverse spectrum of radicalized foreign fighters is the primordial psychological need for personal significance. Kruglanski argues that “the quest for structure and coherence in one’s outlook and beliefs” are fundamental to understanding why individuals find ISIS so attractive. “ISIS ideology offers its adherents an invaluable psychological reward...the sense that, by joining the fight against infidels, they earn the status of heroes and martyrs, thus gaining a larger-than-life significance and earning a spot in history.” For individuals, especially under the age of thirty, who feel a sense of disenfranchisement, ISIS’ messages of fraternity, purpose, and belonging may indeed be a welcomed beacon. According to Kruglanski, “many youngsters find significance and cognitive closure in mainstream ideologies, but some who feel particularly uncertain, or are particularly prone to seek immediate significance, are attracted to extremist ideologies that preach violence.” Since states of psychological disenfranchisement are not regionally or culturally endemic, the attraction ISIS possesses over these individuals must be considered, in some sense, universal. 


A second motivation that falls under this emotive/ideological framework is that of religion; individuals claiming to be true believers surely make up a portion of ISIS’ internationally motivated fighting base. While declarations of deep Islamic piety by ISIS fighters should not be taken lightly, to claim that faith alone is to blame stands in complete contradictions with the reality that millions of devout Muslims repudiate ISIS’ religious teachings and reject its militant interpretation of the faith as defamation. Nonetheless, by invoking the title of Caliphate, ISIS confers upon itself a status of universality, positioning the group as the ultimate defender of the “ummah”, or greater international Muslim community. 


As Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center elucidates, the group endorses an “extreme apocalyptic Salafi-jihadi ideology” mandated to “overthrow the existing world order” and “to convert all people to Islam” through jihad. ISIS has happily undertaken (and arguably manipulated) the onus placed on jihadists to eliminate oppression, protect Muslim lives and uphold Islamic principles, all in the effort confer a definitive legitimacy on the group’s mission. These principles have been incredibly effective in recruiting foreign fighters, many of whom do not possess a nuanced understanding of the significance of “jihad” in the Islamic tradition. As Canada realized through cases like Damian Boudreau’s, domestic “clerical support for volunteerism and martyrdom [play] an instrumental role in breaking down moral and normative barriers to self-sacrifice.” Legitimate or not, the universal call for religious fighters is a formidable driver behind foreign fighter recruitment.


Furthermore, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, professor of Judaic Studies at NYU, maintains that the global “resurgence of religion” as a driving force to action may find its roots in trends of faith-based dualism. To this end, Sachs traces the emergence of dualist thinking in the monotheistic tradition through the divisions inherent in concepts of good and evil, redeemed and infidel. As Sachs argues, by identifying the other as an enemy, one can substantiate atrocities committed against them as being legitimate by invoking the principle of altruistic evil. The immediate byproduct of this rationale is that it entrenches conceptions of self-victimization and dehumanizes those considered other. While this form of symbolic warfare certainly does not explain why all foreign fighters have taken up arms, a recent report by the Brookings Institute credits “eschatological motivations” as being a driving force for many individuals. The fight between good and evil is absolutist and, therefore, universal by definition, a duality manipulated quite extensively by ISIS’s media arm.


Finally, author Pankaj Mishra places the emphasis on socio-economic factors to explain pattern of foreign fighter radicalization. Mishra argues that the insufficient Western conception of ISIS  as a purely religious or psychological movement, and therefore, of its adherents as religious fanatics, fails to effectively account for why it is that individuals become radicalized in the first place. In a quasi-Marxist analysis, Mishra problematizes the role that globalized capitalism has had on younger generations sold on conceptions of universal success, prosperity, innovation and the autonomous entrepreneurial spirit. Tracing an argument previously made by Sumit Ganguly, expectations of an educated generation met with scant opportunities and political repression has “long constituted a fertile soil for the cults of authoritarianism and violence.” Mishra argues that individuals who feel superfluous in semi-westernized societies, “educated into a sense of hope and entitlement, but rendered adrift (by) limited circumstances, and exposed to feelings of weakness, inferiority and envy” find motivation to flee and fight. For these individuals, it was their disenfranchisement with the socio-economic arrangement that represented the impetus to seek the ISIS alternative. 


This is simply the beginning of rendering of both ISIS’s appeal to an international audience, and the sundry motivations that drive individuals to seek refuge under the black flag. ISIS leaves the door open to all by inviting individuals in the manner in which they hope they will best respond; to a trained militant with bravado and enticements, and to an estranged youth with fraternity and solutions. For this reason, ISIS’s intended ubiquity represents an immense challenge to those seeking to confront the group and reverse the flows of foreign fighters heading to Iraq and Syria. Without an appropriate strategy for countering violent extremism, no country will be prepared to effectively address the challenges of preventing fighters from leaving, and de-radicalizing them should they return or should ISIS be defeated. Developing such a strategy is no easy feat. If Arie Kruglanski is correct is in his assessment, “the fight against extremism needs to harness the same psychological forces that made extremism attractive in the first place.” For each unique motivation there must be a counter-measure or counter-narrative. While the fight against ISIS is certainly a fight that requires an exchange of arms, so too however does it require an exchange of ideas. 





Click here to check out part two of the ISIS series.



ISIS, Iraq, Syria, Terrorism