I came across a few good articles challenging some of the common notions of what inspires ISIS fighters and supporters.
The first describes the worldwide phenomenon as more akin to a youth revolt, with Islam as its unifying thread. It’s not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.
The second discusses the “joy of ISIS.” That is, the general lack of understanding the West has towards recognizing that there is something that draws people to the cause in the first place: meaning, sense of purpose, happiness, joy.
I also revisited this short piece from five years ago on the Islamic State in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) where they repurposed the Call of Duty:Black Ops poster for their own propaganda. Youth and fun.
What I enjoyed about these articles is that they’re looking a little deeper at the ISIS phenomenon. The loudest voices I hear scream that it’s the religion that is to blame; it’s a “death cult.” Those voices flame more paranoia and fear which stoke stupid events like burning Qurans, lining streets with pig heads, proudly displaying ‘infidel’ labels, and so on.
Even before ISIS, I had a hard time believing that it was simply religion that inspired the IEDs, snipers, and ambushes I faced in Iraq after the invasion and later just before the surge. I was younger and dumber then, and while it would have been easy to simply say “It’s the religion, stupid!” and cast all of “them” as the other, just a tiny amount of critical thinking said there was something more going on.
Years later, sitting in a room with David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisors to Gen. Petraeus during the surge, I asked him if the chief motivation for some of the insurgents might simply be “the thrill of it?”
“Maybe,” he said.
When you peel back the layers of why young men and women join our own military, you’ll often find they do it for the experience – the thrill. As William Broyles wrote in Why Men Love War, “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.”
Similarly, James Jeffrey, a former British Armor officer describes the thrill this way:
“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commander’s cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.”
One of the most addictive things about being in or around the military is the feeling of being “at the center of the world.” The obsession and interest people have with the military (news, movies, games, literature, etc.) makes it very easy for those who are a part of it to feel unique and a part of something greater. If you’re born in America, you can get close to that center through joining the military.
If joining the military isn’t your thing or isn’t possible, you can get on the same stage simply by joining ISIS. You don’t even have to join, you can just pledge loyalty and get on with it.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, there were some pundits that claimed Saddam was stalling on allowing Weapons of Mass Destruction inspectors, simply because he liked the attention. He liked being on the world stage. If America (and Iran) believed he had WMDs, it made him relevant and important.
Many of my peers in the military love the film Red Dawn, the story of a group of teenagers who find themselves waging a guerrilla war against an invading Soviet force. They call themselves the ‘Wolverines’ after their school mascot. It’s a fantasy, where they get to ambush the invading enemy, steal his weapons to grow more powerful, be the underdog and be the hero.
Invading a country is an odd experience, and when you think about it and talk about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that once you get to the insurgency, the “enemy” might simply be living that Red Dawn fantasy.
The Pashtuns, former Baathists, ISIS fighters – it’s Red Dawn, in reverse.