Why Join ISIS?

A man teaches Bilal, 11, how to use a toy rocket propelled grena

by Nicole Heydari

Nicole Heydari is a 2013 MAIS graduate with U.S. government and contractor experience in foreign policy. She is currently an International Program Specialist for the Afghanistan Team at CLDP/U.S. Department of Commerce. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.


Pure evil is how many describe the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) after seeing its barbaric acts. Americans who viewed the uncensored and gruesome beheading of journalist James Foley felt sick to the bone as the reality of ISIS hit closer to home. However, while ISIS prides itself in its Islamic symbols including its banner and the Takbir (God is Great), practice shows that many recruits have little religious conviction or knowledge. The religious extremism espoused by ISIS is merely the rules of the game rather than the motivation to play it.

Playing the ISIS game means embracing violence. However, it seems that with each additional videotaped beheading the public hears about or sees, they become a little more desensitized, almost as if it were part of human nature to normalize and tolerate violence. In the same fashion, current and prospective jihadists become numb to the wickedness of their own actions. It is in this context that ISIS has thrived and managed to recruit a vast number of fighters. According to U.S. intelligence reports, over 15,000 individuals from more than 80 nations have gone to fight in Syria. It has gone far beyond the traditional recruitment methods used by al-Qaida, on to mastering Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, thus gaining popularity among the youth.

What is the profile of a person that takes the ISIS path, branding their current life as unworthy? Is it an irrational decision or a coldly calculated one? The answers are complex and pertain to the realm of psychology. However, there are certain motivations driving the recruits which can be divided into three: economic and political grievance, spiritual and social fulfillment, and psychopathic.

Reaching out to a broad base of support, ISIS presents itself as the panacea for failed governance. With a shrewd understanding of human nature, it has found recruits worldwide willing to commit their lives to the cause. As a number of studies show, ISIS has become a banner for those trying to fill a void or grievance with just about anything. John Horgan, psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, pointed out that “ISIS offers a place for everyone, ranging from the sadistic psychopath to the humanitarian and idealistic-driven.”

Despite the popularity of their “holy” cause, the religious savviness of those who join ISIS is skewed. In July 2014 two British individuals, Yusuf Sarwar and Mohammed Ahmed, traveled to Syria to train with ISIS. Right before leaving, they bought two books: Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies. Another example is the incident from May 2014, described by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in its August report to the UN General Assembly. According to the report, ISIS fighters entered a village in Syria and started executing presumed Yazidi. The villagers recited the Quran to demonstrate they were not Yazidi, but only one of the ISIS fighters spoke Arabic. A total of 15 villagers were executed before the jihadists realized that they were executing Sunni Muslims.

Some of those who join ISIS do so for the same reasons that sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia: indignation and despair due to economic exclusion and failed governance. As Hernando de Soto, an economist and the adviser to the former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, points out, many regional recruits may very well be merchants or entrepreneurs if they had the opportunity.

Recognizing the power of economic exclusion, de Soto argues that the real cure for the “Islamic State” is capitalism. He draws parallels with how the Peruvian government dealt with the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla insurgency in Peru. He points to the economic empowerment, not the military action, as the real game changer. While serving as an emotional outlet for economic letdown, ISIS also offers a form of income. In a televised interview, King Abdullah of Jordan stated that jihadists make an average of $1000 a month – equivalent to a middle- to upper-class salary in Jordan.

Moreover, in response to failed governance, ISIS has managed to create certain stability by establishing alternative governance structures. In the territories it controls, it has governors, courts, police and even a taxation system.

Some ISIS recruits are motivated by the search for spiritual fulfillment or a sense of belonging. A recent study by the Queen Mary University in London concluded that when it comes to foreign fighters, those with the largest risk of radicalization are the youth tormented by social isolation or depression.

While those most resistant to radicalization are foreign-born immigrants, it is their children born in the West who are most vulnerable to recruitment. ISIS is aware that its pool of recruits stems from those unable to identify with or integrate into their communities, and seeking spiritual meaning in their lives. They try to empathize with those feeling a spiritual void and lacking a purpose in life. “The cure for depression is jihad … Feel the honor we are feeling, feel the happiness we are feeling,” stated Abu Bara al-Hindi (an alleged Briton) in an ISIS recruitment video designed for the Western audiences.

Lastly, others who join ISIS or act as lone wolves may be psychopathic. They may have tinkered with ISIS websites and recruitment videos, but choose to commit violent acts for solely egotistical purposes. According to the former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, these are essentially criminals that use the banner of ISIS to feel reckless exhilaration and feed their perceived importance. These individuals use the guise of Islam to justify their “instrumental violence” which dehumanizes their victims.

The paradox of ISIS is that while it has appropriated an Islamic cause, its recruitment thrives not so much on the religious affiliation (many of its victims are Muslims) as on an astute understanding of human nature. Former Taliban recruiter Mubin Shaikh points out that jihadist mentors usually focus on converts since they tend to be more impressionable.

ISIS claims to offer human dignity, justice and empowerment while it exploits spiritual and social vacuums as well as criminality to achieve its political agenda. With a keen understanding of what drives humans to violence, it uses technology to attract young recruits. Rising recruitment levels of foreign fighters should serve as a stark indicator that ISIS is a very real threat. It also offers an opportunity for introspection of what drives each one of us to violence. For some, this exercise of self-reflection may lead to chilling revelations. However, standing at the sidelines and watching ISIS expand may no longer be an option for Western democracies.

Join ISIS - loudspeaker

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