The psychology of ISIS and how to combat them.

By Daniel Margrain

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“The first step to combating Isis is to understand it. We have yet to do so. That failure costs us dear.” (Anthropologist, Scott Atran).

The lesson from almost a decade and a half of fighting terror with bombs is that the strategy has been an epic failure. And yet the UK government under the leadership of David Cameron seems intent on repeating the misguided foreign policy in Iraq in relation to dealing with ISIS in Syria presumably on the basis that the result will be different even though there is no evidence for this. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result may be a sign of insanity for most, but not, apparently, if you happen to be motivated by the need to satisfy the financial interests of the lobbyists who profit from war.

Although it is widely understood that bombs and drones are counterproductive, it’s perhaps less understood that the establishment appear to want it that way on the basis, it would seem, that terrorist retaliation justifies the further use of bombs and drones. Ken Livingstone was surely correct in his analysis on BBCs Question Time programme last Thursday (November 26), when he suggested that bombing Raqqa will play into the hands of ISIS from a propaganda perspective enabling them to bolster their number of recruits on the back of it. Indeed, it is clear that the aim of the extremists is to provoke an international bombing campaign precisely in order to achieve this objective.

The “strategy” of indiscriminate bombing of transnational “targets” as a means to ending the cycle of terrorism and counter-terrorism is a policy of despair. What is needed is a total rethink that involves, in the first instance, a serious attempt at addressing the causes that include the historical injustices meted out to the people of the region by the imperial powers. These injustices primarily stem from a series of secret meetings during World War 1 in London and Paris between the French diplomat, François Georges-Picot and the British politician, Sir Mark Sykes.

During these meetings, straight lines were drawn on a map of the middle east intended to effectively outline the control of land that was to be divided between the two countries. The French were to get Syria, Lebanon and parts of northern Iraq, while the British decided on southern Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. The idea was that instead of giving independence to the Arabs which was promised following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the imperial powers would run them on their behalf. The ensuing chaos over the next century stemmed from this agreement. ISIS is essentially motivated by power in a post-colonial world in which the artificial imperial borders created by Sykes-Picot are collapsing.

Robert Fisk points out that the first video ISIS produced was of a bulldozer destroying the border between Syria and Iraq. The camera panned down to a piece of paper with the words “End of Sykes-Picot” written on it. The wider “Arab Awakening,” as Fisk puts it, represents a rejection of the history of the region since Sykes-Picot during which time the Arabs have been denied freedom, dignity and justice.

According to Fisk, ISIS is a weapon that’s not primarily aimed at the West but at the Shia which the Sunni Gulf States’ want to keep at bay. This explains why the funding for ISIS is principally coming from the Sunni states’ of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The possibility of closer U.S-Iranian ties in the future will likely result in pressure being put on these states’ to ‘switch off’ their funding to ISIS which Fisk claims was one of the main topics of discussion at the Geneva nuclear talks between the two countries.

American and French anthropologist, Scott Atran, outlines the underlying ideological glue that binds the followers of ISIS together:

“When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy…. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: …fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool.”

Atran posits that the appeal of ISIS seems to be their offering of a Utopian society and the sense of belonging and empowerment that they claim is lacking in Western society. The narrative is a future of peace and harmony, at least, under their interpretation, but with the recognition that brutality is also needed to get there. The underlying aspect of this Utopianism is the retreat from the kind of unconditional freedom where many young people feel pressured into certain social actions, towards a different kind of freedom free from ambiguity and ambivalence that, for those concerned, enhances a form of creativity that restraint helps nurture. ISIS exploits this dichotomy by outlining a way towards significance in a society that treats the alienated as insignificant.

It seems to me that the most effective way to counter ISIS propaganda is for governments’ to remove the “pull factors” of ISIS by giving young people a sense of hope for the future, offering them more of the “carrot” of opportunity instead of just the “stick” of despair. One of the major problems is that there is not the same kind of  government investment in prevention by way of guidance and decision making channels that are relevant to young people to avoid them becoming alienated enough to want to seek out ISIS. It seems to me that this is where ISIS have the upper hand, evidenced by the fact that they spend countless hours and cash luring people in.

Instead of spending billions on ineffectual war, the money would be far better spent on effective prevention programmes on the ground. This could involve, as middle east scholar Ed Husain has argued, employing former jihadists to reach out to help educate young people about the dangers of ISIS and other extremists. At some point, channels of communication will have to be opened up with radical Muslim groups who are willing to engage with experts outside the Muslim world to come to some kind of agreement that might even involve the formation of an enclave based on ISIS lines.

What is certain is the current path we are on is the wrong one in terms of the lack of any meaningful attempt to implement any effective strategy to weaken or destroy radical Islamism. Ideologies cannot be defeated by bombs, although the strategic use of broader coalition forces on the ground allied with a serious attempt by the U.S to insist that it’s dictatorial regional allies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – deplete ISIS of funds, will go a long way to achieving the desired outcome. In order to defeat Hitler, Churchill was prepared to make a pact with the devil. The West might have to come to terms in doing the same with ISIS.

 

 

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