Monthly Archives: August 2014

On Psychology and the Islamic State

Yezidi children and women have been abducted in massive numbers by IS. IS consider the Yezidi to be apostates and 'devil-worshippers' (<--not true of course). You can read more about the Yezidi's here.

Yezidi /Ezidi children and women have been abducted in massive numbers by IS. IS consider the Yezidi to be apostates and ‘devil-worshippers’ (which is ridiculous of course). You can read more about the Yezidis/Ezidis here.


I have had a pretty busy schedule with both studies and work, so I haven’t had the time to update this blog for a while. But, a few of my facebook friends have asked me to post, and as I am super-flattered that anyone would care to read what I write, I’m happy to oblige :) This post however, will be painfully unfunny, maybe obvious and quite boring. It also covers a huge topic, and I can’t possibly give a full analysis of all the factors involved, but I’ll give it a go :)

I’m sure you’re all aware that several Scandinavian (and other) youth have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the ranks of IS, formerly known as ISIL or ISIS (and in some regions, DAESH). The point of this blog-post is to try to outline why young men (and some women) choose to leave a safe existence in order to join a group whose methods are so barbaric that it is difficult to fathom.


According to our media, in excess of 50 (the number fluctuates according to source) Norwegian nationals actively fight alongside ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Some are Norwegian citizens, born to parents from the region. One notable (and high-ranking) member is of Chilean decent, and some may be from other groups, also converted “ethnic Norwegians” (<– I loathe to use the term, but it’s commonly used to distinguish people of Norwegian descent). There are some who blatantly boast about their membership on social media, but there are probably also ones who keep a fairly low profile. We have a few individuals here in Norway whom openly show their support (this guy is one) but whom remain on Norwegian soil. A current national debate is ongoing as to whether he  and others like him should be deported, and in the process lose their Norwegian citizenships.

Some have spoken to the media; one notable case being this guy who complained that the IS were portrayed as ‘animals’ in western press.. Several thousand others hail from European countries, members from the U.S have also joined the fight, and Oz has contributed its fair share of fighters as well.

The reasons why people join groups like IS are complex, and different people will have differing motives, but there are some commonalities. The IS runs a very efficient propaganda-machine, one that facilitates recruitment of Western youth. Many of the members whom appear in the media were raised in the west and speak impeccable English, French and German, as evidenced by the video portraying the murder of James Foley. (I’m linking to his wikipedia-page, simply because it is virtually impossible to find a recent news-item that does not also have a video of his execution. I don’t want to take part in spreading the video).

The radicalization process

One does not go from being a kind, considerate community-member to full-fledged jerk and decapitator overnight; it is (of course) a process.  Initially, the radicalization process starts ‘at home’. Some get in touch with radical groups through aquaintances and friends, and some get radicalized and recruited online.

So, I’ve talked about how the creation of groups fosters an in-group/out-group division in the past, but it’s worth repeating. The in-group are those who are seen as “like me/us” and the outgroup is seen as “Not like me/us”. This goes for all of us and is not necessarily bad, but, creating groups affects percepts and beliefs about ones own group and the out-group. Members of the outgroup are perceived as more homogenous (this is directly tied to stereotyping; the belief that “all Norwegians/Americans/Germans/Indians do/are <insert belief here>), that is, the outgroup-members are viewed as less complex/more alike than ingroup-members. This phenomenon is called the outgroup homogeneity effect. When a group is viewed this way,  and if it is coupled with negative beliefs,  it becomes easier to view them as slightly less human, and thus transgressions against outgroup-members are easier to carry out.

One can, through gradual exposure, use of authority, dehumanization of the victim and a number of other processes, make people do horrible things. The radicalization-process moves through stages. The first stage starts with a grievance over a perceived deprivation or restriction, be it social, economical or other. What follows are beliefs about perceived injustice. The third stage is blaming: there is a reason for this injustice and someone is to blame. Many people hold the belief that injustice or bad luck has to have a cause (a classic example is this guy who claimed that the floods in Britain were caused by God as punishment for the Govts’ legalization of gay marriage…) and it is called “the just world hypothesis/fallacy”. Believing for instance, that one is disadvantaged because of looks, background, ethnicity or religion (which very well might be the case, but that’s another discussion) can be a contributing factor towards hating those who you perceive to be at fault for your condition. The final ‘reaction’ stage is one in which the perceived transgressor is viewed as evil. Violent acts are the result of dehumanization/demonization, as social and psychological barriers to the impulse to act on aggressive urges have been removed.

Some of the guys who have joined IS have felt disconnected and disadvantaged and therefore, sought (and found) a sense of community in a group who promised a utopia of sorts. They were then slowly introduced and socialized towards increasingly more radical ideas and extreme behaviours. Some religious leaders (also in the West) have sanctioned the use of violence and the methods used to rid the world of the “Bad” people (that is, the out-group members).

The ease with which the methods have been used is a result of dehumanization of the victim/”enemy”. Dehumanization and demonizing of the victims are key elements, and it was non more clear than in how the IS have treated theYezidis/Ezidi’s of Kurdistan. They labeled them Devil-worshippers, and once you have the Good vs. Evil-thing going, it makes it so much easier to transgress against those you victimize.

Personality and such

Certain personality-traits are likely to predominate in people who willingly seek to join these kinds of groups. They tend to be action-oriented, stimulus-hungry (that is, easily bored), they seek excitement and they are, of course, aggressive. You may know that antisocial individuals (and I don’t mean asocial individuals, those who don’t enjoy socializing, but people who do harm to others) have a lower resting heart-rate than the rest of us. They also have a lower reaction (as measured by an increased heart-rate and sweating, fancily called “skin-conductivity”) to stressful stimuli, and would therefore find it easier to cope with ugly, anxiety-inducing situations. Thus, they would possibly/likely find combat-situations exciting rather than terrifying. (I am in no way saying that the whole group suffers from antisocial personality disorder, but many would score above average on some of the traits associated with the disorder.)

Neurotransmitters (brain-chemicals) may also come into play; low serotonin levels have (numerous times) been linked to aggression. Deficits in the frontal region of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) have been linked to both low levels of stress, reactivity and fearlessness. Add to this that some (if not all) of the IS members may not fear death because death in combat secures you a pretty decent spot in the after-life (you know, the whole 72 virgins and rivers of honey and that), and you’ve got a very, very scary group.

It should be noted that IS is not just a religious group, it is a political one as well, so the whole notion some seem to hold of  it being all about religious zealotry, detracts from what it is all about.

As is fairly obvious, their rhetoric is without nuance, they see black and white, right and wrong, evil and good. There is no middle-ground. They divide people into two main groups, “Us” and “Others”. The Others (in this case, the kuffar or non-believers) are bad and out to get them, and their own group, despite their barbaric practices, is good. Their actions are perceived to be justified and moral.

They rely on a couple of well-known psychological mechanisms: externalization and splitting, In (very) simplified terms, they look outside themselves for the sources of their own difficulties. I bet you’ve met several individuals who rely on the same mechanisms. It is the guy whose failure to get along with coworkers is blamed solely on the coworkers. The failure to do well in school is because the tests or the teachers were unfair, not because the student failed to study. As J. Post writes in his “Leaders and their followers in a dangerous world ”…unable to face his own inadequacies, the individual with this personality style needs a target to blame and attack for his own weakness and inadequacies…It’s not us, it’s them. They are the cause of our problems (pp. 128-129). Anders Behring Breivik’s thinking and history follows this model to a tee. He was largely a failure, but unwilling to admit or even acknowledge his own faults, sure found someone outside of himself to blame for his shortcomings.

One study found other commonalities in people who chose to join terrorist organizations:

  • They tended to come from fragmented families.
  • A statistically significant number had lost one or both parents by the age of fourteen, and loss of a father seemed to be particularly predictive. This was the case for Behring Breivik. Though his father didn’t die, he left Breivik’s mother when Anders was only a year old. Breivik’s father cut off all contact when the boy got in trouble at around 15-16 years of age.
  • A very high percentage had severe social conflicts growing up, particularly with the parents. The father, when present, was frequently described in hostile terms.
  • 1 in 3 had been convicted in juvenile court. Arfan Bhatti, a Norwegian citizen and Islamist is an excellent example of this. Prior to becoming radical, he was a torpedo and all-around criminal.
  • Many are what could be labeled “losers”. They tend not to be successful in either their personal, educational or vocational lives, but they’re generally not from the lowest layers of society. Nevertheless, feelings of inadequacy coupled with an opportunity to finally be considered significant can be a powerful motivating force. The ‘loser-status’ is not a certain one though, several of those who join are not what would commonly be considered losers; some have ideological reasons for joining despite enjoying educational/vocational success (like this guy).

If we look at one of  IS’s top ranking officers, Abu Omar al-Shishani (whose Chechen name was Tarkhan Batirashvili) life fits this model: he was in the army until he fell ill. After being dismissed, he had no job, was piss-poor and ran into trouble with the police.

He ended up in prison, and left for Syria once released.

Not exactly your model citizen.

See? To a tee.



Many feel disconnected from the greater society. They have an unstable sense of own identity thus a religious collective identity might provide an answer to the whole “meaning of life” question. Humans are social animals (yup. It may be a cliché, but it is nevertheless true), and most of us feel a need to belong. A need to belong is identified as one of four primary motivations to join a terrorist organization. Among other motives are the opportunities for action, the desire for social status and of course, material reward. If we again consider al-Shishani; going from being destitute and broke he rose to the top of a major organization, thereby gaining both a sense of belonging and a very high social status (within the group). He certainly has had opportunities for action as well. Considering that IS is the wealthiest terror-networks in existence, one can presume that he also has gained some material rewards. (IS pays its fighters of course; according to Syria Human Rights Watch, a Syrian fighter who joins IS gets a wage of about $400, and he’ll get more if he has wife and kids. A foreign fighter gets about double that.)

This is not to say that there is a specific terrorist profile or identity, there’s a great deal of variation, these are just commonalities found among some, but not all.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Successful groups or brands benefit from having a leader that is perceived to be strong, intelligent, forceful and sometimes maybe charismatic (mind you, I believe al-Baghdadi is nothing but a figurehead, but that’s another discussion entirely). Nevertheless, note the cult of personality that has been created around the proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They have used a very efficient strategy to create a picture of the man as almost divine. He has rarely appeared in public and this is a very strategic move.

By keeping him out of the limelight he remains shrouded in mystery. If he were to appear more in the media, there would also be a greater chance of him making mistakes that might make him appear more human (think about it, if he were to have a visible booger or if he were to sneeze in public, what would that do to his image as almost divine?). He has already come off as somewhat ridiculous purporting puritanical piety while donning a Rolex, and his credibility might be ruined by further blunders. So, media-exposure might harm more than do good.


A strong charismatic leader can make their followers do almost anything; we’ve witnessed this throughout history (think Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Khomeini, Ataturk & several others). Couple it with problematic social conditions (the whole Middle-East is a mess right now) and you’ve got a prime setting.

Had IS stood completely alone, then they wouldn’t have been a problem, but they do indeed have some support, and this is why: they’ve used a strategy that was used by the religious leaders of Iran following the revolution. They are winning over parts of the local community through very simple measures. That is, through providing necessary goods. IS has distributed food, other material goods, and have in areas ensured a relatively stable supply of electricity. The region is not known for its stable supply of either of those things, and by providing them, they’re actually making local friends (among Sunnis of course). They also provide jobs where there is high unemployment, thus gaining followers

So, in sum, there are many motivating factors. Some are ideological (the desire for an Islamic State, Sunni in this case); some of the fighters may seek the thrill and exitement; some seek a place in where they can belong; some want to elevate their social status; some are in it for the money and some may also view IS as being the panacea to righting perceived (or real) wrongs carried out by Western powers in Islamic countries (these guys are not too fond of what the US, Great Britain and Europe in general have done in the region. This encompasses everything from waging wars, reaping economic reward unfairly, to the creation of Israel). Some may be just good old revenge against real or perceived enemies or apostates.

As for what will happen next, I have no idea… Kurdish fighters (Peshmerga) aided by Western powers are doing their part in combatting the group, but it is difficult, if not impossible to stop an ideology through bombing. In a worst case scenario, the group might indeed be strengthened by the continous attacks, as the belief that “they are out to get us” is confirmed.

There’s lots more that could have been said, but I’m pretty tired so I think I’ll leave it at that. Thank you for reading :)