What draws ‘lone wolves’ to Is­lamic State?

CityPress - - Voices -

The re­cent at­tack on a bike path in lower Man­hat­tan once again com­pels us to ask: Why do peo­ple pledge al­le­giance to the Is­lamic State (IS)?

Say­fullo Saipov, the sus­pect in the at­tack, isn’t a de­vout Mus­lim. He cursed and came late to prayers, ac­cord­ing to ac­quain­tances who spoke to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a mar­tyr?

As a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Mid­dle East­ern his­tory, I have spent the ma­jor­ity of my pro­fes­sional life study­ing the re­gion, in­clud­ing its cul­ture, so­ci­ety and pol­i­tics. In re­cent years, I have re­searched and writ­ten about IS and its ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties. While other ex­perts and I have long looked at how rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion oc­curs, some new ideas are emerg­ing.

Like this re­cent at­tack in New York, many IS at­tacks around the globe are car­ried out by in­di­vid­u­als the me­dia have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, free­lancers who act with­out the di­rect knowl­edge of the IS lead­er­ship. To avoid glam­or­is­ing them, the Rand Cor­po­ra­tion (an Amer­i­can non-profit think-tank) prefers the term “flam­ing ba­nanas”.

There are two the­o­ries as to why these in­di­vid­u­als pledge al­le­giance to the group. The first is that they get “rad­i­calised”.

Rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion refers to a step-by-step process whereby in­di­vid­u­als be­come in­creas­ingly sus­cep­ti­ble to jihadi ideas. First, they cut them­selves off from so­cial net­works such as fam­ily, which pro­vide them with sup­port and a con­ven­tional value sys­tem. They then im­merse them­selves in a rad­i­cal re­li­gious coun­ter­cul­ture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi re­cruiter might bring them into the fold. Ei­ther way, the re­sult is the same.

Some ob­servers claim IS pro­pa­ganda plays a key role in re­cruit­ment. Rather than pre­sent­ing a re­li­gious ra­tio­nale for the group’s ac­tions, IS pro­pa­ganda tends to fo­cus on the vi­o­lence the group per­pe­trates.

IS has even re­leased a video game in which the player de­stroys ad­vanc­ing per­son­nel car­ri­ers and shoots en­emy sol­diers.

Per­haps, then, the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion model is wrong or not uni­ver­sally ap­pli­ca­ble. Per­haps there’s some­thing other than re­li­gious zealotry at play.

Con­sider the widely re­ported story of two would-be ji­hadists who, be­fore they left Birm­ing­ham, UK, for Syria, or­dered Is­lam for Dum­mies and The Ko­ran for Dum­mies to fill the gaps in their knowl­edge.

News­pa­per sto­ries time and again puz­zle over the prob­lem of how it hap­pens that in­di­vid­u­als who go on to join the IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girl­friends and smoked and drank al­most up to the time they com­mit­ted some act of vi­o­lence for the group. The most com­mon ex­pla­na­tion is that their dis­so­lute life­style was a cover.

Af­ter the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 peo­ple in Nice, France, for ex­am­ple, the French in­te­rior min­is­ter was at a loss to ex­plain how some­one who drank dur­ing Ra­madan – which had ended a week and a half be­fore – could have rad­i­calised so quickly.

A num­ber of ex­perts have ar­gued that the rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion model should be re­placed by, or sup­ple­mented with, a dif­fer­ent model.

Rather than join­ing a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent re­li­gious coun­ter­cul­ture, in­di­vid­u­als are at­tracted to the IS, these ex­perts ar­gue, be­cause its ac­tions reaf­firm the cul­tural val­ues of those who are marginalised, or those who ex­hibit what psy­chi­a­trists call “an­ti­so­cial per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders”.

Could it be that IS vol­un­teers are drawn to a value sys­tem that as­serts an ag­gres­sive machismo, dis­par­ages steady work and sus­tains the im­pulse for im­me­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion? Could it be that they are at­tracted to a cul­ture that pro­motes re­demp­tion through vi­o­lence, loy­alty, pa­tri­ar­chal val­ues, thrill-seek­ing to the point of mar­tyr­dom and the diminu­tion of women to ob­jects of plea­sure?

In this read­ing, the IS more closely re­sem­bles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Western­ised en­lis­tees are fa­mil­iar than its more aus­tere com­peti­tor, al-Qaeda.

James L Gelvin is a pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Mid­dle East­ern his­tory at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les. This ar­ti­cle first

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