New studies explore why ordinary people turn terrorist

Research in the Iraqi war zone point to key characteristics among ISIS soldiers and their opponents

group of ISIS members

DEADLY DEVOTION  A collective sense of identity plus deeply held values may inspire Islamic State supporters, such as those shown here, to sacrifice everything for their cause.

Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

Fierce combat erupted in February 2016 at the northern Iraqi village of Kudilah. A Western-backed coalition of Arab Sunni tribesmen, Kurds in the Iraqi army and Kurdish government forces advanced on Islamic State fighters who had taken over the dusty outpost.

Islamic State combatants, led by young men wearing explosive vests, fought back. The well-trained warriors scurried through battle lines until they reached their enemy. Then they blew themselves up along with a few coalition soldiers, setting the stage for an Islamic State victory. These suicide bombers are called inghamasi, meaning “those who dive in deep.”

The inghamasi’s determination and self-sacrifice inspires their comrades to fight to the death, says anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Outnumbered about 6-to-1, Islamic State fighters still retained control of Kudilah after two days of heavy fighting. Coalition forces retreated, unwilling to lose more soldiers.

Atran and colleagues arrived in northern Iraq a couple of weeks later. Their plan: study “the will to fight” among soldiers on both sides of the Kudilah clash, even as fighting in the area continued. Their goals: try to understand what motivates people to join brutal organizations such as the Islamic State, and describe the personal transformations that push people leading comfortable, peaceable lives to commit acts of incredible violence and self-destruction.

Atran wondered whether there were common individual traits that explain the fierce devotion held by fighters for the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) as well as troops trying to take down ISIS. Scientists typically treat extreme sacrifice for others as premised on a careful weighing of pros and cons by “rational actors” who behave in a way that best satisfies their own interests even if others benefit as well. But it’s hard to see how a “what’s in it for me” formula applies to inghamasi, Atran says, much less someone who operates in a more conventionally altruistic way, such as a Navy SEAL. It’s a mistake to write off ISIS fighters as lonely losers, each seeking death as a gateway to a heavenly rendezvous with a private stock of virgins, he contends.

To break out of the rational-actor rut, Atran shifted his experimental focus nearly a decade ago to examine cherished values that mobilize people to take collective action, regardless of risks or rewards. In the last several years, he has moved his studies to the field, to focus on combatants in current conflicts and their sympathizers. And he’s finding that extreme personal sacrifices made for outfits such as the Islamic State can be understood, but only by accounting for values he describes as “sacred” and by tracking the way in which individuals identify with like-minded comrades.

Collective identity

Academics who study warfare and terrorism typically don’t conduct research just kilometers from the front lines of battle. But taking the laboratory to the fight is crucial for figuring out what impels people to make the ultimate sacrifice to, for example, impose Islamic law on others, says Atran, who is affiliated with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

Atran’s war zone research over the last few years, and interviews during the last decade with members of various groups engaged in militant jihad (or holy war in the name of Islamic law), give him a gritty perspective on this issue. He rejects popular assumptions that people frequently join up, fight and die for terrorist groups due to mental problems, poverty, brainwashing or savvy recruitment efforts by jihadist organizations.

Instead, he argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking  to don a social identity that gives their lives significance. Groups of dissatisfied young adult friends around the world — often with little knowledge of Islam but yearning for lives of profound meaning and glory — typically choose to become volunteers in the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Atran contends. Many of these individuals connect via the internet and social media to form a global community of alienated youth seeking heroic sacrifice, he proposes.

Preliminary experimental evidence suggests that not only global terrorism, but also festering state and ethnic conflicts, revolutions and even human rights movements —  think of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s — depend on what Atran refers to as devoted actors. These individuals, he argues, will sacrifice themselves, their families and anyone or anything else when a volatile mix of conditions are in play. First, devoted actors adopt values they regard as sacred and nonnegotiable, to be defended at all costs. Then, when they join a like-minded group of nonkin that feels like a family — a band of brothers — a collective sense of invincibility and special destiny overwhelms feelings of individuality. As members of a tightly bound group that perceives its sacred values under attack, devoted actors will kill and die for each other.

His team’s studies of devoted actors may help to explain why a growing number of people from around the world are leaving their families and home nations to join ISIS. Congressional and United Nations reports suggest that by October 2015, nearly 30,000 recruits from more than 100 countries had become fighters in Syria and Iraq, primarily for the Islamic State.

“The rise of the Islamic State is a revolutionary movement of historic proportions,” Atran says. “Many of its members are devoted actors with an apocalyptic belief that they must destroy the world to save it.” That uncompromising vision feeds off the promise of a global caliphate — a joint political and Islamic entity that kills or controls nonbelievers — that will bring on the end of the world and replace it with God’s true kingdom. Volunteers to that cause have participated in more than 50 terror attacks in 20 countries since June 2014. Muslim militants carried out 450 suicide bombing attacks in 2015, with 174 attributed to the Islamic State.

Atran’s research may provide a rare tool to study soldiers’ will to fight, whether or not they’re Islamic State adherents, says psychologist and terrorism researcher John Horgan of Georgia State University in Atlanta. Too many investigators have dismissed those deemed to be terrorists “as either incomprehensible or not even worthy of understanding,” Horgan says.

At the time of the Kudilah battle, the Islamic State controlled hundreds of thousands of square kilometers in the Middle East. It had successfully defended a 3,000-kilometer-long military front stretching from Iraq to Syria against multi-national forces. It’s certainly possible to destroy the Islamic State with overwhelming military might, Atran says, but that approach would come at a price. It would leave a fragmented Sunni Muslim world, from which the Islamic State arose, as well as a global pool of passionate young men and women seeking liberation through sacrifice and martyrdom. A military takedown alone might trigger “a volcanic resurgence of rebels with a cause, even readier for doomsday,” he predicts.

Sacred apocalyptic values are best opposed by the spread of deeply held, life- and freedom-affirming values that supporters are willing to defend unconditionally, Atran argues. The Kurds have had success with this approach.

Sacred kin

In the Middle East, only Kurdish people living in northern Iraq have consistently held off Islamic State attacks. The Kurds, Atran finds, display a will to fight equal to that of captured Islamic State fighters. As important as guns and other material support are to a military operation, an indomitable will to fight may be even more crucial, he says. Both the Islamic State and the Kurdish army have achieved considerable military success without all the hardware of Western armies.

At Kudilah, Kurdish soldiers showed their mettle in a fierce clash. Several of these men later described the event to Atran. As Iraqi army units withdrew, Islamic State forces rapidly pushed forward. A small company of Kurds stood their ground. After the fight raged for several hours, Iraqi army reinforcements arrived, enabling the Kurds to live to fight another day.

Atran’s team interviewed 28 Kurdish soldiers plus 10 Kurds who provided supplies, medical care and other frontline assistance. Seven Islamic State fighters, six of them prisoners, also agreed to be interviewed. One had been freed and changed sides, working with groups opposed to the Islamic State.

Among the 38 Kurdish volunteers, 22 reported devotion to a homeland of “Kurdistan” as a sacred value that they would fight and die for, even overriding family ties and their Islamic religion, Atran reports in the June Current Anthropology. All but one of the 22 reported feeling a collective bond, or what Atran calls identity fusion, with the Kurdish people.

Captured ISIS members reported visceral, family-like bonds with their fellow fighters. All Islamic State prisoners cited an absolute commitment to an imposition of Islamic law, or Sharia, on nonbelievers.

Investigators measured identity fusion by presenting participants with touch-screen computer tablets showing a small circle labeled “me” and a large circle with a group label, such as “Kurds” or “family.” To represent their relationship to a particular group, individuals could move the circles together so that they partly or completely overlapped. Those who moved the small circle inside the large circle were regarded as fully fused with that group.

Atran adopted this test from ongoing research initiated nearly a decade ago by psychologist William Swann of the University of Texas at Austin. An international team led by social anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse of the University of Oxford, including Swann, studied Libyan men who tried to overthrow their government in 2011. The researchers found that nearly all the men reported intense, family-like bonds with fellow combatants. Revolutionary leaders granted the researchers access to 42 Libyan soldiers and 137 support personnel, including mechanics and ambulance drivers, as hostilities wound down in late 2011.

On the overlapping circles test, 45 percent of fighters reported being more strongly bonded to their battalions of three to five comrades than to their families, the researchers reported in 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A smaller portion of support personnel, 28 percent, identified more with revolutionary battalions than with their families. That’s consistent with the idea that frontline fighters most often bond tightly to their units, upping their readiness to give their lives for comrades.

Libyan soldiers who felt intense connections to their battalions probably qualified as devoted actors, says psychologist Hammad Sheikh of the New School for Social Research in New York City, who was not involved in Whitehouse’s study. The soldiers’ commitment to the revolution’s goals probably transcended even family loyalties, Sheikh suspects. He bases that opinion on Atran’s findings. Whitehouse’s team did not try to identify devoted actors among Libyan fighters.

People willing to sacrifice everything in defense of the Islamic State’s sacred values also exist outside of the war zone. Among 260 Moroccans who lived in either of two city neighborhoods known as pro-ISIS hotbeds, testing indicated that about 30 percent were devoted actors. They described the imposition of Sharia as a nonnegotiable necessity, Sheikh and his colleagues, including Atran, report in a second paper in the June Current Anthropology.

On the overlapping circles test, devoted actors in Morocco depicted especially close bonds with family-like groups of friends, ranging from Islamic State supporters to soccer buddies.

Western weakness

Such dedication to collective values may be tougher to come by in Western nations. Online testing of 644 people in Spain identified only 12 percent as devoted actors willing to sacrifice all for democracy, even after being reminded of threats by ISIS and Al Qaeda. Frequent corruption scandals have left many Spaniards disillusioned with democracy, Sheikh says. Whether a similarly weak devotion to democratic values applies to citizens of other European countries or the United States remains to be tested.

Field research suggests that collective commitments to democratic values may be weaker in the West. When devoted actors among Islamic State fighters, Kurds and members of a Kurdish-speaking religious community known as Yazidis were given a hypothetical choice between abandoning their sacred values if others in their group do, or leaving the group to fight on for their sacred values, they nearly always opted to fight on for their values, Atran says.

Devoted actors in Spain, however, typically say they’d follow their group if it rejected democratic values. People in France and Spain tested by Atran’s team also rate their own society’s “spiritual force,” or the strength of collective beliefs and commitments, as much weaker than that of ISIS.

Among U.S., British and former Soviet soldiers, there have long been indications from interviews, field reports and personal letters of a stronger willingness to die for close comrades in war than in defense of broader values, Atran says. Historical evidence, however, suggests that certain relentless fighters, including Nazi troops during World War II and Viet Cong soldiers in the Vietnam War, were devoted actors inspired by beliefs in a higher cause, he says, adding that the same may have been true for soldiers on both sides of the U.S. Civil War.

Sacrificial appeal

Atran and his colleagues now have their own cause: describing more fully how some people go from holding extreme beliefs on the sidelines to becoming devoted actors at the front lines of extreme movements.

It would help, says political psychologist Clark McCauley of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, if researchers could clarify what counts as a sacred value and why some sacred values outweigh others. Identity fusion is also a tricky concept to pin down, McCauley says. Further research needs to determine whether a person who moves a “me” circle inside a circle representing a fighting unit still feels a sense of individuality or totally buys into a collective identity, he suggests.

Only by venturing into war zones can researchers begin to understand the will to fight on all sides, from the perspectives of the fighters themselves, Atran argues. It’s daunting work. He has seen ISIS fighters advancing on an Iraqi army outpost, then detonating their explosive vests in the ultimate show of commitment to their cause. He has spoken to Kurdish veterans missing arms or legs and men who had joined the Kurdish army back in the 1950s, all of them now fighting at the front to defend their homeland.

A young Yazidi fighter told Atran that he used vacation time from college to train for a week with Kurdish Marxists in Syria to defend his Kurdish religious community against the Islamic State. Fighting with a few comrades in August 2014, the student-soldier fended off ISIS attackers long enough for reinforcements to arrive. He helped save thousands of Yazidis from slaughter. The young man then returned to his studies. He wanted to be an archaeologist.

“You learn more in five minutes in the field than in five years of analysis from afar,” Atran says.

Despite careful planning, Atran’s team sometimes gets distressingly close to warring parties while conducting research in Iraq. It’s an unavoidable risk but not a deal breaker for the researchers. “There’s something so compelling,” he says, “about trying to figure out humans in extreme circumstances such as war.”

This article appears in the July 9, 2016, issue of Science News under the headline “Deadly devotion: New studies explore why ordinary people turn terrorist.” 

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Psychology