ISIS 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.
The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the ISIS?
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked 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, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about ISIS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalisation occurs, some new ideas are emerging.
Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo
Like this recent attack in New York, many ISIS 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 ISIS leadership. To avoid glamorising them, the RAND Corporation 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 ISIS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, ISIS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. ISIS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, 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 ISIS 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 ISIS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalised, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”
Could it be that ISIS 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, ISIS 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.