How ISIS Terrorists Neutralise Guilt to Justify Their Atrocities

Do ISIS fighters feel guilty about the violence they perpetrate? Criminological research suggests they “neutralise” their guilt, just like other criminals.

ISIS fighters celebrating in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014. Criminological studies suggest terrorists would use diverse tactics to neutralise feelings of guilt. Credit: Reuters

ISIS fighters celebrating in Mosul, Iraq, in 2014. Criminological studies suggest terrorists would use diverse tactics to neutralise feelings of guilt. Credit: Reuters

Torture, suicide bombings, beheadings, mass killings, sex slavery – these are among the horrors that ISIS uses to terrorise people and countries. While most people feel this is just a new genocide with brutal criminality practised under a fake umbrella of religion, a few extremists believe such actions are necessary to establish the religious, social and political power of ISIS.

And the perpetrators of the violence? Well, they probably don’t feel guilty at all.

Viewing ISIS’s acts from a criminological, rather than theological, perspective offers some provocative insights into the minds of its fighters. Studies have shown that criminals commonly use five techniques to justify their acts – allowing them to effectively neutralise their guilt.

Denial of responsibility and injury

The first recourse is the “denial of responsibility”. In this way, terrorists might refer to forces beyond their control, relieving themselves of responsibility for their actions.

After declaring the start of a new Caliphate in June 2014, one of ISIS’s most senior officials, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani declared that is was compulsory for Muslims worldwide to vow their absolute allegiance to the Caliph Ibrahim, leader of ISIS and since 2014 the head or caliph, of the organisation and territory controlled by it. This means, in effect, that the ISIS power structure is an authoritarian one in which the caliph holds total, tyrannical power over his followers.

Second, ISIS terrorists employ “denial of injury” to justify violence. This neutralisation technique centres on the injury or harm involved in a delinquent act. Any acts of cruelty result in hurt people, of course and it is hard to deny the fact that terrorists injure their victims. But terrorists may believe that their actions will not have negative consequences for themselves since their cruelty will lead them to paradise, a better world under the Islamic rule of ISIS.

In 2015, for example, the ISIS online magazine Dar al-Islam claimed:

The one that follows the path of Islam and then Jihad should know that the road is long … and could lead him, if Allah wants this, near him in his Paradise.

Just deserts and condemning the condemner

The terrorists also use a technique called “denial of the victim”. For zealots, people in the US, France, Spain, UK and Germany deserve punishment; any injury caused to them is just retaliation for their society’s hatred of Muslims and Islam. Many jihadists even consider Western countries’s citizens enemy fighters, since they support the politicians leading the war against ISIS.

In the January 2016 Charlie Hebdo attack, for instance, the perpetrator who attacked a Jewish supermarket in the suburbs of Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, justified killing a police officer and his deadly hostage-taking activity by claiming that the French government had decided to attack jihadists in Mali. He declared in a video that the French population was supportive of this French military action, therefore, attacking French civilians was, for him, a “normal punishment”.

Similarly, in a recent audio message, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman, said:

Know that in the heart of the lands of the Crusaders there is no protection for that blood and there is no presence of so-called civilians.

The fourth tactic used by criminals to neutralise their guilt is to “condemn the condemners”. Rather than explain their actions, terrorists attack those who disapprove of their deviance. For them, the condemners – journalists, judges, police officers and the like – are corrupted, depraved, brutal hypocrites and deviants, because they are kafir (non-believers). Thus the jihadists widely employ takfir – the branding of others as infidels who deserve death.

A tribute to the 12 victims of the January 2015 shooting at French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. Credit: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

To justify such atrocities, ISIS members will call their victims infidels, crusaders, fornicators, drunkards, sodomites and so on. This neutralisation technique allows criminals to shrug off the denunciation of their actions by the general public. They do so by questioning those segments of society that critique terrorism.

Appealing to higher loyalties

Finally, terrorists appeal to “higher loyalties” to explain their crimes. Social control may be neutralised by sacrificing the demands of the majority of society for the demands of smaller social groups which terrorists belong to, such as ISIS and its sibling groups.

The rhetoric of ISIS makes much of its promises of brotherhood and friendship and assures its followers that the organisation  gifts its fighters a shared higher meaning in life.

Dar al-Islam said in a 2016 article:

When they sacrifice their life for their religion, for their brothers and their sisters, we cry for them, really knowing that they are now with our Lord in his Paradise.

In such a situation, the terrorists can neutralise any sense of guilt by demonstrating the noble spirit of their criminal actions, carried out as a sacrifice at the request of their small, tight-knit group community (ISIS). Acting for the sake of your “siblings” in terrorism is portrayed as an honourable act of loyalty.

As these diverse neutralisation techniques show, it’s unlikely that even the most violent of ISIS members suffers any feelings of guilt. Using total justification in their quest to achieve ISIS global domination, terrorists give themselves free reign to strike any supposed enemy, by any means necessary – even to kill innocents, non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

The Conversation

Bertrand Venard is a professor at Audencia Nantes

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.