In October 2014, three American girls in suburban Colorado skipped school to jump on a plane for Turkey to join the militant terrorist group, Islamic State. Stopped in Germany after their parents notified police, they were returned to the United States, questioned by FBI and released.
The resulting questions in the media centered around why these adolescents, ages 15, 16, and 17, would do such a thing. They were not poor or without other options as is often suggested about motivation for terrorists. They were not uneducated, abused or kept away from society. The idea that an American teen, especially a girl, would choose to leave her home and family to fight for a group that had gained notoriety for its acts of televised barbarism, including the beheading of New Hampshire journalist James Foley in August, went against reason. Then, as stories came out about other young men and women across North America, Europe, and Australia who headed to the Middle East to join the militant group, the questions intensified.
Experts have several theories about the psychology behind those who would leave their homes in the Western world and join a terrorist group like Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS. From a need for connection to a desire for being part of something momentous and the glory that comes with joining a cause, the lure for joining ISIS or any military organization for that matter, affects those who feel disaffected with their current situation in life.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Arie W. Kruglanski, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior researcher at START, National Center for the Study of Terrorism and the Response to Terrorism. “This is why people joined the Crusades or the Spanish Civil War, to leave behind the boredom of everyday life and to transcend that and become a martyr, a hero. This can happen especially in countries where expectations are very great, like in the U.S., when their life does not live up to what is promised relative to their expectations.”
It can also be similar to suicidality, he added, where a depressed individual will take his life in order to make people take notice.
Not every story is the same. Bernhard Leidner, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at UMass Amherst whose research with the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program has focused on social identification and intergroup relations. He is currently looking at the search and need for meaning as motives in human violence. Leidner emphasized that, as in most things, there is no one typical profile for someone who would join a terrorist group.
“There are people who find it a big adventure,” he said “and a related reason might be for social identity and the need to belong. They may have not close family or their religion is not tolerated so they feel disconnected in American or European society. They may want to join a military group because of the desire for ‘brothers.’”
While the typical questions for Americans swirl around the purported religious aspect of the group, with Muslim leaders feeling a need to take a stand to say that they do not support the violence being done in the name of Islam, most experts agree that religion does not play a large part in recruitment beyond the idea that your religious background puts you squarely within one group or another.
And being part of a group is what matters. It is what allows people to act in ways that they may not otherwise, when they feel a need to right perceived injustices.
Groups like ISIS use professionally produced videos in their online recruiting. By that same account, one would think that the publicity around the beheadings of journalists or a recent report about ISIS members being killed or dismembered for daring to use a cell phone would turn the tide. It is not enough, though, said Leidner.
“Those types of strategies only work for people who would not join ISIS,” he said. “We have to understand that they have their own logic, no matter how horrible it is what they do.”
Instead, his prescription for stemming the tide of new ISIS combatants would include more research into counter terrorism efforts to determine what actually works and more properly using the experiences of those who had joined and left ISIS.
Kruglanski recommends promoting socially constructive opportunities for inclusion and “glory,” like volunteering for the Peace Corps or helping communities.
“There is a great deal of primitive appeal for aggression,” he said. “From an evolutionary perspective, it is the way animals asserted dominance, a very privileged means to glory in the history of our species. One has to take that into account and offer an equally appealing path to glory. We have to offer an alternative that is idealistic and value bestowing.”
By Catherine Robertson Souter