From ‘good boy’ to terrorist: What is the appeal of ISIS?


Westminster, 23 March 2017. Photo credits: Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The so-called Islamic State has dominated and continues to dominate headlines with the recent Barcelona attacks, for which it claimed responsibility. Although the question of what makes someone become a terrorist has been discussed since the rise of left-wing terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of ISIS has intensified the discourse surrounding the processes of radicalization. The attackers were young and seemingly well-integrated immigrants of Moroccan descent and did not suffer from objective economic hardships. Yet they made the decision to kill and die for jihad. What drives those, who have lived in the West for all their lives or for a very long period of their lives, to sacrifice themselves for an organization that predominantly fights to gain territory in Iraq and Syria. What could make a young man murder innocent civilians and commit suicide for an imagined ideal of the caliphate or the ummah, the global community of Muslims? Governments and civil society also ask what can be done to prevent so-called ‘homegrown’ radicalization and decrease susceptibility to radical ideas.

Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), has written extensively on Islamic State propaganda and identified 6 key themes in their narrative: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, utopianism and belonging. In contrast to popular belief, IS propaganda is not merely a depiction of violence and brutality such as beheadings, but includes a sophisticated understanding of which different types of narratives may drive people to seek a new, radical self-image in the name of defending the caliphate. Space does not allow for a discussion of all themes here, but the narrative of ‘belonging’ may be especially important to understand in the context of homegrown radicalization. In theory, one should feel loyalty and a sense of belonging to the country one has grown up in, but homegrown radicalization questions this assumption and the ability of Western governments to help form collective identification with the nation they are representing.

Social isolation has been shown to impact our psychological well-being, our mental health and our behaviour towards ourselves and others. Multiple theories of radicalization also involve isolation or the perceived lack of embeddedness in society at large as one of the facilitating conditions, which might make individuals more susceptible to radical ideas. ISIS propaganda is partially designed to appeal to this group of dis-embedded young people and to fill the emotional void of a lack of belonging. In the context of nationalism, Benedict Anderson has shown that we construct collective identities based on so-called imagined communities. They are imagined, because we cannot possible know every member of that community, yet we feel a connection with them based on, for example, a common nationality. For jihadists, the imagined community is not the nation, but the ummah, the global community of Muslims. ISIS constructs this community as the only community for Muslims and based on this shared identification seeks to justify violence against anyone not belonging to this group.

There is a general trend caused by the forces of globalization to, on the one hand, make almost global identification with popular culture the norm and, on the other hand, to facilitate a tendency to identify with very restricted yet transnational communities such as the ummah. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes in his book Talking to the Enemy “together with a flat and fluid world, a more tribal, fragmentized and divisive world emerges as people search for social identity and greater sense of purpose“. ISIS provides precisely this sense of social identity and purpose to fight for the group one identifies with. The propaganda is aimed at creating the image of a global brotherhood of Muslims, which stand together and fight for a holy cause against the dark forces of the West. A classical Manichean narrative, which portrays ISIS as the champion of justice and other forces such as Western states or Middle Eastern governments as the embodiment of evil. All of us seek purpose in our lives and social isolation can call previous meaning-providing structures into question. Isolated individuals are therefore vulnerable to a narrative that emphasizes belonging and purpose simultaneously.

Because socially isolated individuals may be drawn to a strong narrative of collective belonging, both governments and civil society need to engage not only in counter-messaging, but in the construction of inclusive narratives and realities to decrease the number of people ISIS propaganda may appeal to. Aside from measures to include individuals through employment, volunteering, housing and other opportunities necessary to feel embeddedness and belonging, governments should initiate a discussion on collective identity. What does it mean to be British/Spanish/German in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society? It is not enough to ensure that everyone abides the law, civil inclusion must also have an emotional component of identification with the greater collective. As humans, we seek this feeling of belonging and togetherness and if it is put into question, the likelihood that we seek it outside of the national context, increases. It is a very difficult task for governments and needs to be done carefully in order not to appear to force a pre-made national identity upon the population. Identity building works best if facilitated by institutions, but driven bottom-up by those facing the diversity in their communities every day. The fight against terrorism has and will continue to dominate the political sphere, but governments are well advised to take community building, trust enhancing and identity building ‘soft power’ measures seriously in order to counter the emotional identity appeal groups such as ISIS display. In doing so, they do not only strengthen the health of the nation overall, but contribute to the long-term decline in recruitment power due to the ‘belonging’ component Winter identified.

Linda Schlegel is a trainee at the Council of Europe.

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