What would motivate someone to willingly enter frontline combat against the Islamic State? New research finds three compelling reasons: commitment to some sacred values, forsaking commitment to their own kin for those same values, and belief in the spiritual strength of one’s own group compared to that of the enemy.
Over the past three years, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known more simply as the Islamic State, IS) has enjoyed a vice-like grip on international attention not only because of objective progress on local battlefields, but also through a series of carefully choreographed and often inhuman acts of violence. IS has mastered the psychological warfare so often associated with terrorism, and, in doing so, quickly and easily surpassed most traditional ‘terrorist’ groups through an astonishing embrace of social media aimed at either recruiting or terrorizing men, women and children worldwide.
In hindsight, it may be hard to believe that the rise of IS caught many western observers by surprise. However, despite the prominence IS achieved in national and international security circles, efforts to understand those who would fight for it have proved limited and piecemeal. We might ask: why bother to understand it at all? Traditionally, there has been little social or political appetite to truly understand what gives rise to violent extremism. The reasons for this are as diverse as those who participate in terrorism. Data can be hard to come by, access to former fighters is rare, and research conducted under difficult circumstances often fails to reach conventional scientific standards, especially regarding transparency in methodology. In short, researching terrorism is difficult, and as a consequence, only a few serious researchers have tended to engage in it. Furthermore, inconsistency and hypocrisy dominate. Studies of ‘our soldiers’ might explore notions of ‘fighting spirit’, nobility, courage and self-sacrifice, while studies of ‘their terrorists’ often default to individual, trait-based explanations, if not explicitly negative dispositional qualities.
As far as the history of terrorism is concerned, none of this is new, and it will be some years yet before these issues are properly subjected to rigorous hypothesis testing and validation. Yet, the preoccupation with understanding those who seek to join IS has led us to largely overlook a related phenomenon. Just as foreigners from around the globe have flocked to IS’s so-called caliphate, so too have others gathered, and for a different reason — to fight IS.
In this issue of Nature Human Behaviour, a research collaboration led by Ángel Gómez and Scott Atran1 builds on previous work conceived by Atran2 and colleagues at Artis International (artisinternational.org). They present the latest instalment of a remarkable multi-method, multi-venue study of both scientific and policy importance in an attempt to understand why someone would be willing to fight.
Their study combines rich theoretical development with ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with frontline fighters tasked with combating IS, combined in turn with a substantial effort to replicate findings in online studies. The fieldwork notably included members of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (otherwise known as the PKK), Peshmerga (Kurdish Regional Government forces), Iraqi army Kurds, and Arab Sunni militia, as well as captured IS fighters. The interviewees described having participated in the “fiercest battle”1 they have ever experienced.
The research is underpinned by a theoretical framework developed by the authors through previous work2. They propose the idea of a ‘devoted actor’ as a means of understanding why someone would seemingly want to engage in costly sacrifice accompanied by extreme actions when motivated to defend certain, non-negotiable, sacred values. Those sacred values might be religious in nature (for example, guided by a holy law) or might be secular (for example, democracy). A second, key element, in the devoted actor framework is a feeling of collective invulnerability that, in turn, is dependent on being “viscerally connected”1 to a group.
To say that studying frontline fighters is challenging (as Gómez et al. do) is an understatement. Yet, what makes this study all the more remarkable is its seamless interweaving of ethnographic, experimental and interview-based research both informed and challenged by a rich, interdisciplinary theoretical framework. To do this under normal circumstances would be laudable. To do such research with frontline fighters close to IS-controlled territory is impressive. Furthermore, the research team developed innovative experimental tasks to examine the readiness of fighters to forsake fused group values for sacred ones. Such tools provide a readily available test-bed ripe for deployment and replication by other researchers.
In both the frontline and online studies, the Gómez–Atran team found that the “relative spiritual formidability of groups”, as opposed to “relative physical formidability” (interpreted as “manpower and firepower”), is a better predictor of the willingness to sacrifice oneself in battle. The authors wisely resist the urge to speculate on the policy implications of such findings. What would the current US Administration make of the notion of “sacred values”1, and how would it inform or otherwise challenge policy or practice when it comes to everything from counterterrorism to international relations? Such answers lie beyond the scope of this paper, and the authors concede that a full understanding of the will to fight “may remain imponderable”1. To their credit, this research seems to have offered an opportunity to make the phenomenon significantly more quantifiable. The exciting new theory, methods and data on display, however, guarantee noteworthy research potential for years to come.