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The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is currently the most successful and fast growing Islamist extremist entity that controls territory in Iraq and Syria as well as operating in in parts of Lebanon and Libya. Unlike other terrorist groups, ISIS is sophisticated and complex: it is a conventional military that assembles and deploys foot soldiers, it gathers intelligence that can penetrate rival organisations, it has a slick and effective propaganda machine, and with sufficient amount of financing. ISIS is an organisation. Organisations are shaped both consciously by leaders and members at any given time and historically by inherited organisational information (Qirko, 2009). Like any other organisation, it has “special action structures” (Nash, 1994) designed to effectively achieve specific goals. To limit their success to just use of religion to promote their accomplishments is naïve. To understand how this particular cohort has come so far, it is vital to explore avenues in which this group works.
ISIS functions as a social group; like any other societal cohorts, in order for it to be effective, sharing beliefs is integral to group membership (Bar-Tal, 2000). It is these beliefs that shape, identify norms, provide meaning, and justify group behaviours (Bar-Tal, 2000). Thus, it configures societal ethos by establishing central collectively shared ideas by society members. Such ethos creates social identity, which differentiates between “us” and “them” (Bar-Tal, 2000).
As Standard Social Science Model illustrates, it is these generalised cultural norms, as well as more specific religious and political ideologies and “the behaviour and public representations of other members of the local group” (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Tooby & Cosmides, 1995) that can shape member notions of what constitutes appropriate action, no matter how aggressive they may be (Qirko, 2009). Individual identity is submerged within the group to such an extent that life sacrifice is seen as a reasonable act (Qirko, 2009). Charismatic leaders, group camaraderie, and deeply felt and exploited ties to family and friends all are potentially key factors in creating a “collective identity” (Post 2007; Qirko, 2009).
Furthermore, sharing societal beliefs can be influenced through social elements such as collective memory, sense of victimhood, fear, threatened identity or group image, humiliation, religious and political ideologies (Bar-Tal, 2000). The propaganda produced by ISIS does in fact incorporate all these elements in order to attract individuals to the group.
In support, according to John Horgan (2009) the psychological traits that enable the process of radicalisation to occur are: feelings of anger, alienation or disenfranchisement; social and political helplessness; social dissociation; and the need to belong to a family or group. Therefore, ISIS has recognised these gaps in society and has appreciated these so called “societal rejects” by using psychological tactics to lure them into accepting the identity of the group. For example, the idea that Kurds joining ISIS seems counterintuitive given that ISIS has very much in common with former Saddamists regime that was responsible for a genocidal campaign against Kurds (a stateless nation) (Weiss & Hassan, 2015). The reason some Kurds join ISIS is due to the organisation being pan-Sunni, rather than pan-Arab; hence ISIS is considered to be “blind” to ethnicity and attend only to true faith (Weiss & Hassan, 2015). ISIS has also attracted a large number of Turkomen, whom have also suffered a large share of discrimination and repression under despotic Arab regime (Weiss & Hassan, 2015).
Whilst the individual is being groomed for radicalisation, the group works toward eliminating the individual’s access to information or people outside of the group to ensure that the individual remain intact to the group. ISIS, like the Nazi Germany, controls public opinion through limiting access to knowledge; as restricting access to information would breed ignorance (Munir, 2015). More than 6000 books related to religion, science and culture were reportedly burnt by ISIS (Munir, 2015). In addition, there has been reports on ISIS considering chemistry and physics “unholy” (Syriadeeply.org, 2015) and has banned music, art, as well as religious studies from the curriculum (International Business Times UK, 2014). This encourage complete dependence on the information the group provides the public.
Nazi Germany can furthermore demonstrate other practices ISIS has as adopted from them. For example, how gender roles are significant in establishing a successful working, breathing entity. The role of women in Nazi Germany was clear: to be good mothers bringing up children at home while their husbands worked (Historylearningsite.co.uk, 2015). Outside of certain specialist fields, Hitler saw no reason why a woman should work (Historylearningsite.co.uk, 2015). Education taught girls from the earliest of years that this was the lifestyle they should have (Historylearningsite.co.uk, 2015). ISIS has also adopted this notion and their online supporters have been circulating a document entitled Women in the Islamic State: Manifesto and Case Study, which highlights the role of women in Islamic State (Winter, 2015). This role identification provides a solid, measurable goal for both men and women of ISIS, as it allows them to know how positive their image is within society. They are no longer aimless and have clear cut roles.
Gender stereotypes in the modern world (western world) are no longer black and white, as there is encouragement for gender equality. Thus, the notion of gender equality can cause confusion for both men and women in current societies due to the fact that they are no longer bound to traditional notions. This confusion may be enhanced when married with ethnic or cultural norms. As a result, it can be argued that due to these social elements, the person who joins ISIS can take refuge and satisfaction in the idea that they no longer have to make certain choices and are told what is good for them. After all, success is much easier to measure when there is a “tick list” to follow, which can promote greater self-esteem as well as having a positive self-image.
Self-identification does not stop at gender stereotypes. As part of radicalisation and group membership process, fictive kinship and induced altruism is offered to the radicalised individual. The theory that these individuals suffer troubled familial circumstances and so are motivated by “replacement families” in organisations (Post, 1984) may not fully apply to all cases (but see Merari, 1990).Hence, some researchers argue the possible importance of fictive kinship ties in the social organisation of these. Fictive kinship is described as “the extension of kinship obligations and relationships to individuals specifically not otherwise included in the kinship universe” (Wagner 1995). ISIS, like other organisations, tends to reinforce altruistic behaviour by training recruits via practices that manipulate these cues to mimic kinship relations (Qirko, 2009). Recruits typically are trained in close and intense proximity, in settings where uniforms and other apparel and insignias are used to enhance resemblances and relationships are characterised by the use of kin terms such as “mother country” and “brothers-in-arms” (Qirko, 2009). Organisers make use of specific practices to motivate and train recruits to become the most reliable and effective weapons possible.
At the ISIS training camps in Raqqa, children practice beheadings on Caucasian looking dolls dressed in orange jumpsuits (Syriadeeply.org, 2015), representing the prisoners held by ISIS; such as the beheaded victims James Foley and Steven Sotloff. This behaviour, allows for the conditioning of the young mind. As Pavlovian Conditioning (Pavlov, 1902; 1928; & 1955) illustrates that any object or event that is learnt through association will result in a predicted behaviour. In the case of Pavlov and his dogs, the sound of the bell was used to condition the dogs to associate the bell with food. Therefore, the bell on its own caused the increase in the dogs’ salvation.
Similarly, with ISIS and their “Cubs of Caliphate”, the child associates the orange jumpsuit with the act of beheading or execution. Therefore, when the child is presented with a scenario like the one where a young boy appeared to shoot and kill a Palestinian prisoner for allegedly spying for Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency) (The Huffington Post, 2015), he can carry out this act without hesitation and quite automatically.
Furthermore, according to Social Learning Theory, behaviour is learnt from environment through the process of observation (Bandura, 1977), which was illustrated by the Bobo doll experiment (Bandura, 1961). The experiment looked at how aggressive the children in a nursery were. The children were split in groups of aggressive model and non-aggressive model. The model here refers to the “role models” that influence behaviour, in this instance the models were the experiments who either behaved aggressively towards Bobo doll or non-aggressively. The results showed that children who observed aggression made more imitative aggressive response toward the doll than those who were in the non-aggressive or control group (McLeod, 2011).
Thus, the children who are exposed to ISIS and their behaviour, from a young age they will assume such behaviour are the norm and are acceptable to behave in such a way. This is evident in recent videos posted by Egyptian children, who carry out mock “ISIS-style” executions based on what they have observed from media outputs (New York Post, 2015). And, as both social learning (Bandura 1990; Victoroff 2005) and evolutionary (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Logan & Qirko 1996) theories suggest, observation and imitation of valued traits often lead to their adoption irrespective of their specific nature and even when they have maladaptive personal or social consequences.
Additionally, the purpose of using Caucasian dolls in orange jumpsuits helps to identify in-group (the cohort one belongs to) and segregate from the out-group (the cohort that one does not belong to) as well as justifying certain behaviours toward the out-group. Zimbardo (Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973) explored this notion of conforming into roles based on the environment the individual is exposed to. Zimbardo (Haney et al, 1973) found that the randomly assigned participants to either the role of prisoner or guard in a simulated prison environment showed to be very effective, as within a very short time both guards and prisoners were settling into their new roles; the guards adopting theirs quickly and easily. Guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it (McLeod, 2008). The experiment showed people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are as strongly stereotyped as those of the prison guards (McLeod, 2008). The prison environment was vital to the guards’ behaviour as none of the participants who acted as guards showed such brutal behaviour. Therefore, the roles that people play can result in shaping their behaviour and attitude.
The orange uniform is an important element in identifying these individuals as an outsiders and the Caucasian element is more to do with the concept of anti-west attitude. Hence, these “cubs” are groomed into believing these notions as early and as frequent as possible to ensure effective results.
Furthermore, having children recruited can provide the group with two appropriate resources: the “disposable asset” and group’s survival by preparing the next generation. ISIS, unlike other terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and the Tiger of Tamils, do not have minimum age requirement and tend to send children to the front line before they complete their “apprenticeships as terrorists in training” (Bloom, 2015). Hence, these children are used as human shield and get the numbers rising, which means their recruitment and their death is selected by the group (Stern & Berger, 2015).
The recruits, whether children (although some of these children are orphaned by ISIS) or adults, are also rewarded through as part of kinship. Money is a major reward tactic used by ISIS. They are believed to be the highest paying militia in Syria, paying its fighters $400 a month (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 2015). Jihadists joining groups like ISIS, although typically foreign, receive money upon commitment to action, with larger sums going to their families upon their deaths (Jane’s Intelligence Digest, 2007). In many of these cases, monetary rewards to kin are accompanied by elevated status provided by means of honorific titles and other markers of community approval, which can in turn lead to additional material benefits (Qirko, 2009).
ISIS knows in order for it to survive it needs finance; lots of finance. Having large amount of cash flow will provide them not only with freedom of choice but also power. And where does ISIS get its resources from? There are various theories and reports, one of which suggests a large part of the money is generated from selling oil on the black market to alleged buyers such as Turkey and Kurdish traders (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 2015). The estimated income generated from sale of oil is believed to be $2million per day (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 2015). In addition to oil, ISIS receives money from foreign supporters, ransoms, the collection of taxes and even the sale of antiquities (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 2015). Therefore, ISIS is an entity that intelligently seeks revenues to fund its activities.
ISIS’s sustainability and longevity is based on its capacity to control the population through fear and coercion. Recent events show ISIS militants destroying ancient artefacts that date from the Assyrian and Akkadian empires. Additionally, they have also attacked various religious temples (Yazidi and Buddhist), as part of their campaign against coexistence in the region in order to create a caliphate. ISIS has also attempted to starve and enslave members of the Yazidi minority in Iraq as well as displaying public executions, in order to induce fear in population. ISIS has illustrated that they will do anything to ensure their success.
As John B. Watson, one of the founders of behaviourist psychology infamously declared: “The driving force in society is not love, but fear” (Schneider, 2014). Through this behaviour ISIS is not only trying to be feared by also to control the public. As per deterrence theory, by using fear of punishment one is more likely to prevent or control behaviours and actions of others (Huth, 1999). The threat or act of punishment serves as a deterrent by convincing the perpetrator not to commit the intended actions due to the costly the price they will pay. Therefore, through punishment, ISIS is also trying to stablish laws for the surrounding population to ensure that they function within the set boundaries. This deterrence is not only targeted at the urban population but also at international policy (e.g. abducting journalist and possible international terrorist attacks) to ensure they can be recognised as a state.
To conclude, from this brief review, it is clear that ISIS a complex group, but very much like any other group it can be studied and uncovered through understanding how its functions as a cohort. Research should focus on the complexities and strategies used by group in order to succeed rather than why individuals tend to join such entity. After all, as MI5 suggests there is no single pathway to being radicalised. Hence by studying the group as an organism, it is possible to find a solution to exterminate such entities as well as their trajectory cohorts.
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