“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group.
ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots, nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.
For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule: Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.
Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.
Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.