A FATAL ATTRACTION

Hassan Hassan

Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in Washington DC, and associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House. He focuses on Syria, Iraq and the Gulf States, and studies Islamist, Salafist and jihadist movements in the wider region. He is also a columnist for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, and a regular contributor to The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs and The New York Times. He is the co-author of the bestselling book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

What drives young people to join a brutal, ultra-radical group like Daesh? Since its recent rise in Syria and Iraq in 2013, the group declared war primarily on fellow Muslims. It labeled many of those living in the two countries as apostates, and has killed many more of them than it killed outsiders. 

Its ideology was widely rejected as a distortion of Islamic values and laws. Everyone from clerics to intellectuals to politicians refused its claims of legitimacy and condemned its atrocities, which included the mass enslavement of Yazidi women in Iraq, beheadings, and even crueler punishments such as dropping people from high buildings. Even like-minded jihadists opposed the organisation and its religious views – Al Qaeda, for example, disavowed it in February 2014.

This trend corresponds to the findings of this year’s ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, which demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of young Arabs reject Daesh and consider it a top threat to the region. The organisation has failed to win the support of those it hoped would gravitate towards the idea of Islamic State or caliphate.

Despite this, however, Daesh still attracts a narrow audience that remains committed to its radical ideas, and it is important to understand this source of appeal, as even this limited appeal can have devastating consequences for the region. It is a challenge that will likely outlive the group even if it’s expelled from the area it controls. The number of suicide bombings carried out by the organisation, both in Syria and Iraq and outside, is soaring as the group’s territory shrinks due to the relentless campaign against it.

Since the group swept through large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014, I conducted interviews with members and sympathisers of the group. The reasons I found for why people join Daesh vary, and are largely in line with the Survey’s findings.

Many people in the region may reject Daesh due to its extreme tactics, but the issue remains that the group exploits existing problems. It did not simply invent the problems the responders identified as factors. Daesh, put another way, is a symptom of a growing disease that needs to be tackled, and not just the disease itself.

Generally, only two categories of people who join Daesh do so for religious reasons.  Mostof those who join the group are profiteers, opportunists or because the group was taking control of the areas in which they lived. As responders to the Survey show, lack of jobs and opportunities is often identified as a top driver behind membership in such organisations. Members do not say they join for economic reasons, but other factors they identify — including ones related to religious reasons — could be a proxy of economic or social factors. In other words, members may consciously or unconsciously conceal true motives.

The first category of members who joinfor religious reasons comprises those  long-standing radicals who ardently believe most Muslims have deviated from the right path. They label fellow Muslims as disbelievers who can be killed if they do not convert to their religious ideology. They define Daesh’s extremism and ensure its persistence.

The second category includes members who can be seen as victims of the first category. These are typically young, religious novices who were falsely led to believe in religious interpretations propagated by the ultra-radicals. Children and youngsters are a target of Daesh, which seeks to groom them to be the next generation of extremists. Because of their lack of religious awareness, youngsters are easily brainwashed and turned into zealots willingto die for the group.

A third category of Daesh associates are driven to the group because of its political project. Such people tend to sympathise with the organisation rather than become full members, and they may even struggle with the group’s savagery. Such people tend to be disillusioned with the established political and religious movements in the region, and believe that Daesh can be a vehicle for change due to its organisation and brutal and uncompromising tactics.

One of the shared characteristics among the three categories is sectarianism. Growing sectarian tensions in the Middle East strengthen the extremist narrative of Daesh, that Shia are the enemies and conflicts involving Iranian-backed militias from Yemen to Lebanon are part of a wider war against Sunni Muslims. 

This aligns with the second and third reasons given by the Survey responders for why some young people are attracted to Daesh; namely religious tensions between Sunni, Shia and other religions in the region and the belief that the group’s interpretation of Islam is superior to others. 

“So, the solution to Daesh must not be limited to military and security responses. The organisation thrives on political, economic, social and religious failures. Daesh may weaken and disappear, but the underlying sickness will remain and similar groups will emerge if that sickness is not addressed. The Survey’s findings should be a reminder to everyone that Daesh did not simply materialise out of thin air.”

As tensions grow in the region, attractiveness to extremist groups that claim to be fighting in the name of their sect increases. This raises a key question about the durability of extremist organisations that present themselves as an answer to such religious and political issues. Many people in the region may reject Daesh due to its extreme tactics, but the issue remains that the group exploits existing problems. It did not simply invent the problems the responders identified as factors. Daesh, put another way, is a symptom of a growing disease that needs to be tackled, and not just the disease itself. 

"So, the solution to Daesh must not be limited to military and security responses. The organisation thrives on political, economic, social and religious failures. Daesh may weaken and disappear, but the underlying sickness will remain and similar groups will emerge if that sickness is not addressed. The Survey’s findings should be a reminder to everyone that Daesh did not simply materialise out of thin air."

As tensions grow in the region, attractiveness to extremist groups that claim to be fighting in the name of their sect increases. This raises a key question about the durability of extremist organisations that present themselves as an answer to such religious and political issues. Many people in the region may reject Daesh due to its extreme tactics, but the issue remains that the group exploits existing problems. It did not simply invent the problems the responders identified as factors. Daesh, put another way, is a symptom of a growing disease that needs to be tackled, and not just the disease itself. 

So, the solution to Daesh must not be limited to military and security responses. The organisation thrives on political, economic, social and religious failures. Daesh may weaken and disappear, but the underlying sickness will remain and similar groups will emerge if that sickness is not addressed. The Survey’s findings should be a reminder to everyone that Daesh did not simply materialise out of thin air.