Deciphering the mindset of ISIS jihadists

September 24, 2017
© Yaser Ahmed for The Arab Weekly

Beirut - The first question that comes to mind about suicide bombings in which civilians, includ­ing women and chil­dren, are killed is: “How can any normal person commit such an atrocity?”
“They must be crazy,” the com­mon rationale goes. “They have distorted minds and personali­ties.”
Gruesome images of behead­ings, mutilations and torture committed by boastful Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists made peo­ple shiver throughout the world. ISIS’s apparent popularity among Arab and foreign fighters has con­founded analysts and politicians.
Many explanations have been offered: Discrimination and prej­udice at home, poverty, political, social and psychological frustra­tion, an aversion to Western cul­ture and the influence of imams.
Lebanese writer Hazem al- Amin, who has been profiling jihadists, said suicide bombers were predisposed to kill them­selves for a variety of reasons be­fore ISIS existed.
“ISIS offered them the narra­tive framework with which they could achieve their aspirations. In fact, it was the receptor of the outcome of many crises because all its members came from areas in crisis or have personal prob­lems and issues,” Amin said at a discussion hosted by Carnegie Middle East Centre titled “Inside the Jihadi Mind.”
“All the problems and failures of the world and the region re­sulted in the rise of ISIS. The fail­ure of the French, for example, in integrating their migrants. The failure of Turkey in controlling its borders and the failure to mend Sunni-Shia divisions, etc.”
The flow of suicide bombers to ISIS is not so much related to the group’s ideology as it is to a range of deeper underlying and com­plex causes, Amin said, noting that, during the battle of Mosul, the jihadi group sent 20-30 bomb­ers daily — some 900 suicide bombers in seven months.
Amin documented cases of ji­hadists from Lebanon, almost ex­clusively from Tripoli, a city that is historically, geographically and socially close to Syria.
“Tripoli sent 100 to 200 jihad­ists. Their reasons for joining ISIS were different from jihadists who came from other countries and environments,” Amin said. “Al­though each is a different case, they have common features such as broken families, poverty and poor education. On top of that, sectarian tensions (Sunni-Shia) made it easy for ISIS to recruit them.”
Joseph Khoury, assistant pro­fessor of clinical psychiatry at the American University of Beirut, agreed that there was no stand­ard terrorist profile but there are recurring characteristics.
“Each member in ISIS has his own story and reasons for ending up in the group,” Khoury said in the debate. “Of course, there is a psychological aspect to that but psychology cannot give all the answers. Explaining ISIS involves a combination of social and po­litical factors and surrounding circumstances.”
“Many joined because they wanted to live in an Islamic ca­liphate, others because their friends have joined, some were more interested in the harm that ISIS could cause to the West, and many (rebels without a cause) had nothing better to do because their life was meaningless. Each wanted something from Daesh,” Khoury added, using an Arab ac­ronym for ISIS.
He stressed that the reasons for the rise of ISIS were related to the politics of the Middle East. Its de­mise will not change the basic el­ements of the situation, he said.
“Military action is necessary but should not be the only means to pacify jihadi minds. How can we prevent future radicalisation? The role of psychiatry is to gather all the data and use it in a way to prevent a new phenomenon like Daesh from arising. I have to try to understand the motivations of potential jihadists in order to dis­suade them.”
Jihadists say mass casualty at­tacks are payback for current and historical grievances, such as dic­tatorships supporting Israel in the occupied territories, bombing civilians, interfering in civil wars and plundering oil wealth.
Khoury pointed out that the use of psychology and human sci­ences to explain terrorism started in the 1970s when terrorism was a label used to describe leftist par­ties and regimes. However, deal­ing with a “monster” like ISIS is unprecedented.
“Groups accused of terrorism in the past were small and well defined, such as the [Irish Repub­lican Army] and the Palestinian Fatah Revolutionary Council of Abu Nidal. ISIS is a totally dif­ferent phenomenon. Here, we are talking about a whole system with fighters, families, women and children, administrators and ideologists.”
Countries such as Saudi Arabia have worked on rehabilitating ji­hadists but little is known about the outcome or how successful they are.
Amin said ISIS was born as a re­sult of socio-political problems.
“Any settlement that does not take that into consideration will fail to prevent future radicalisa­tion,” he said. “In Mosul, for in­stance, there is a feeling that the Shias defeated the Sunnis. So, unless there is a political settle­ment that includes the Sunnis in Iraq, the ground will remain fer­tile for the rise of another Daesh monster.”