In a much-discussed piece for The Atlantic, writer Graeme Wood discusses the motivations of ISIS in great detail: the medievalism, the “caliphate,” the obsession with “pure” Sharia law, the end-times cultish fervor. ISIS is a different breed of animal than al-Qaeda, and one does need to understand their rationale and their logic if one is to face their threat.
But rational, logical thinking only explains a minority of human behavior, and the fighters of ISIS are no different. While Wood goes into excellent detail, he downplays the more powerful, baser, emotional draw of ISIS, one that I believe draws far more fighters to Syria than debates about the Koran. And by ignoring this, he makes a crucial error in his article.
Everything I’ve read and experienced about human behavior — both as a physician and as a person — tells me that it’s the primitive, animal brain in charge of the logical, human brain, and not the other way around. Or to put it another way, we first lash out when our animal brain gets angry, and then try to logically think of explanations afterwards. So much of our behavior is explainable only by realizing it’s coming from somewhere deeper and darker than we like to admit. Politicians caught in sex scandals; addicts continuing on what they know full-well is ruinous behavior; even something as mundane as a retail store manager hiring and firing based on personal jealousies, or a person eating unhealthy cheeseburgers because they are far more pleasing to the animal brain than veggies.
It’s no different with most ISIS fighters, based on their own tweets. The ubiquitous videos of torturing and beheading and tales of sex slavery, so vital in their recruitment, would be expected to repulse the logical brain, after all — but instead, they answers a far deeper need to commit evil that is ingrained deep in the human spirit. (In some more than others, as we all know.) Consider a bully beating up a kid on the playground. Some kids will look at that and be horrified. Others will experience a primal desire to become the bully.
Guess which kid ISIS might someday recruit?
This is hardly new in human history. The typical SA brownshirt recruit during the rise of the Nazi party was there for the ideology second — and for the bashing in of heads first. Of course, SA recruits became marinated in fascist ideology, ready to spout off if needed… but the rational (well, relatively rational) ideology existed to serve the committing of evil actions, and not the other way around. I suspect it is little different for the typical ISIS recruit today.
When the next video of a black-garbed executioner with his orange-clad victim emerges, or more lurid tales of sex slavery get promoted on ISIS twitter feeds, it sends a powerful message to a certain type of ill-favored person: Join us, and you too can be the bully.
This, I believe, also accounts for ISIS’ split from al Qaeda. I think Wood places too much emphasis on logical disagreements, and more on the fact that ISIS wants to be the biggest, most fearsome villain in the Muslim world… and only one group can have that (dis)honor. Its feud with al Qaeda has less to do with differing parsings of the Koran, and more to do with the vain ambition of the oligarchy that runs ISIS.
Which brings me to the critical error of Wood’s piece: his dismissal of ISIS as a possible plotter of al Qaeda-style terrorist attacks in the West. As he notes, “Even if the Islamic State cheers these attacks—and it does in its propaganda—it hasn’t yet planned and financed one.”
Yes, sure, but that doesn’t mean they won’t do so in the future — even if it contradicts the group’s internal logic. After all, ISIS needs to be the biggest baddie in the room instead of al Qaeda, and a few of their own attacks in Paris or London or New York would certainly convey that quite well. In addition, it would serve as further recruitment value for the young, poisoned minds it needs to swell its ranks. They would bomb first, and find Koranic justification later. A lot of policy people read Wood’s article, and I fear they may fall into a false sense of security about ISIS’ foreign reach.
In any event, while these terrorists run more on emotion and instinct than many realize, this is not to totally discount the need for a consistent ideology, especially at the higher ranks of these sorts of groups. It’s what sets ISIS, the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge apart from generic dictators and warlords. Wood goes into excellent detail to map out their ideology and to show how insipid our rulers are when they call ISIS “un-Islamic” or similar. And within ISIS, having a logical explanation such as “Allah wills it” is a huge load off one’s mind while busy murdering, torturing and raping. And it would hardly be the first time that evil was committed in service of such a religion. As Wood writes, “Life’s hypocrisies and inconsistencies vanish in its face.”
But make no mistake: ISIS answers a base and terrible need to commit evil, a need whose corrosive influence has been a stain throughout human history and upon our own selves. This need came first. The Koranic quotations came later.