New study: how do ordinary people turn into terrorists?

ISIS Territory

The uncompromising extremism, and willingness to both kill and die for their cause, are characteristic of ISIS fighters, and terrorists. Though their barbarity is unconscionable, their will to fight is remarkably strong, rivaled only by the kurds, who meet them in battle with minimal weaponry, and an equal zeal for victory. But why are they so willing to go to such lengths ?

A study in Iraq, lead by anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Michigan, attempts to get to the bottom of this vexing question by studying the will to fight on both sides of the conflict. The researchers identified two crucial components: closely held “sacred values” that a fighter is willing to die for, and a strong collective identification with his fighting group, often greater than the fighter’s own family.

These powerful motivators are present both in ISIS extremists, and defending kurds who have opposed them successfully in battle. They are noticeably absent, or present at much weaker levels, in a sample group of Europeans that Atran studied. It’s important to note that the sacred values can be negative, apocalyptic values, like those that drive terrorists to enslave others, or the positive, life-affirming values of defenders like the kurds, who possess a strong faith that they are right to protect their homes from invasion–a sacred charge.

There have been relatively few serious studies of the characteristics and motivations of those who join extremist and terrorist groups, but more are necessary. It’s vital to understand the motivations and tipping-points of those who join ISIS, who are often ordinary people from middle or upper class homes with no previous signs of radicalization, in order to help curb the spread of these violent jihadist organizations.

Learn more about study researching jihadist motivations (Science News)

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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