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Don't Ask Why People Join the Islamic State — Ask How

In responding to terrorism, we often attempt to answer questions that are probably unanswerable. So it's time to start asking new questions.
Photo by Medyan Dairieh/VICE News

If each new terrorism crisis exposes gaping holes in our knowledge of terrorism, then the Islamic State has hit the mother lode of our ignorance. The movement has finally gotten the attention of the West, and here people are — including the media — asking the same old tired questions:

What makes a terrorist? What are the causes of radicalization? Why would someone do such a horrible thing?

I've researched terrorist psychology for the past 18 years. I've interviewed militants from Ireland, England, Lebanon, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. I've spoken to executioners and torturers, and last year I met my first failed suicide bomber — a brave young boy indoctrinated by the Pakistani Taliban who surrendered at the last minute. I've analyzed their statements, pored over court testimonies, and increasingly spent hours upon hours looking through their social media.


The Islamic State. Watch the VICE News documentary here.

And when someone asks me, "Why do they do it?" my response is always the same: I don't really know. Even the terrorists themselves don't really know.

In any terrorist movement, recruit motivations are numerous and overlapping. They vary from person to person and even change in the same person over time. We know that there's no clear terrorist profile, that becoming a terrorist takes time, and that there's a gradual process of socialization.

Some recruits don't care about the big ideas — they just want be part of what they consider a great adventure. They don't have much going on in their lives, they're pissed off, and they find nothing keeping them at home.

Though some foreign fighters clearly know what they are buying into, others haven't a clue. They don't know about the ugly reality of sectarian strife. Many of them would shy away from watching video of a beheading, much less play a part in one.

But still they go, and in astonishing numbers. They may think that they have a shot at doing something meaningful for which they will be accepted and remembered. Perhaps Islamic State recruits felt they were the ones responding to the atrocities of Bashar al Assad's regime. After all, the West was making only hollow threats.

To explain why any of us does anything is a challenge, and it's no different asking former terrorists to explain their actions.


In truth, there is no good reason to assume that the motivational push-and-pull factors for a would-be terrorist are necessarily that much different from the ones acting on a person thinking about serving his or her country in the armed forces: Some volunteer, some are recruited. Some are true believers who want to serve in defense of their homeland. Others simply see it as an opportunity to escape.

When someone wants to join a terrorist movement, they roll the dice. The "lucky" ones find what they are looking for. They rely on the group to guide their behavior — what to think, what to say, what to do. They can immerse themselves in ideology and ritual in a way that they could not do on their own.

But engagement has its downsides. It can be exhausting and traumatizing, and not everyone can cope. I once interviewed a gunman who told me in painstaking detail about the first time he executed someone. His bloodied target fought for his life, crawling across the floor as onlookers screamed. It took seven bullets to kill him, not the single shot the gunman imagined. The reality shook him, and he eventually quit the group.

Women abducted by the Islamic State feared trapped in sexual slavery. Read more here.

Yes, many terrorists feel guilt for what they do. But they may realize too late that they are trapped, forced to conceal their growing disillusionment for fear that their colleagues might suspect them of being a spy or infiltrator. Worried about the suspicion, they overcompensate and become more extreme, volunteering for the ugly jobs — personally overseeing punishments and torture.


Motivation is a very complicated issue. To explain why any of us does anything is a challenge, and it's no different asking former terrorists to explain their actions. The most valuable interviews I've conducted have been ones in which the interviewees conceded, "To be honest, I don't really know." They point to a whole set of factors instead of to something in particular.

We need to seriously invest in sustainable social science research on terrorist motivation to break away from simplistic discussions of radicalization that tell us next to nothing about actual terrorist recruitment. Radicalization is not terrorism, and the relationship between the two remains as confused as ever. The State Department's controversial counter-narrative offensives, such as its Think Again Turn Away social media campaign, are mere drops in the ocean. Even worse, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow cure the problem through deradicalization programs that in many cases have a track record of failure around the world.

We know a lot about radicalization, but we're not any closer to figuring out what separates the radical from the terrorist. We therefore can't possibly provide actionable advice to communities desperate to root out these problems in their midst.

Deradicalization programs are the wrong response to the Islamic State. Read more here.

But we do mock the Islamic State, and call them stupid and evil, and even taunt them on Twitter. Is this what counterterrorism strategy has been reduced to today? If so, it reveals far more about us than it will ever reveal about them.

We may never fully crack the code, but we won't make any progress at all by continuing to obsess over the question of Why? Truth be told, it's probably unanswerable. A better starting point is to answer the How? questions: How do people become involved in terrorism? How is a specific role in the movement assigned to them? How does the recruiter find them, or vice versa? And how is trust established in an online relationship that could well end in death for at least one of the parties?

If we could answer all that, we'd be in the business of much smarter counterterrorism.

John Horgan is director of the University of Massachusetts Lowell's Center for Terrorism and Security Studies. His latest book is The Psychology of Terrorism. Follow him on Twitter: @drjohnhorgan