Why young men join ISIS? The psychology of terrorists



Why some people become terrorists? What makes them join extremist movements? How does it happen that they accept to kill civilians and themselves in the name of a religious or ideological cause?

There are several explanations of these psychological phenomena and a lot of theories and hypotheses. Without mentioning all theories on this subject (there are other sources for this), I will try to demonstrate that the adherence to extremist movements and terrorism represent an ascending trend of the 21st century. Hereto contributes both some demographical changes in the world, and the way of living in modern societies, no matter how paradoxically it may sound.


Demographic masculinization and polygamy

Let’s start with demography. In some Asiatic countries like India or China, a quite curious tendency, called demographic masculinization, has been reported. This phenomenon is about the increase of men’s rate at the population level, a process that is going to be more pronounced in the following decades. According to the French expert Cristophe Guilmoto, most newborns in the respective countries are boys.

If, before, there were usually 104-106 boys born for every 100 girls, now the ratio is of 112 (in India and Vietnam) and even 120 boys to 100 girls (in China). The same situation is characteristic for the countries of Middle Asia, North Caucasus and Balkans.

Thereto we can add some barbaric traditions of postnatal selection of newborns by keeping only the boys` lives; plus the possibilities of medical technologies (sonography) that allow for the fetus’s sex to be identified on early stages, thus granting some parents the ability to get rid of the female fetus.

Because of these practices, the humanity has lost, in the last decades, over 10 million women through unbirth or their prenatal killing. Only in India over half a million of female fetuses are aborted annually.

Consequently, in the relatively close future of those regions of the globe, a crisis of women available for marrying will occur, thus leading to a bitter competition amongst men and to an increase in the incidence of sexual aggressions and of conflicts in general [1]. In the last years, the reports about gang rapes that occur in India, especially of women that are of classes considered to be inferior, are more and more numerous [2].

Some scientists expressly declare that the increasing of men’s percentage rate in some Asiatic countries will increase the incidence of crimes, violence, local wars, political instabilities, women trafficking and prostitution [Brooks, 2012]. The renowned evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban from the University of Pennsylvania thinks that the masculinization of Southeastern Asia’s population, especially that of China, is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. According to estimates, there will be 30 million more men than women in China in 2020, which means that at least 15% of young men will remain without a partner.

In the wake of it, the general level of testosterone of the whole male population will rise, frustrations will accumulate, there will be an escalation of competitive spirit, men will engage in high-risk activities and antisocial behaviors shall multiply. The social equilibrium will waggle and an eventual economic and social instability in China will endanger the stability of the entire world [3].

In the context of demographic masculinization, the societies where polygamy is still practiced will be the most vulnerable, because there the intrasexual competition is very intense. For example, if a man has four wives, then other three men will be deprived of their chance to reproduce.

Even in occidental monogamous societies, a married man can have adulterous relations with a mistress or he can divorce his first wife and get married to a younger one, thus generating a competitive crisis among young single men, who will have to compete in large numbers for a comparatively small number of young women. Therefore, the more polygamous the society is, the more violent it will be (as it is with the countries from sub-Saharan Africa, which are very polygamous) [Kanazawa, 2007, p. 9-11].

There is a hypothesis according to which the lack of accessible women for sexual relationships and marriage in Moslem polygamous societies would be one of the causes of the spread of suicidal terrorism’s phenomenon in our times.

A lot of young men who have an insufficiently high status to get women chose the path of suicidal terrorism, because they have the conviction that, after their death, according to the Quran, they would get into Heaven, where they would enjoy the company of 72 virgins. Given the fact that a lot of men are practically excluded from the reproductive process, even a vague promise regarding the access to women, as that from the Islamic precepts is, is pretty persuasive.

Our brains are designed to work after the same principles as they were 100.000 years ago, when there were only real things; today, when we have to face abstract or artificial things, our brains keep perceiving them as being real and touchable. This is why the abstract promise of the life to come is perceived as being realistic and those 72 virgins are seen as an authentic war trophy that is offered to the bravest martyrs [ibid., p. 12].

It is curios the fact that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda has had the greatest support in the most polygamous countries: Afganistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, but not in Turkey, where polygamy is forbidden since 1920. It is considered that one way to diminish the support for terrorism in those countries is to emancipate the women and to gradually liquidate polygamy, in order to reduce the number of men who are excluded from the reproductive process [4].

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made once an eccentric comment, is his unique way, as regarding the factors that motivate young men to become terrorists. Referring to the fighters for the Islamic State (ISIS), Johnson said that, if one were to study carefully the psychological profile of jihadis (presented in a report from British secret service MI5), one would notice that they are obsessed with pornography.

Johnson said: “If you look at all the psychological profiling about bombers, they typically will look at porn. They are literally wankers. Severe onanists”. He continued: “They are just young men in desperate need of self-esteem who do not have a particular mission in life, who feel that they are losers and this thing makes them feel strong – like winners.” [5].

In general, the role of sexual frustration in the genesis of terrorist behavior is intensely analyzed in the writings of evolutionary psychology and they will produce a change of perspective in assessing the phenomenon of terrorism [Thayer, Hudson, 2010; Caluya, 2013].


Search for the Meaning of Life

The way of life of contemporary democratic societies could be another unexpected cause of young men’s inclinations towards extremism and terrorism. In these societies, which are peaceful and yet full of different frustrations, the individuals can’t find contexts for the manifestation of the instinct of aggression and hatches where they could discharge their social, identitary and existential discontent. Different competitions, sport, business and political battles often provide land for the intellectual and emotional manifestation, but not for everybody and not to a sufficient extent.

In addition to this, people have an intrinsic desire of feeling well inside a consolidated group, a collective identity (no matter how numerically compact it would be), that would allow them to assert themselves and to exert what we would call “tribal instinct” – affiliating to a group/tribe, fighting (be it only symbolically) for this group and gaining the appreciation of the group’s members.

By not having these opportunities to identify themselves with a distinct collectivity, some individuals lose the social link with the people from their community and can get depressed or become the victims of a sect or an extreme idealistic movement that offer more emotional accomplishment, an enemy, a cause and the sensation that their lives have gained a meaning in the service of a concrete group. The extremist groups exploit the identity crisis that young men face, as well as the maximalism and the adventurous spirit that are specific to students.

It is illustrative in this respect the phenomenon of the enrollment of Western youth in the army of mercenaries of the Islamic terrorist group ISIS. Let us remember the fact that this movement (also known in some sources as ISIL) has appeared on the international geopolitical scene in 2014, with the intention of creating an Islamic State.

The ISIS militants have beheaded several British, American and other journalists, have had armed conflicts with several states from the Middle East (such as Iraq, Syria) and have asserted themselves through an extraordinary ferocity and will to power. To everyone’s surprise, it was very quickly established that among the Islamic fanatics, which acted as executioners, there were thousands of young volunteers from European countries [6], [7].

The American Anthropologist Scott Atran, specialized in studying terrorism, finds the following explanation of this phenomenon: the volunteers are mostly young men who are in the period of transition and of finding themselves; fresh alumni, immigrant workers, people who are searching for a meaning in life – for them, the ideology of ISIS proves to be attractive because it fills their existence with meaning, gives them some “sacred values.”

Becoming a part of a highly consolidated group, the members of which are calling themselves “brothers” and are devoted to a common cause, the young men accomplish their need of belonging to a group, of co-participating at some collective rites and of personal assertiveness. Also, the fighting provides them with enough thrills, as well as the chance of gaining victory [8]. These young people have find in ISIS what they lack at home.

Additionally, the so-called “risky shift effect” interferes, i.e. the tendency to easily assume risk when other people are present. When people are in groups, they make decision about risk differently from when they are alone. One of the causes of such a behavior is the thought that the risk would somehow be split among the others; greater risks are chosen due to a diffusion of responsibility, where emotional bonds decrease anxieties [9] [Wallach et al, 1964]. In group conditions, even the individuals with relatively moderate viewpoints tend to assume the extremist views of their peers. Also, inside the group, the individual prejudices are more pronounced; those who join with certain prejudices in mind will end up being more convinced about their own prejudices [Myers, Bishop, 1970].

Another study revealed that people who occupy the extreme ends of the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, may be less influenced by outside information on a simple estimation task than political moderates. Thus, because political extremists hold their own beliefs to be superior to the beliefs of others, they may be more resistant to the so-called anchor bias, even for non-political information. Such ideological rigidity contributes to fueling political partisanship and polarization of society [Brandt et al., 2014]. All the more these cognitive biases are typical for members of extremist movements; they are convinced of the absolute correctness of the ideals they carry. Any incident reinforces their belief in own question; they will choose those arguments that support their in-group biases.

As well, religion and Islamic ideology offer a psychological refuge, an emotional comfort for the individuals that suffer from existential anxiety. They are afraid of life’s finiteness and the imminence of death, and the promise of the afterlife miraculously offers an unexpected hope and a meaning for earthly existence. Islam, like all religions, offers solutions to existential anxieties [Gibbs, 2005]. The incorporation into extremist groups and martyrdom is like a price paid for ensuring the afterlife.


The role of kinship altruism

As for the young men who come from the regions where extremist groups activate, an important reason for them to adhere to these groups is incumbent on kinship altruism. The kinship altruism is a part of kin-selection and is an evolutionary concept that is proposed and explained by the English biologist William Hamilton. According to his concept, an individual can sacrifice his life if, by doing so, he biases in any way the survival and the reproductive success of his close relatives [Hamilton, 1963, 1964].

The death of the martyr for the common interests of the group is compensated by the fact that the members of his family will diffuse the same pool of genes; this way, at a genetic level, the martyr somehow survives, due to the reproductive success of his relatives.

Research has shown that many suicidal terrorists indeed have many relatives. For example, 81% of Palestinian terrorists come from families that have no less than eight members. Therefore, even though the majority of these terrorists were seemingly unsuccessful in passing on their genes directly, their large families of genetic kin provided an ample opportunity for kin selection to take place, if their kin benefited from the act of suicide terrorism. In addition to the increased status and
honor bestowed upon the families of these Palestinian suicide terrorists, these families have been paid between $10,000 and $25,000 by Hamas, spread out in monthly stipends of roughly $1000 [Blackwell, 2005, apud Liddle et al., 2011, p. 189].

Given the benefits bestowed upon the genetic kin of these suicide terrorists, and the large number of genetic kin in place to receive such benefits, the seemingly maladaptive act of suicide terrorism can prove to be adaptive through the action of kin selection. Although these data do not refer to all
acts of suicide terrorism, they provide support for kin selection as a driving force
behind Palestinian suicide terrorism, suggesting that a similar driving force may exist
in other regions.

From the perspective of gene-level selection, this strategy proves to be advantageous. The genes of kinship altruism are carried on to other generations, other individuals ready to sacrifice themselves appear, who, at their turn, adhere to extremist and terrorist movements. To paraphrase a known bon mot: mother of terrorists is always pregnant.

Let us also consider the factor of the popularity of ideas. Terrorist martyrdom, suicide in the name of some religious ideals and sacrifice as a virtue – all these concepts are somehow “infiltrating” the minds of young men who come from regions dominated by the radical Islam. The invocation of the “meme” concept is fit for this moment. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed, in 1976, the “meme” concept as a cultural equivalent of genes. Just as, at the biological level, some genes have a higher rate of spreading from one generation to another, so do exist, at the cultural level, ideas and extremely popular behaviors that spread from one group to another, from one generation to another.

Seen through the point of view of the meme concept, we understand that ideologies, religions, culture, traditions and scientific innovations that have passed the test of time are successful memes that survive and proliferate, just like successful genes in a population. Through the same light of the meme concept one can look at and understand the popularity of radical interpretations of the Quran.

As more and more young men sacrifice themselves in the name of some radical religious visions and gain fame post-mortem in their community, those radical views spread and become popular among many other young men [Liddle et al., 2011, p. 190].

Additionally, let us also consider the factor of social pressure. In a society where honor and group altruism stand for one of the highest virtues, we will find a very strong social influence behind the decisions leading to terrorist suicide [Pedahzur et al., 2003]. So, if in the societies where terrorists come from, their actions are not considered murder and homicides, if terrorism is not considered illegal and is not deterred by public opprobrium, if in these societies terrorist acts are not consistently condemned by priests and by local leaders, then young people will not feel reproached, but on the contrary, directly or tacitly encouraged by their social environment, relatives, colleagues, neighbors [10]. If the decision to die by self-sacrifice is encouraged by religious beliefs and by close people and by the desire to be a hero, then this decision doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.


A question of identity

There are also other explanations of conversion to extremism and terrorism. The experts from the international center for the study of violent extremism Hedayah, from the United Arab Emirates, have concluded, from the discussion they had had with extremists, that two aspects are at the core of their orientation towards extremism: the insecurity as regarding their own identity and, therefore, the need of searching for that identity, as well as the total involvement for a cause that would give meaning to life. Politics and ideology represent only a pretext for extremism, the officials from Hedayah explain [11].

These findings also are in consonance with the findings of other studies, which claim that people are always looking for certainty regarding their individual and group identity, and regarding the phenomena around. And the greater is personal insecurity and the level of anxiety of an individual, the greater is his will to be part of a group governed by dogma.

isis fighters

Therefore, when a group has a distinct identity and provides a sense of cognitive clarity and stability, individuals get the satisfaction of acquiring this form of certainty, they internalize the norms of the group, assumes its beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, complies with them and attach deeply to group. But compliance with rules of own group has the side effect – rejecting the rules of other groups and increasing biases against them [Hogg, Abrams, 1993; Nash et al., 2011; Hogg, 2014]. Thus, appears the confrontational division into “us” versus “them”.

Another important point is that belonging to a group can reduce the fear of death. In experimental studies, individuals who identify themselves with the “we” felt the fear of death less than those who identify with the “I” [Kruglanski, Orehek, 2011, p. 160].

These observations intermingle with the results of different specialized studies that revealed the fact that the “brotherhood of arms” can create emotional links and relationships similar to those of kinship or even more devoted ones. The members of the group become a substitute of the family, some kind of fictive kin, in relation with which the mechanism of kinship altruism activates unconsciously [Liddle et al., 2011, p. 189].

In other words, between comrades that fought side by side appears a form of sacrificial altruism, similar to the kinship one, and it could make them sacrifice themselves for the good of the others (even if they are not members of the family/tribe/ethnicity). An “identity fusion” takes place, which radically changes the psychology of the individual; he identifies himself with the group and with its values. Fictive and imaginary kinship relationships appear between the members of extremist groups also due to the fact that they share the same ideology, same values, same emotions, have the same enemy and the same sacred cause [Whitehouse et al, 2014]. The stronger and deeper these attachments are, the readier they are to sacrifice themselves for them.

Studies show that people who associate themselves at a greater extent with some form of social identity (ethnic, religious) than with some individual identity, are more prone to support violent actions. Collectivism, whether national or religious, is more associated with terrorism, than individualism [Orehek et al., 2010, apud Kruglanski, Orehek, 2011, p. 155-156].

Irish psychologist Ian Robertson correctly argues that in a group the personal “I” merges with the collective “I”; the individual is subordinated to the group, because he perceives himself as almost physical part of the group. Especially on the background of the threat from foreign group, the “others”. At the physiological level, oxytocin and testosterone increase the attachment of individual to the group, also the degree of aggression against external threats [12]. Once an individual becomes part of an extremist group, rationality falls prey to emotions.

For the sake of their comrades – “brothers” and a sacred cause, individuals are ready to kill and to die. This is the kind of psychological metamorphosis that happens to the young men that are being drawn into such groups [Atran et al, 2014]. Sometimes it’s more difficult to attract young men into such structures than to convince them to sacrifice themselves.


A taste of the adventure

Immediately after the terrorist attack on the Parisian ”Charlie Hebdo”, in January 2015, Scott Atran gave an interview for ”Nature”, in which he tells about the atmosphere from the French society and the social and psychological factors that encourage the youth’s orientation towards terrorism. He states that, in France, Moslems represent 7.5% from the general population, but a whooping number of 60-75% from prisoners. Mostly, this crime rate is due to the poverty in which immigrants live, as well as to their lack of adequate education. From among this youth, the future members of terrorist groups are easy to recruit.

But it would be a mistake to assume that only the Moslem youth from poor environments are attracted by extremism. A survey has shown that 27% of French young men that are between 18 and 24 years old (not only Moslems) show a favorable attitude towards the Islamic State. Atran says that they are seduced by ISIS ideology, by its glorious ascent, by the feeling that one could change the world this way. The terrorists that committed terrorist acts in Paris on January 7, 2015 have enjoyed an international fame; a fame that a lot of young men long for and are ready to pay for it even with their lives [13].

Of course, only a small number of those attracted by extremist ideologies and models will step on the path of terrorism; however, taking into consideration the large percentage of people who are passionate about it, the number of recruits is impressive. Therefore, young men need an ideological foundation (be it political, religious or any other kind) and a democratic society that wishes to be upright and stable should also consider this important psychological aspect.

The Dutch evolutionary psychologist Mark Van Vugt also adds to the list of the reasons that make young men adhere to ISIS their desire to have a taste of the adventure of war (despite the risk of getting themselves killed), to acquire a special social status, to be regarded as heroes among their peers. Mark van Vugt sees the enrollment of young men in the ISIS army of mercenaries as a reflection of the innate biological inclinations of the masculine temperament towards fighting and aggressive behavior. These young fighters also experience a neurophysiological state of satisfaction (which is caused by the releasing of dopamine and oxytocin in the body) as a result of the fights they are involved in and the victories they score. Plus, a lot of them think that their deaths by sacrifice will be rewarded with those 72 virgins that, according to the Islamic religion, they would enjoy in Heaven [14].

All this explains, at least partially, why the extremist ideology sent forth by ISIS and the opportunities of masculine affirmation that it offers seem to be so fascinating for an imposing number of young Moslems that come not only from Islamic states, but also from Western countries. It is true that some women are also fascinated by the “romanticism” that ISIS sets forth, but their number is much more inferior, the militant extremism and fighting being rather parts of the masculine nature than of the feminine one [Pearlstein, 1991; Speckhard, 2008].

By the way, some reasons above mentioned can also be used to explain the involvement of volunteers in various wars in other countries; for example, in the Kurdish army [15]. Or in the civil war in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian rebels enjoy a wide support from the fighters who came mainly from Russia, but also from other European countries. Along with their craving for adventures and comradely attachment, some of these volunteers have a very strong orthodox ideological and religious creed; they come to fight with the belief that they defend a sacred cause in a “holly war.” [16].


It’s a growing tendency.

Some experts affirm that the young men who commit suicidal terrorist attacks could suffer from a maniacal delirium; they are enveloped in a psychotic euphoria, they become extremely attached to the ideas that are inoculated in their heads and have a deformed impression about their own importance. The delirium could cause, at a certain moment, uncontrollable actions and violence taken to the extreme [17].

Maybe this is true for some cases, but, nonetheless, it is important for us to understand that most terrorists are mentally normal people, although they do have a different ideological and religious way of seeing the world [Delcea, Bădulescu, 2008; Post, 2008].

Most of the time the act of adhering to an extremist and terrorist group is not a sign of any mental disorder, but rather a consequence of a set of abilities, frames of mind and inclinations of a person. Young men become extremists and terrorists because they live in a social and psychological climate that can induce them the desire to adhere to a group of people with radical visions [Borum, 2014].

The desire of gaining a sense of one’s own existence, of being important inside a “brotherhood”, of experiencing exciting and deliberately dangerous moments, of living above the social norms and the formalities of simple life, of being always vigilant and of having an interesting and “adrenalinic” life, not a simple one, are the main fuel of those who decide to adhere to different radical groups. Many instinctual and emotional fulfillments are possible there, even if for a short period of time [18] [Silke, 2008; Kruglanski et al., 2014]. This is how we end up with armies of young men who are raised in democratic societies but who are fascinated by extremism and terrorism.

The desire to experience exciting moments is at the core of a lot of decisions and acts that seem to be strange on the first sight. Some people venture into visiting the abandoned and radioactive Chernobyl (Ukraine); others practice extreme tourism, which is full of dangers, shortcomings and tests. Brits, for instance, buy tickets for Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries, so that they could be near the outbreaks of military conflicts [19].

Boredom can induce some young men to announce false bomb alarms [20], or even create homemade bombs. People feel the need to test their nerves, to experience new feelings, to manifest their instincts that had been inhibited for a long time. And, in some cases, they choose to adhere even to extremist movements. It’s a growing tendency.

Therefore, a democratic society must make possible a wide range of behavioral models that would allow for the realization of different emotions and instincts in a harmless way. In a society, young men must also find enough morally and ideologically balanced guidelines that would fascinate and inspire them or otherwise they will find them in radical and warlike movements.

In addition, an important factor in the moderation of intra-group conflicts is the socio-cultural diversification. The multitude of social entities from within a socium increases the variety of groups (associations, clubs, parties, formations, teams, leagues, guilds, syndicates) with which an individual can identify himself.

This way, in a democracy, the number of social conflicts can multiply on a line of rivalry between some entities (e.g. the competition between different teams or parties), but these are less acute than the eventual ethnical identity conflicts; the general expression of men’s agonistic instincts would be sequenced in several dimensions. It’s better for us to have more minor conflicts than one or several major ones.

Conflicts, any way you slice it, are inevitable; but it does matter which one we encourage. For now, however, radical ideologies and extremist movements seem to be much more attractive for young men. And this is a problem that could forever torpedo the stability of the 21st century.

© Dorian Furtună, ethologist


Photo: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3033741/European-ISIS-fighters-seen-cannon-fodder-commanders-desperately-try-prove-worth-committing-sickening-atrocities-says-former-prisoner.html; http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/norway-make-citizens-fighting-isis-stateless-1462776

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