ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have heightened fear around the world. If ISIS are vicious sociopaths, then why do so many people see them as saviors? Why are so many young Muslims in so many countries joining ISIS? Unless and until we understand who they are and why they join, we can't provide counter narratives that can disrupt the ISIS recruiting process. So who are these recruits?
MEMBERS OF SADDAM HUSSEIN’S DEFEATED ARMY. In what was one of the stupidest decisions of America’s war in Iraq, the US demobilized veterans of Saddam Hussein’s defeated army, many of them experienced soldiers and officers, leaving them with no place to go and no means of earning a living. Many of them, stinging from the shame of their rapid defeat, were only too happy to join ISIS, which gave them employment, a renewed sense of honor, and a way to continue their fight against Shia Muslims and the United States. These veterans have provided ISIS seasoned military and organizational expertise. An important thing to understand here is that few of these Hussein-era veterans share the extreme religious views of the ideologues who run ISIS. It’s a marriage of convenience, not conviction. The vets put up with an excess of Islamist zeal--and ISIS looks the other way from the vets' “lack of piety.” They need each other. The vets’ allegiance is tactical. If things go bad and they see alternatives, it’s doubtful that many will hang in to the bitter end with ISIS.
DEFECTORS FROM SYRIAN REBEL GROUPS, such as the Free Syrian Army. Some of these experienced fighters are attracted by ISIS’ hard-core ideology and by its sheer ruthlessness. Some of them might defect for money. Others might switch sides depending on whom they think at the moment has the best chance of toppling Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. A shift in military fortunes, a little cash--some of these people could be on our side next.
NEW RECRUITS FROM IRAQ AND SYRIA. Imagine that you’re a young Iraqi or Syrian Muslim. You feel a sense of shame and frustration that your Muslim world, in terms of political and economic development, has been moving backward since its years of dominance centuries before you were born, leaving you in a place stinking of decay and disintegration. You’ve watched armies of infidels march through your land, killing fellow Muslims and assaulting the dignity of your tribe and family. You rage at your own incompetent and corrupt government. You are Muslim, though you are not necessarily captivated by the ISIS ideology or by the idea of an Islamic caliphate. But ISIS is the first force to promise you a way out of an insecure and undignified life--a path towards living in pride as a Sunni Arab. That's more than a religious identity; it's about culture, tribe, and territory, too. And as a job, ISIS pays far more than anything else on your horizon; it even provides social services for those in territories it rules. With all that on your mind, and seeing no viable alternatives, ISIS is an attractive option.