Study: Spiritual belief is the greatest motivating factor for ISIS jihadis to fight

Time after time, various studies have come to this conclusion, and yet there are those on the left of the political spectrum who downplay religion and its role in violent jihadists.

Ibn Warraq, in his most recent book, eruditely addresses the motivating factors of jihadis; it is worth reading.

The Daily Mirror, September 4, 2017.

As they do battle with arms and legs missing, their bodies covered with horrific injuries, surrender is not an option for ISIS fighters.

They face opponents with firepower dozens of times greater than their own, such as in the bloody fight for Mosul, and still they continue.

And as their friends and comrades die around them, these fighters don’t waver – often fighting to the death because they are driven by the notion that they will achieve their purpose.

It is this belief – a conviction that sees many renounce their communities, friends and even families – that has been found to be a key factor driving many to fight, and in the cases of ISIS, to wage jihad.

A study has found that spiritual belief – whether religious or otherwise – is the greatest factor in people deciding to commit to carry out the most extreme acts, to fight and die. This frequently trumps physical threat – with fighters admitting they are more willing to fight if they believe their group has a greater spiritual strength, regardless of the physical resources of their opponents.

It also found that when groups are seen as having stronger convictions, such as ISIS, opponents see them as more formidable and can be less willing to fight them.

The strength of having these convictions, was shown in the fight for Mosul in the battle for the village of Kudilah, where around 90 ISIS fighters took on several hundred coalition forces of Peshmerga, Iraqi army and Arab Sunni militia. More than half of the ISIS group died, many suicide attackers.

The study found a key motivation behind ISIS’s will to fight is that their fighters are ‘Devoted Actors’. This means they are willing to engage in costly sacrifices and extreme actions when motivated to protect sacred values, which they view as non negotiable and would refuse to trade for material or monetary compensation.

“One of the things that amazed us on the frontline was the people who were fighting after being shot to hell,” said Scott Atran, who led the study – analysing data online and speaking to those fighting on the field.

“They were fighting without legs and without arms. Almost all the volunteers we found would keep on fighting. Being wounded wasn’t something that stopped people from fighting, at least on the ISIS frontline. The thought of being evacuated wasn’t something they entertained.”

Dr Atran and his team did interviews with frontline fighters in northern Iraq from February to March 2015, including captured IS fighters, a field study from February to March 2016 among 56 Kurdish Peshmerga forces, Iraqi Army Kurds and Arab Sunni militia fighting in opposition to IS. At some points they were around 800 metres from the front line, and interviews were often changing if subjects had been injured, or in some cases, killed. They also did large-scale online studies with more than 6,000 people in Spain – a recurrent target for terrorist attacks, including most recently in Barcelona .

The team found that a commitment to ‘sacred values’ be these religious or secular, as well as a concept of identity when fighting with a group, were the things that motivated most people to fight and continue to battle. They found that while some talked about religion, for many of the people they interviewed it was based on personal convictions.

Dr Atran added: “​ISIS fights for the Caliphate, as a cause that brings both personal and collective salvation; Kurds fight for Kurdeity, the right to live as Kurds with their own language, culture and land.​

“They are willing to fight and die for cause and comrade, and especially their cause (the Caliphate or Kurdeity). As long as they breathe, they fight if they believe that the very existence of their values and group are threatened.​”

The team also found that sometimes this conviction was so strong, fighters were willing to give up their groups, which could include their families.

He added: “The most interesting finding for me was willingness of the most devoted actors to sacrifice their families they loved if necessary. It was always a tragic choice and combatants became very emotional when explaining why they would, and in some cases, did do this.

“For ISIS once people are locked into a set of values it’s almost impossible to get them out of this. They are willing to fight and to die.”

The researchers found that foreign volunteers, rather than fighters that had been recruited locally, were more likely to hold stronger convictions and want to leave the frontline. This is likely to be linked to the ISIS notion that dying for the Caliphate is part of the ultimate purposen, and could go some way to explain how strong convictions motivate people to travel abroad and join ISIS.

Dr Atran said: “A key characteristic of ISIS and of jihadi groups that developed out of Al Qaeda, is that the most committed actively seek death, and this is a new phenomenon in the development of intergroup violence – at least over the last century or so. Local fighters are a different story.​ Those who aren’t devoted actors – that is fused with their group and the sacred values embedded in the group and which define its purpose and reason for existence -behave as any standard force would – the greater the casualties, the less effective and willing the fighters are to continue. ”

Dr Atran points to the idea of belief and conviction being a motivating factor in people fighting for ISIS as well as carrying out terror attacks on European soil. He also explains how the idea of belief has developed in the way ISIS has carried out its recruitment, compared to Al Qaeda.

“As a de-centralized diaspora movement led by educated and economic elites, Al Qaeda could pick and choose those whom it would accept and support, with a selective eye for ability to successfully carry out intermittent but spectacular displays of attention-arresting violence,” said Dr Atran.

“For Isis, however, the need to continuously fight to expand or defend its vast territories and rule over millions of people has required much more active recruitment from abroad, involving greater ideological elaboration with a personal appeal both broad and intimate, and the drafting of local foot soldiers by almost any means necessary, including coercion and punishment.”

The work was initially based on case studies from the 2004 Madrid train bombings which saw a series of coordinated strikes on the commuter trains in Madrid, just three days before the Spanish elections. Almost 200 people died. The team were then able to extend their studies to ISIS fighters, and those facing them to get an idea of what motivates fighters. They then tested their theories with the online group of ‘non combatants’ in Spain and found that within this group when faced with the decision between their families and a ‘sacred value’, most chose their family group. For those who did not make this choice, similar to the fighters, they were more willing to make costly sacrifices.

On the frontline for extremist groups this costly sacrifice is often their lives.

Among fighters, spiritual belief – often defined as bravery, inner conviction and strength of belief – was more important than physical might in terms of manpower and firepower, according to the study.

This view was actually shared by people in the study who were ‘non combatants.’ Asked about their views days after the Paris terror attacks in 2015 which saw more than 120 people killed in coordinated strikes which included a mass shooting at the Bataclan, this group said spiritual factors were the most important in motivating attacks – and a reason to fear ISIS. This idea extends to suicide attacks among fighters, often seen as being driven by ‘spiritual strength.’

For the people who perceived ISIS as spiritually strong in this study they were also less likely to be willing to support armed intervention to fight them.

Dr Atran believes there are key similarities between the Madrid attack and that in Barcelona and Cambrils last month, which left at least 14 dead and 100 injured . In the latest attack terrorists in Barcelona drove into Las Ramblas as it was packed with tourists enjoying the summer sunshine. A car was then driven into tourists and locals in the beach resort of Cambrils.

Just a day before the attack in Barcelona a home in the Catalan town of Alcanar exploded, which is believed to have killed two of the would-be terrorists. Experts have said the terror cell was trying to make either a huge bomb, or three smaller bombs, to be used in the attack on Barcelona.

Dr Atran said the similarities he sees between the two attacks include how the bombs were made, the involvement of friends and family as well as social and political grievances motivating people. He says while many could not pinpoint a reason that some of those radicalised to attack Barcelona did so, we must pay attention to the idea of strong beliefs forming part of this motivation.

Dr Atran said there are a “myriad” of factors that cause people to radicalise, not just a lack of community. These can include psychological vulnerabilities as well as social and political conditions…