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Why Do Young People Join ISIS? Part 1

Jesus’ teaching to love your enemy continues to confound the majority of humanity – even those who claim to follow Jesus.

Throughout history, societies and nations generally depersonalize the enemy, categorizing them as “other,” representing all things evil and in opposition to their own values and identities.

It is easy to do this with ISIS, given their barbaric activities. However, what happens when we realize that the enemy is increasingly coming from within?

What changes when the enemy is made up of individuals with names, families, tragic histories and experiences that some of us might share?

Young people are joining ISIS in ever increasing numbers. BBC News recently reported, “More than 25,000 foreign fighters have travelled to join militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS), according to a UN report.”

As a result, countries around the world are being confronted by the reality that their young people are willing to travel to Syria and Iraq to “play their part” in the establishment of the so-called caliphate ISIS is seeking to establish. But what is “their part”?

One of the compelling features of ISIS is that, like any other state, they need all sorts of people to fulfill all sorts of roles.

While fighters and executioners receive the majority of attention, ISIS is a growing institution with a widening recruitment strategy and appeal.

The evidence indicates that though conditions of poverty and educational deficit are strong factors in motivating young people to join ISIS, there are also highly educated young people from around the world who are keen to join.

The three 15- and 16-year-old girls from my area of East London – all A-grade students in school – who recently traveled to Syria to become “ISIS brides” are a case in point.

It is easy to label would-be recruits as naive and misguided, and this may be true.

However, the ever increasing number and diversity of youth willing to join must cause us to ask deeper, more uncomfortable questions.

Much of my career has involved working with young people participating in “risky behavior,” and there are two main categories of motivation when thinking about risk-taking behavior:

“Abundance motivation” drives individuals to seek “peak” experiences, a buzz thrill.

“Deficiency motivation,” on the other hand, seeks to make up for something that is lacking in an individual – in some way to suppress pain.

Ultimately, young people take risks expecting some benefit or payoff. Four additional reasons why young people take risks include:

1. Symbolic identity: Developing a personal identity, which is recognized and validated in some way by others, is important for young people.

2. The need to belong: This is the motivation behind much, if not most, human behavior. This is critical when considering what might motivate a young person to join ISIS.

3. To release anger: For some, violence is a powerful means of release. This is particularly so when the target of violence is the authority or value system that has led to the development of such anger in the first place.

4. To escape or “numb” the pain: Feelings of hopelessness and pain are also strong motivators; however, in these cases, risk-taking behavior is more likely a motivation to seek escape or “salvation” in some form.

So, what might motivate a young person to join ISIS?

Motivation is multi-faceted and each potential ISIS recruit will probably have a complex mix of abundance and deficiency motivation that might attract him or her toward ISIS membership.

Bab el Tabaneh in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli is an area that has seen ongoing tension and violence between neighboring communities for decades.

It is now one of the recruitment hubs for various extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front.

“The population lives well below the poverty line. Illiteracy and unemployment rates are high and broken families are common, as is early marriage and random divorce and pregnancy,” said Mohammad Abi Samra, in his book, “Revenge of the Wretched.”

“This poor neighborhood has become an environment of instability, violence and broken homes, a breeding ground for street gangs of unemployed and drug-addicted youth who get into pointless bloody fights on a daily basis.”

We can all probably think of places not too far from where we live that sound similar. I lived in a community in London that was often described in such terms.

It is within this context that boys and young men experience a life of pain, emptiness, hopelessness, violence, addiction and self-harm.

Bab el Tabaneh and similar communities have cultures of poverty and desperation with a sense of rage simmering beneath the fragile daily grind, waiting to erupt at any opportunity.

Recent events, including suicide bombings and the killing of well-known Lebanese Alawite leader Badr Eid, have only heightened tensions. It is within this context that ISIS and others are so prevalent in their recruitment drive.

What have these young people got to lose? The answer: not much.

Their desire for “salvation” – the need to escape – becomes a fixation, one that ISIS and others are able to exploit.

Arthur Brown is the assistant director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) based in Mansourieh, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @arthurandlou and IMES @IMESLebanon.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 is available here.