Scott Atran
“The Global Jihadi Archipelago”
Part 5 (concluding part) of “The Devoted Actor: Unconditional Commitment and Intractable Conflict across Cultures” appears below. To read the complete article including footnotes, click here.
     • To read Part 1, “The Devoted Actor,” click here.
     • To read Part 2, “Sacred Values,” click here.
     • To read Part 3, “Mobilizing to Protect Cherished Values,” click here.
     • To read Part 4, “Identity Fusion & Group Dynamics,” click here.
Scott Atran
Scott Atran is a research scientist at the Research Center for Group Dynamics, Research Professor of the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy and Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, Senior Fellow of Harris Manchester College and School of Social Anthropology, University of Oxford, and a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.
Talking to the Enemy
His book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists is available from Amazon.

For information on how to order, PLEASE CLICK HERE.

A New Type of Transcultural Niche

Jihadis span the population’s normal distribution: there are a few psychopaths and sociopaths and some brilliant thinkers and strategists. Unlike the founding members of al-Qaeda, today’s jihadi wannabes are mostly self-seeking young adults in transitional stages in their lives—immigrants, students, people between jobs or mates or having left their native homes and looking for new families of friends and fellow travelers.

For the most part they have no traditional religious education and are “born again” in their late teens or 20s into a radical religious vocation through the appeal of a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory to which young people are especially prone.

The path to radicalization can take years, months, or just days, depending on personal vulnerabilities and the influence of others. About three of every four people who join the jihad do so with friends, about one in five through their families, and the relatively small remainder join by themselves or through some form of direct discipleship or recruitment. Occasionally there is a connection with a relative or an acquaintance who has some overseas association with someone who can get them a bit of training and motivation to pack a bag of explosives or pull a trigger, but the Internet and social media can be sufficient for radicalization and even operational preparation.

Soccer, paintball, camping, hiking, rafting, body building, martial arts training, and other forms of physically stimulating and intimate group action create a small cultural niche: a bunch of buddies who become a “band of brothers” in a glorious cause. It usually suffices that one or a few of these action buddies come to believe in the cause, truly and uncompromisingly, and for the rest to follow even unto death. This is in contrast to exaggerated notions of “command and control” organizations sending recruiters to “brainwash” unwitting minds into joining well-structured organizations.

Standard counterterrorism notions of “cells” and “recruitment”—and to some degree even “leadership”—often reflect more the psychology and organization of people analyzing terrorist groups than terrorist groups themselves. Of course, some inspirational leaders such as the late Osama Bin Laden or more recently Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “Prince of Believers” (Amir al-Muminin) and self-declared Caliph of the Islamic State, demand formal oaths (bayat) of loyalty and agreement with their strategic vision and have ultimate control over operational decisions; however, enlistment into the group is often elective, especially for foreign volunteers, and tactical decision making is generally decentralized.

For the first time in history, a massive, media-driven political awakening has been occurring, spurred by the advent of the Internet, social media, and cable television: on the one hand, this may motivate universal respect for human rights; on the other hand, it may enable, say, Muslims from Sulawesi to sacrifice themselves for Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, or Syria. When perceived global injustice resonates with frustrated personal aspirations, moral outrage gives universal meaning and provides the push to radicalization and violent action.

But the popular notion of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West (Huntington 1996) is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures but their collapse as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization.

Especially for young men, mortal combat with a “band of brothers” in the service of a great cause is both the ultimate adventure and a road to esteem in the hearts of their peers. For many disaffected souls today, jihad is a heroic cause—a promise that anyone from anywhere can make a mark against history’s most powerful country and its perceived allies.

But because would-be jihadists best thrive and act in small groups and among family, friends, and fellow travelers—not in large movements or armies—their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled beyond actual strength. Publicity hyped by political and media frenzy is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism, filling a transcultural niche whose ecology ranges over a media landscape (where competition for resources is a struggle for control of information) and a geographical archipelago that spans the globe.

Going Forward

Thus far, discussion of our studies has focused mainly on expressed willingness to make costly sacrifices for fused groups and sacred causes. Although the enduring and seemingly intractable nature of the conflicts from which we have drawn our subject populations suggest a strong relationship between expressed and actual willingness to make costly sacrifices, here we have no direct measures to confirm the relationship (although we do have outcome measures that involve lesser material sacrifices). In what follows, however, the subjects are militants and frontline combatants whose expressed willingness to make costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying, is directly confirmed through participant observation of their actions.

In this regard, in March 2015, we completed the first round of study in Kirkuk, Iraq, with captured fighters from the Islamic State and with Kurds in the frontline areas between Mosul and Erbil. Together with Artis colleagues Lydia Wilson, Hoshang Waziri, and Hammad Shiekh, we found that the Kurds demonstrate a will to fight that matches the Islamic State’s. When we asked the Islamic State prisoners, “What is Islam?” they answered, “My life.”

Yet it was clear that they knew little about the Quran, or Islamic history, other than what they had heard from al-Qaeda and Islamic State propaganda. For them, the cause of religion is fused with the vision of a caliphate—a joining of political and religious rule—that kills or subjugates any nonbeliever. By contrast, the Kurds’ commitment to Islam is surpassed by their commitment to national identity; theirs is a more open-minded version of Islam. They have defended Yazidis and Christians as well as Arab Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the more than 1 million displaced persons in Iraqi Kurdistan. But perhaps what most reveals commitment by the Kurds is how they hold the line with so little material assistance.

We interviewed and tested (on fusion, sacred values, costly sacrifices) 28 Kurdish combatants and 10 noncombatants (e.g., suppliers, medics, etc.) in battle areas 1 to 3 km from forces of the Islamic State, including respondents randomly chosen among special forces (Zerevani) from the front at Mosul Dam, Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdistan regional government at (the now depopulated village of) Rwala on the Mahmour front, and Kurdish soldiers from a joint Kurd-Arab Sunni unit of the Iraqi Army at the Qeremerdi forward outpost.

Using our standard experimental procedures, we found that 36 respondents are fused with “Kurds,” 35 with “family,” 23 with “close, family-like group” of comrades, and 14 with “Islam.” But in rankings of relative importance of identity fusion, 21 respondents reported that fusion with “Kurds” trump all other forms of identity fusion, three privileged Islam, only one respondent considered fusion with “family” as foremost, and no respondent held that “close, family-like group” is primary. There were also more than twice as many expressions of devotion to “Kurdistan” (N = 23) as sacred values than to democratic values of “electoral democracy” and “free speech” (N = 10) as sacred values for which respondents are willing to fight and die.

Finally, all but one person who held “Kurdistan” as an sacred value was fully fused with “Kurds,” indicating that defense of “Kurdeity” (as the Kurds themselves term their commitment to fellow Kurds as well as to defense of “our Kurdistan homeland”) is the most important obligation in life, deserving of costly sacrifice unto death, if necessary (i.e., 22 respondents, several of whom had been previously wounded, would be willing to die and sacrifice their families in defense of Kurdeity versus three who would be willing to sacrifice Kurdeity and family for Islam and one who was willing to sacrifice Kurdeity and Islam for family.

Indeed, we frequently have encountered devoted actors who clearly demonstrate emotional ties to family and concerns for self yet show their willingness to sacrifice these important interests. For example, one Kurdish fighter told us that during an Islamic State offensive that took his village, he had a (tragic) choice: to go into the village before Islamic State forces had established control and take his family out or to help stabilize the front to prevent the Islamic State from advancing.

The choice, he said, haunts his every waking hour. In this short exchange he demonstrated the pain of trading off his familial obligations for the sake of fighting for Kurdeity (and we have found similar sentiments expressed, and acted on, in our interviews with fighters from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Jabhat an-Nusra, but not in interviews with the Iraqi army).

These preliminary findings with frontline participants in the struggle for survival against the Islamic State suggests that, at least in this case (and quite possibly others), larger groups that are sacralized (in terms of territory, cultural history, language, etc.) can be the primary locus of identity fusion and of the interaction between identity fusion and sacred values in producing costly sacrifices, including fighting and dying.

If this is so, then the primary relationship between identity fusion and willingness to fight need not be always at the level of a close, family-like group. In other words, the strongest and most powerful forms of sacrifice for group and cause need not always require a process of “upscaling” from a localized family-like cohort of comrades to an extended ideological community but may inhere in a larger, sacralized community to begin with, especially in “tight societies” that have strong social norms and strict channels of socialization.

Such larger and tight societies include the geographically bounded but stateless cultural sphere of Kurdistan as well as the global jihadi archipelago where information from across the world and cyberspace narrows mightily to fit the dreaming ecology of the Caliphate—a transcultural niche, which the actors of Kurdistan are fighting unto death to defeat and the devoted actors of the Islamic State are fighting unto death to make real.


For the future of democracy and human rights, the core existential issue may be, why do values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground to those of narrow ethnonationalisms and radical Islam in a tacit alliance that is tearing apart the European middle class (the mainstay of European democracy) in ways similar to the undermining of republican values by fascists and communists in the 1920s and 1930s? Consider the following.

“Mr. Hitler,” wrote George Orwell in his review of Mein Kampf, “has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought … certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain.” In such a view of life there is no room for greatness and glory, which as Darwin noted motivates heroes and martyrs to motivate others to survive and even triumph against great material odds. “Hitler knows … that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.”

Soldier for soldier, in World War II the Germany army outfought all others by any measure. German armies were destroyed only by the massive production and firepower superiority of the United States and by the massive manpower sacrifice of more than 20 million Russians. Perhaps it will come to that in the struggle against the Islamic State, but for now the means arrayed against this dynamic revolutionary movement seem feeble.

A political entity preaching and practicing wildly different ideas from other nations and mass movements and that held no appreciable territory only two years ago now boasts the largest extraterritorial volunteer fighting force since World War II, with enlistees from some 100 nations. The Islamic State controls hundreds of thousands of square kilometers and millions of people and has successfully defended a 3,000-km military front against a multinational coalition of armies in ways reminiscent of the French Revolution.

To dismiss the Islamic State as just another form of “terrorism” or “violent extremism,” to insist that its brutality is simply “immoral,” “nihilistic,” or “apocalyptic” and therefore inevitably self-destructive, or to refuse to call it by the name it calls itself in the vain hope that doing so will somehow undermine it, is counterproductive and deluding. From an evolutionary and historical vantage, no developments are really deviant or extreme unless they quickly die, for those developments that continue to survive are the very stuff of historical change and evolution. From this perspective—and in the light of interviewing and running psychological experiments with Islamic State and al-Qaeda (Nusra) fighters on the ground and with volunteers from Europe and North Africa as well as those who oppose and fight them—the rise of the Islamic State is arguably the most influential and politically novel countercultural force in the world today.

So a big question seems to be, short of a massive military onslaught against the Islamic State, whose downstream consequences are likely to be as uncontrollable as they may be undesirable, what can be done? Of all those opposed to the Islamic State, only the devoted actors of Kurdeity succeed on their own turf in resisting the devoted actors of the Islamic state.

But because this is a fight for the future and for young people who will be that future, what can be done to mobilize yearning youth to a countervailing cause? What dreams may come from current government policies that offer little beyond promises of comfort and security? People who are willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives—the totality of their self-interests—will not be lured away just by material incentives or disincentives. The science suggests that sacred values are best opposed with other sacred values that inspire devotion, or by sundering the fused social networks that embed those values.