Hassan Hassan reports: Little is known about what goes on inside training camps run by Isis in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria – particularly its religious component. The Isis ideology is generally viewed as identical to al-Qaida’s or the Saudi version of Salafism – adherence to fundamental Islamic tenets – and so there does not seem to be a serious effort to study it more closely. There is also a tendency to play down the role of religious ideology as a recruitment tool, since the motives of many Isis members have little to do with religion.
Another problem that muddles understanding of Isis’s appeal is that politicians tend to deliberately misrepresent the role of ideology to undermine the group’s propaganda, while objective observers often have no access to Isis associates beyond social media. As a result, a flawed understanding of the ideological appeal of Isis is common, despite its central role in the fight against it. Both the commander of the American special operations forces in the Middle East, Major General Michael Nagata, and the general in charge of leading the international coalition against Isis, John Allen, have emphasised that the ideology of Isis is insufficiently understood and that ideological delegitimisation is crucial in the effort to defeat it.
So what specific ideas, stories and narratives do new members learn at these camps? What does Isis tell its new recruits to make them so zealously committed to its ideology? More important, does the Isis ideology serve to attract or merely retain new recruits?
As part of research involving in-depth interviews with Isis members for a book about the organisation, American analyst Michael Weiss and I have identified half a dozen categories of Isis members according to the factors that drew them to the group. In at least two of those categories, religion more than anything else has been the driving force. But these two demographic components – long-standing takfiris (radicals who adhere to teachings that declare fellow Muslims as infidels) and young zealots – are more central for Isis than other members because they formulate the group’s identity and ensure its resilience. In addition, the appeal of Isis outside its conflict zones tends to be primarily ideologically driven. [Continue reading…]