The social scientists who talk to ISIS

Tom Bartlett writes: On a good day, driving to the front line of the war against the Islamic State carries some risk. This is not a good day: High winds have kicked up enough dust to dim the sun and hide nearby mountains, a thick haze that could provide cover for snipers or suicide bombers. While Kurdish soldiers, known as Peshmerga, meaning “those who face death,” have proved adept at keeping a determined foe at bay, they can’t prevent every incursion along a roughly 650-mile border, particularly when those sneaking in are willing, even eager, to die in the attempt.

The road to the front passes through tiny villages of cinderblock houses and over flat, green fields before giving way to rockier terrain as it winds southwest from Erbil, capital of Kurdistan, a country that doesn’t quite exist. It also passes through a series of military checkpoints where increasingly skeptical soldiers, ancient AK-47s slung over their shoulders, peer into a vehicle and ask its occupants — not unreasonably — where, exactly, they think they are going.

Phone calls must be made, documents presented. Satisfied, the soldiers step back and wave the car on.

“I am really worried,” says Lydia Wilson from the back seat. “This is the worst time to be going.” Wilson, a medieval historian by training, is not easily cowed. She’s visited military bases before, and she’s sat across a table from ISIS fighters. She’s just not keen on needless risk. Hoshang Waziri, this group’s translator and cultural ambassador, scans the blurred horizon and doesn’t like what he sees, either. It’s not the lobbed shell or the stray bullet that unnerves him so much as the prospect of getting kidnapped. “That’s what scares me,” he says. “The idea of falling into their hands.”

They spent the morning drinking strong black tea from small glass cups with a Kurdish official who, they hope, will grant them access to captured ISIS fighters, the holy grail of research subjects and, for obvious reasons, the toughest to track down. They explained to the official, as they explain to everyone, that they are not journalists angling for a story or government envoys pushing an agenda, but rather social scientists interested in knotty universal questions regarding the nature of human conflict. Answering such questions is difficult in part because of an established gap between expressed willingness and actual willingness; that is, between what people promise to do and, when it comes down to it, whether they pick up the gun or strap on the vest. Interviewing fighters engaged in combat or plucked from the battlefield has the neat advantage of eliminating that gap. Then the only question is: Why?

But getting to those fighters — that’s the trick. Weeks of planning can evaporate in an instant, forcing the researchers to improvise. Beyond the logistical aggravation, there’s the matter of personal safety. Where there are fighters, there is often fighting, and while the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq remains relatively sheltered compared with Syria or large swaths of southern Iraq, the proximity to bloodshed prompts understandable unease.

The least jittery member of the team is its leader, Scott Atran, an anthropologist who floats among several institutions, including the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, part of the City University of New York. He’s also a founder of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, at the University of Oxford. He’s normally the one arguing to go a little farther afield, to challenge the group’s comfort zone, perhaps to cross over into Syria. While sitting around the hotel he appears restless and testy, headed toward ISIS territory he is in his element, enlivened and unfazed. “We don’t want to drive off the road, because it’s probably mined on both sides,” he warns casually from the passenger seat, the way you might note a change in speed limit or a forthcoming rest stop. [Continue reading…]

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