ISIS sings the same tune Hitler did, promising Utopia in the end - Terrorism researcher

The horrific Paris attacks carried out by the Islamic State have signified the war with the jihadists has arrived in Europe. But how has the ideology of war and bloodshed infected the minds of people from Europe? What is the deadly allure of Islamic State’s propaganda and why are we failing to counter it? Today, we dive deep into the psychology of terror to find answers with an anthropologist, author and prominent terrorism researcher - Dr Scott Atran is on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Scott Atran, anthropologist, author, researcher of terrorism - welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us. Now, Islamic State have taken terror to never before seen levels - barbaric executions, beheadings and the use of children, and on video, online, all across the media - why is it so important for Islamic State to make a spectacle out of monstrosities?

DR.SA: Well, the spectacle is the theater  of the sublime, as Edmund Burke called it - and it appeals to people's emotions; it bonds, actually, people, although now, in our world of liberal democracies and distributive justice, the idea is that such brutality is beyond the norms of human behaviour, but in fact, during the most of human history it has been the norm and, again, it binds people, and scares the hell out of enemies. I mean, when I was on the frontlines near Mosul,  I was talking to Iraqi soldiers who said they just didn't want their heads taken off - and so they ran away. So, you had 350 ISIS drive away 2000 Iraqis within a matter of a few hours.

SS: But you know, you would think that these horrors, they would actually repulse people, no? But they help them gain supporters. I mean, for me, looking at it - I can't even look at it, I have to close my eyes. How does this work the other way around, I still don't understand it. Basically, what I am asking, is ISIS appealing to sick and disturbed people more than normal people?

DR.SA: No, it appeals to people in span of normal distribution. I mean, it's like any revolutionary movement, that's why I think even calling it terrorism or just extremism is beyond the pale. From an evolutionary perspective, everything that is new is extreme - and it's very much like the French revolution, or even the Bolshevik revolution or even the National Socialist revolution... I mean, look at the French revolution, they were eating one another just like Al-Nusra and ISIS and other groups are eating one another like bloodied sharks, and they were invaded by a coalition of the Great Powers, and yet not only they survived, but they endured, and they introduced the notion of terror itself, as an "extreme measure" as they called it, "for the preservation of democracy", and every revolution since then, every real revolution  has done pretty much the same thing, pretty much successfully, so ISIS is no exception.

SS: So, wait, are you saying that ISIS has a chance to be successful and actually create something viable?

DR.SA: Oh yes. I mean, if you look at the speech by Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi last year, or the "Volcanos of Jihad" speech  in November, I mean he's developing a global archipelago; so even if ISIS is driven out of Syria and Iraq, it's taking root in other places, especially in Africa. I mean, their Bible is called "Idārat at-Tawaḥḥuš" which means "The Management of Savagery", or "chaos", and their plan is to go wherever there is instability and chaos in the world to take root, and of course Africa is an entire continent in chaos, and much of Central Asia - and that's where they're moving in. I was just with the Saudi royal family and they were telling me that 700 Saudis have just joined ISIS in Libya.

SS: There are a lot of people joining ISIS from all over the world, not only their region, or the Asian region, but we'll talk about it a bit later. But, at the same time, ISIS displays of brutality helped governments rally in action against the terror group. Does ISIS not care if it's provoking an international bombing campaign?

DR.SA: Oh, they actually want it. Again, if you read their sort of Bible, "The Management of Savagery", they want to provoke the intervention of the Great Powers like the U.S. and Russia, that is their plan. Their plan is to create sort of apocalyptic scenario, to create as much chaos as possible again, in which they can take root and offer a their own alternative.

SS: Aren't they afraid that they will be defeated? You know, if all those countries pulled together, eventually?

DR.SA: No. No, I mean, in any kind of truly revolutionary movement there's a feeling of invincibility once you've fused with your comrades in your cause. The idea is their history is on their side. So, even if they take battlefield losses, they're not going to consider that a loss at all.

SS: Dr. Artan, I know that you've mentioned that even if ISIS is destroyed in Iraq and Syria, it will spring up elsewhere and you've said, Africa, for instance, and Asia. Is the potential of this movement limitless? How many people can there be who want to live in a blood-thirsty, genocidal state run by psychopaths? I mean, I know, you're saying it's a repetition of history...

DR.SA: Well, first, I don't think they're psychopaths...

SS: ...and you know, it's like French Revolution or Bolshevik revolution - but you'd think that we've learned something from history, no? I mean, I don't want to be back in Bolshevik revolution times...

DR.SA: No, I don't think so. Look, George Orwell in his review of Adolf Hitler's “Mein Kampf” back in 1939 have described the essence of the problem. He said: "Mr. Hitler has discovered that human beings don't only want peace and security and comfort and free from want. They want adventure, glory and self-sacrifice, and Mr. Hitler's appealed to that -  and while the Oxford student union at that time vowed to never fight again, Mr. Hitler has 80 million people fall down to his feet, in one of the most advanced countries in the world." How did that happen? Again, ISIS is appealing to the same sort of sentiments, that have been appealed to throughout human history... and no, I don't think we've learned much from history about that.

SS: You know, ISIS has a message that "everything is bad and corrupt, and we will change the world for the better", a message of revolution, a message of cause, like you've said; and, in response, all we can muster is basically: "oh, ISIS is baad" - you know, only negating what they say, not offering any counter-cause. What kind of a positive idea can stand up to ISIS' slogans?

DR.SA: I think you've hit the nail on the head. I mean, the counter-narratives I hear, at least in the Western Europe and in the U.S. are pathetic. They basically say: "look, ISIS beheads people, they're bad people" - God, didn't we know about that before already? The way ISIS attracts people is that they actually are both very intimate and very expansive. So, they've brought in people from nearly 90 countries in the world, and they spend hundreds, sometimes even thousands of hours on a single person, talking about their family, saying to young women, for example, in the U.S.:"Look, we know you love your parents and your brothers and your sisters, and we know how hard it's going to be to leave them, but there are more things to do in life. Grander things. More important things. Let us try to help you explain it to yourselves when you get here, and explain it to them." And they go through the personal history and grievances and frustrated aspirations of each of these individuals, and they wed it to a global cause, so that personal frustration becomes universalized into moral outrage, and this is especially appealing to young people in transitional stages in their lives: immigrants, students, between jobs, between mates, having just left their genetic family, their natural family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travellers. This is the age that ISIS concentrates on, and in response, most of the countries of the world, and the Muslim establishments, who call for “wasatiyyah, moderation. Well, everybody who has ever had teenage children, they know how worthless that is. So, the counter-narratives we're proposing are pretty pathetic.

SS: So, you're saying, you know, the Western volunteers for ISIS are mostly youth in transition and parents usually have no idea what their kids are up to - so, is it sort of teen rebellion, is it a form of a teen rebellion?

DR.SA: Right, it's driven by young people, well actually most revolutionary movements are driven by people who are fairly well off and well educated, especially doctors and engineers, for some reason, ever since the XIX century, because they can show commitment and hands on operation knowledge of things... But yes, it appeals to young people and their rebelliousness, and again, that's the specific target population of the Islamic State - and they provide a very positive message.  I mean, what's reported in our press and in our media, are of course the bad things, the horrific things, but if you pay much closer attention to what ISIS is actually producing in its narratives - it is offering a utopian society. I mean, they show warriors playing with children in fountains, and at the same time they’re training them to kill. I mean, it's not all one-sided and they're perfectly aware of trying to balance the two. That is, showing the future of peace and harmony, at least, under their interpretation, with the brutality that is needed to get there.

SS: But, you know, we're used to think that young people, teen in transition, like you say, they want freedom. They want to have fun, they want to have sex and drugs and drink. What we see with ISIS is forbidding this, for young people and for everyone - yet, there is this flock towards ISIS. I still don't understand why, because whatever they're trying to convince young people of, it's pretty obvious there is no freedom where they are going. And young people usually strive for freedom...

DR.SA: Yeah, but I believe they do think they're getting freedom. Instead of freedom-to-do-things, it's freedom-from-having-to-do-things, where a life well-ordered and promising. I mean, again, they appeal to people from all over the world. I got a call from head of Medical School telling me that her best students have just left to set up field hospital for ISIS in Syria, and she was asking me why would they do this; and I said, "because it's a glorious and adventurous mission, where they are creating a Brand New World, and they do it under constraints." I mean, people want to be creative under constraints. A lot of young people just don't want the kind of absolute freedom you're talking about. The choices are too great, there's too much ambiguity and ambivalence. There are too many degrees of freedom and so one can't chart a life path that's at all meaningful, and so these young people are in search of significance, and ISIS is trying to show them a way towards significance. Again, we have to take it very seriously, that's why I think it's the most dynamic counter-cultural movement since WWII, and it's something I don't think people are taking seriously, just dismissing them as psychopaths and criminals and... this, of course, is something that we have to destroy. I think, we're on the wrong path in terms of the way we're going to destroy it.

SS:  So, ISIS works through the Internet, on social media. We have a correspondent here who has received death threats from terrorists. They're leaving messages on Facebook and asking people to send them emails through their Gmail addresses. How is it possible that a terrorist group has social media accounts out in the open like that? I mean, how come all these Twitter accounts that spread their message aren't banned by the company?

DR.SA: Because it's very hard to control the social media. They've tried - they have about 50,000 Twitter accounts out there with about 1000 adherents for each one. Look, you know, people talk about the clash of civilizations - well, that's, woefully, inadequate. I mean, that is not the clash of civilizations, that is the collapse of civilizations, as...this is the Dark Side of globalisation,  as territorial cultures are imploding in the face of globalization and young people, who used to get their learning and their guidance from their elders are now completely divorced from their elders and they're hooking up peer-to-peer, across the world, across the territories, over the internet, and they've developed a facility in moving across the Internet that's quite phenomenal. They're hooking up and making alliances with one another that actually can bring people to kill for one another even if they've never met up before - and this is new.

SS: So, there's no way to win this social media war against the Islamic State?

DR.SA: Yes, there is; and that is coming up with some kind of equally adventurous and glorious message that can give significance to these young people, and this - I'm not hearing. At least in the Western democracies, things have become sort of "tired" as young people become alienated from their leaders and no longer believe in them very much. It may be the same in Russia, I'm not terribly familiar with what's going on in Russia, but young people are finding this call to glory and adventure quite enticing. Again, it's understandable. Now, how to get them away from that? How to bring them into some kind of prod...You know, people talk about "the youth problem" in the Middle East and in the world - well, it's not really a problem if you have the right motivation. It could be a "youth boom", because young people are the source of creativity in the world. But there's no channels now that I've seen existing, whether it is in UN or on the level of governments, where youth can have a voice. Not that youth's voices always going to be on the right track...I mean, it's a little like Alan Brooke, Churchill’s Chief of Staff said about his boss: "He has 10 ideas a day, one of which may be good". We don't know which one, but our job is to help guide it. Well, we have no one to even to listen to these young people and help guide it. Instead, decisions are made at the levels of governments and bureaucrats, which are about as appealing to youth as, you know, those cigarette commercials showing diseased mouths and lungs, which have really no effect. It's young people who get other young people away from cigarettes - that works.

SS: While you're talking about Greater Cause and appealing ideas, ISIS is not the only group attracting volunteers in the region. I mean, many Westerners go to Syria and Iraq to join Kurds in their fight against terrorism, and they're also adjourned by heroics, by helping the oppressed, by protecting the faith. Is that the kind of a counter-narrative that could work against ISIS?

DR.SA: Well, you know, I’ve actually been on the ground in Syria with the Kurds, the Peshmerga, the PKK, the YPG, and with Al-Nusra fighters - and this is what I find as very interesting: the only ones who can compete in terms of devotion, and we had all sort of psychological tests, we actually formed with combatants just 800 meters from the ISIS frontlines... The only ones who can compete now are the Kurds, in terms of their devotion, their notion of “Kurdaity” their own term, the idea of being a Kurd, and to their fusion to their comrades. The problem is, no one's really helping the Kurds. I mean, we were trying to get them just night goggles so that they can see the attacks that were coming in every nights...

SS:  Why do you think no one is helping the Kurds? Why wouldn’t you spend the money helping a group that's actually effective in fighting ISIS?

DR.SA: Well, tell me about it. I think that's sort of the definition of insanity, investing again into the Iraqi army. Doug Stone, Deputy Commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, went with me to Iraq, and we wrote an article in the New York Times, back in April, on our return, saying precisely that! It's a waste of... When we do this research with Iraqi army, I mean they have devotion to absolutely nothing, to tell you the truth, and they're being, again, billions of dollars in training that is practically worthless, because they can't take a punch in the nose. There are many reasons, geopolitical reasons, why, especially the U.S. is not really trying to help the Kurds, especially in Iraq. First, they want to keep the nation state of Iraq together, when, in fact, it's been split apart and it's never going to get together again just like Humpty-Dumpty . And, so they want all permissions to go through Baghdad, and so the Kurds have to ask even for anti-tank weapons, basic weapons, they have to ask the Baghdadi government, and of course, the Baghdadi government, being run by Shia forces very close to Iran are not about to give heavy armaments to the Kurds... And then, of course, there are the Turks, and the Turks have been fighting the Kurds much more than they've been fighting ISIS, and they don't want to see anything happening on the Kurdish front. They consider the Kurds a greater threat to them than ISIS itself, and so they've done everything either to block supplies to the Kurds, or to actually help in the fighting against the Kurds; at least, that's the perception we have on the ground.

SS: Like you've pointed out before, ISIS spends countless hours, luring people in, pays top dollars to recruiters - yet, at the same time, the FBI doesn't want to invest the same effort in prevention. Why is that? Is it just too hard, or, maybe, that's not the job of the FBI? And if it's not, then whos job is it?

DR.SA: That's right. It's just too hard. I mean, once I was in the National Center of Counter-Terrorism, and I asked them: "Look, how many people are actually in the field, in the U.S., trying to talk to these young people the way ISIS is trying to talk to them" - and they said: "Well, we've got one person in LA, a field operative". I said - "That's it for the United States of America, while we're spending, like, hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of... well, even the trillions of dollars over the course of decade and half in order to stop this sort of movement?" And the FBI, they just wanted to get out of it altogether. I mean, the FBI is into criminal activity, they want to stop criminals and they want to be able to bring prosecutable evidence; and prevention is a very gray and fuzzy area, where criminal investigators don't know really where they want to go, so the FBI is trying to get the Administration to let them off the hook completely, and as the result, there's no one interested in prevention really... Except, of course, you have the public diplomacy of the State Department, but again, these counter-narratives are sort of...weak, to say the least.

SS: I spoke to MidEast scholar Ed Husain, and he says former jihadists can help educate young people, stop them from going to ISIS. Is that an effort you'd be supportive of?

DR.SA: Yeah, let's say… Ed is my good friend, and Ed is right on this matter. I was talking to an Imam of the IS, who left the Islamic State, because he was angered at the fact that they were just killing indiscriminately foreigners, who should be respected as guests. And he was telling us: "Look, you treat our young people, the people who come to us as witless kids, or as criminals, or as psychopaths. They are earnest, they are passionate, and they are seeking." We've got to speak to that, and we've got to speak with the positive message, and, perhaps, we can work together. And, to tell you the truth, I will be perfectly willing to work with these kinds of people, and even the Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda people, who are much more willing now than they ever were to, at least, have some kind of accommodation with powers outside the Muslim world. Again, like Churchill said: "To defeat mr. Hitler I'd make a pact with the devil". Well, to defeat ISIS I would do the same thing.

SS: So, history shows that when a violent group like ISIS arises, it could be consumed by infighting, if it begins to stagnate. Won't ISIS just eventually break up into warring factions, or you think it's built to last?

DR.SA: It's a possibility. I mean, they do have apocalyptic vision of the world - "we have to destroy the world to save the world”, perhaps, they will destroy themselves. I hear that a lot, but I wouldn't bet on it. I think, they have to be "helped" in the effort.

SS: What I am saying is that radical revolutionaries, the extreme, always end up defeated in a battle, like the Nazis that you keep bringing up, rather than by persuasion. So, won't it be all over once ISIS is destroyed by a force? Or, what makes you think ISIS is different?

DR.SA: If ISIS is destroyed by force, then we have a chance to try and to move people in the Muslim world to convince their fellow co-religionists that there's a better way in life. But right now, I don't see it. You know, I was just in Singapore, and when I was in Singapore, I was with the Muslim Council trying to do rehabilitation and reintegration, and they came back to me with ideas that were completely concocted by Western sort of "terrorism experts" - I don't like that term myself, I'm an anthropologist, I deal mostly with Maya Indians, but...And I asked them, I said: "These ideas, the ideas must come from you, from your own people". And they said: "Yes, we know that, but we're too fragmented right now". So, I think, the big problem is, that ISIS has unitary message, and the unitary and universal appeal, and the forces opposing them do not. Let me just give you one anecdote: I was with the Imam in Barcelona, a very moderate man who is part of the interfaith dialogue session, works with Christians and Jews. And he said to me: "Look, before Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, we were forgotten people in Europe. They put us on the map. And, as for the Caliphate, the Caliphate has always been in our hearts... and now it's here. Now, we don't want the violence, killings, and we don't want strict versions that the Islamic State has. But what we do want, is something like the Caliphate, something of our own. Maybe it can be a European Union, or a Federation of Muslim people's - I don't know. But we've got to come up with something”. The one more point that I want to make is, we live in a world of Great Powers, and Great Power rivalries, of nation states and... we can understand movement like the Iranian Revolution, or the Bolshevik Revolution, because they basically state-centered - or the National Socialist revolution, or the French Revolution. But the ISIS revolution is not. It is a trans-national movement, it is sub-state. Volcanos of Jihad are spreading and popping up all over the place, and we don't know really how to handle such a movement that isn't based in a state, isn't controlled by states, and doesn't depend on the infrastructure of the state system. And, I think that's one of the reasons that we're having so much difficulty as well.

SS: Thank you very much for this wonderful interview, for your insight. We were talking to Dr. Scott Atran, anthropologist, author, researcher of terrorism, who worked with would-be and convicted terrorists, dwelling on the battle for hearts and minds that ISIS is fighting. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.

DR.SA: Thank you, Sophie. It's been a pleasure.